Skills Challenge sparks Embiid's inner point guard

Skills Challenge sparks Embiid's inner point guard

LOS ANGELES — Joel Embiid loves the spotlight. But that doesn’t mean the Sixers' big man is unfazed by the magnitude of the stage on which he is competing.

“I was actually extremely nervous,” Embiid said after the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. "I don’t know why. My heart was beating so fast. I have no idea why. But I thought it was fun.”

Embiid was one of eight players to test their versatility in dribbling, passing and shooting drills. Embiid defeated Al Horford in the first round and lost in the second to Lauri Markkanen. Spencer Dinwiddie took home the trophy.

Embiid pulled off a comeback victory Horford. He trailed after the dribbling and passing drills but beat out the Celtics' veteran at the three-point line to advance.

“That was wild,” Embiid said. “I lost the ball, I didn’t make the first pass and then I just threw the other two balls. That’s a good way to do it instead of wasting time. Then I was way behind and I came back and I ended up making that three and won.”

Horford was stifled when he thought his first three-point shot attempt was going in … and it didn’t. That miss opened the opportunity for Embiid to claim the round.

“The shot, which I was making before, I felt good, and then I think the pressure got to me a little bit,” Horford said. “I just wasn’t expecting that (to miss). I thought I was good. So then by that time, Joel caught up to me.”

Markkanen, the Bulls' rookie, got the best of Embiid in the next round. Embiid tried to rush through the passing drill to catch up to Markkanen, who ended up crossing in front of him at halfcourt for the clinching trey.

“After he made the layup he was a little bit in front of me,” Markkanen said. “But we couldn’t switch sides, so I had to get to the other side someway. So I tried to sprint and get in front of him and distract him a little bit. I think that worked.”

Embiid said with a big smile, "I kind of thought Lauri kind of cheated a little bit. He went in front of me, but it’s all good. It's all fun."

Even if Embiid didn’t win this contest, it wasn’t a total loss. The 7-foot-2 center has long claimed he wants to be a guard one day, and he showed off those backcourt skills. 

“I think I can still be a point guard in my future,” Embiid said.

All-Star Weekend does not end for Embiid with the Skills Challenge. After competing in the Rising Stars game Friday and this contest on Saturday, Embiid has been making sure to preserve his energy for the All-Star Game Sunday. He will start for Team Stephen.

Who needs Kawhi? Aldridge drops 45 in Spurs' OT win

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Who needs Kawhi? Aldridge drops 45 in Spurs' OT win

SAN ANTONIO -- LaMarcus Aldridge had a career-high 45 points, helping San Antonio overcome Donovan Mitchell's 35-point performance for Utah in the Spurs' 124-120 overtime victory over the Jazz on Friday night.

The Spurs won their sixth straight and beat the Jazz for the first time in four meetings this season.

Utah's 12-game road winning streak came to an end, but only after Mitchell had 14 points in the fourth quarter, including three 3-pointers in the final two minutes to force overtime.

San Antonio remained sixth in the Western Conference with the same record as fifth-place New Orleans, a half-game behind Oklahoma City for fourth. Utah remained eighth in the West.

After free throws by Spurs guards Manu Ginobili and Patty Mills and a dunk by Jazz center Rudy Gobert put San Antonio up 114-111, Mitchell drained his third 3-pointer of the fourth with 3.6 seconds remaining to force overtime.

Mills, who finished with 23 points, had six points in overtime as the Spurs capped an undefeated six-game homestand.

Pacers use late run to edge Clippers
INDIANAPOLIS -- Bojan Bogdanovic scored 28 points and the Indiana Pacers used a late 9-0 run to hold on for a 109-104 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night, putting them on the precipice of clinching a playoff spot.

The Pacers won for only the second time in five games but can clinch a playoff berth with one more win or a Detroit loss.

Los Angeles' fading playoff aspirations were dealt another blow. The Clippers are now three games behind Utah for the final postseason spot in the Western Conference. Utah was playing later Friday.

Lou Williams led Los Angeles with 27 points and DeAndre Jordan finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds as the Clippers lost for the fifth time in six games (see full recap).

Jokic, Murray lift Nuggets over Wizards
WASHINGTON -- Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray each scored 25 points to keep the Denver Nuggets' playoff hopes alive by beating the Washington Wizards 108-100 on Friday night.

The one-two punch of Jokic and Murray plus outside shooting from Will Barton allowed the Nuggets to withstand a third-quarter charge from the Wizards and maintain their sights on one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference. Denver went into the night two games back of