Sixers-Thunder rematch could get chippy

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Sixers-Thunder rematch could get chippy

It’s been 43 days since the Sixers and Thunder took part in the best NBA game of the regular season so far.

A quick rewind shows you the teams battled in a triple-overtime thriller at the Wells Fargo Center back on Dec. 15 that resulted in a 119-117 Oklahoma City win. 

However, a closer look reveals that both squads learned much more about themselves that night in South Philadelphia.

For the Sixers, they perhaps realized for the first time that Joel Embiid isn’t in fact made of glass. Embiid went the distance … and then some. He gutted through a sore back to play a career-high 49 minutes. 

And Embiid wasn’t just moving up and down the court. The big fella was putting in work as he poured in 34 points along with eight rebounds, six assists and two blocks.

“He felt good about playing and we listened to him,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said after the loss. "As a staff, we thought that was going to work. Maybe, in the light of day, we could have given him a minute here or there.”

Embiid was a little more certain that he could handle the workload.

“I’ll be fine,” he said.

Sure, the center missed the next three games to recover from the back pain, but the big man hasn’t sat out since. He’s moved beyond the injury-riddled first two seasons of his career and is locked in at 31.4 minutes a night.

What better way to show just how far Embiid’s come from a minutes and injury standpoint? By playing in the first — and possibly both — games of a back-to-back set, which starts Sunday. 

Whoa, whoa, whoa. We know, pump the brakes. Embiid said he would like to play in games on consecutive nights by month’s end, but that’s hardly his decision alone. Anyway, just mark it down as potentially another lesson learned about his progression.

On the other end of the court, the Thunder found out about their squad as well, particularly who should lead OKC’s three-headed monster.

During the first two months of the season, Russell Westbrook spent a lot of time deferring to new star teammates Paul George and Russell Westbrook. However, the reigning MVP took the lead that night.

While Westbrook shot just 10 of 33 for 27 points — which Embiid reminded him of after the final buzzer — the point guard came through when it counted most. He connected on 6 of 15 shots during the three extra sessions for 14 points to secure the win.

“We live for it,” Westbrook said of the level of competition after finishing with a triple-double. “On the road, great environment. To come out and get a win like this, you live for stuff like this.”

And despite Westbrook’s shot attempts per game not drastically increasing (20.1 before facing the Sixers and 22.4 since), the Thunder have certainly benefited from him clearly being the No. 1 option. Entering Saturday, they were 14-6 since topping the Sixers.

But perhaps the main thing unearthed in the season’s first matchup: the rematch will definitely be a heated affair.

In that December clash, Embiid had words with Anthony in the fourth quarter and waved goodbye when OKC center Steven Adams fouled out during the third overtime.

That didn’t sit well with Westbrook, who waved goodbye to Embiid after the Thunder notched the win.

“I was telling him, ‘Go home,’” Westbrook said.

Embiid wasn’t impressed with point guard’s copycat act — or his performance in the game.

“He told me to go home,” Embiid said. “And this is my home and I ain't going nowhere.

“The dude shot like 10 for 33. I wish I would have shot 33 times. I guess we would have had a better chance of actually winning the game.”

We’re not sure about Embiid’s shot attempts making a difference in the first tilt. One thing that is certain: there will be a whole lot of buckets and even more trash talk taking place at Chesapeake Energy Arena Sunday night.

Our NBA All-Star challenge — describe Embiid in one word

Our NBA All-Star challenge — describe Embiid in one word

LOS ANGELES —  From trash talking on the court to expressing himself on social media, Joel Embiid is a player of many (many) words. So if his fellow All-Stars had to describe him in just one, what would it be? 

Draymond Green: "'Funny.' He's hilarious. The stuff he says, he goes on TV talking about (Kevin Durant's) burner account, he's talking how he's a savage. His Instagram locations, pretty funny. He's a good guy." 

Andre Drummond: "I’d probably say 'charismatic,' 'funny,' 'savage.' He don’t care, he just does what he wants to.”

Paul George: “Personality,' in all caps."

(Why all caps?)

“Because he’s a big dude.”

John Wall: "He's just 'himself.' He's very confident."

Anthony Davis: “'Savage.' Cool dude, he lives by his own rules. He’s just enjoying life and having fun.”

Jimmy Butler: "'Remarkable' in the fact that his game on the court is insane. Then the way he's always saying something to somebody on social media is really 'remarkable.'"

Bradley Beal: “'Wild.' He has no filter, he doesn’t care. That’s my boy, but he just has no remorse, doesn’t care."

LaMarcus Aldridge: “'Entertaining,' because he’s always on TV expressing how he feels. So, entertaining.”

New NBA ASG great, but what in the world was before it?

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New NBA ASG great, but what in the world was before it?

This week’s serving of Rob Rants focuses on the dichotomy of the 2018 NBA All-star Game and the show that comes with it. On the court, the game was a highly entertaining, competitive, tightly fought contest that incorporated a new concept that's a winner. The league also attempted something new prior to the game. That idea did not quite work as well. 

All-Star Games 
I generally am not a fan of All-Star Games. I haven’t watched the Pro Bowl in years. Same goes for the NHL All-Star Game. I find the MLB's midsummer classic to be the most watchable of the four. Plus, they have a captive audience as there are no other options that time of year. In recent years, I’ve taken more to the NBA three-point contest and skills competition rather than the dunk contest or the game itself. Full disclosure: I watched the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday night for a few reasons. I wanted to see Joel Embiid’s first All-Star Game. I was curious about the new draft format of player selection. And my 16-year-old son who I was watching it with is a die-hard Sixers and NBA fan. So I watched all the way through. What I found were two polar-opposite productions. 

Along with ESPN’s College Gameday. I find TNT's Inside the NBA to be as good as it gets in terms of pregame shows. Ernie, Charles, Kenny, Shaq and crew were excellent as always. It’s what happened after they signed off that was a sight to be hold. 

Pregame show?
Philadelphia’s own Kevin Hart performed some type of musical/broadway play/comedy/is this really happening? Somehow Rob Riggle, the least funny man in the world, was involved. As were Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah and Ludacris. And there were cheerleaders and wild west folk. There may have been others but at that point, I began slipping into some kind of hypnotic coma. It went on interminably long. It was the kind of thing that, if Hart was not so popular and talented, can kill a career. It was that bad. But I strangely could not pull myself away. It was car crash, rubber-necking kind of bad. 

That mercifully ended and you thought it was game time. But we still had the anthems. First, the Canadian anthem, which was followed by the Star Spangled Banner. Fergie decided that she would turn Francis Scott Key’s composition into a steamy, sultry, lounge act from back in the day. To put it kindly, she missed the mark. Charles Barkley said at halftime that he needed a cigarette after her performance. It wasn’t quite Carl Lewis or Roseanne Barr-level of terrible, but it just capped a half hour-plus of strangeness that anyone who watched was never getting back. All of this just reaffirmed why I don’t generally indulge in these exhibitions. But then something funny happened. 

The game
The NBA smartly changed formats for All-Star selection this year. The league went playground style, having two captains choose their teams. LeBron James and Steph Curry were the two captains in charge of selecting from the voted-in All-Stars. The game, unlike recent years, had a different kind of competitive feel from the jump. Yes, it had the usual array of dunks and incredible passes, which the game should have. But there was defense played and fouls taken. Strategy was employed. To the players and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s credit, the changes were a home run. The game came down to the last possession with Team Steph having a chance to tie with a three. Team LeBron played great defense and Curry could not get a shot off, giving Team LeBron the 148-145 victory. The game had the best of both worlds — incredible athletes showing off their skills and a level of care and compete not seen in a long time. And Embiid had an excellent All-Star debut with 19 points, eight boards and a great sequence where he nailed a rainbow three-pointer and then swatted Russell Westbrook at the other end of the floor.

Lesson here: tune in at tip-off. And no more Rob Riggle. Ever.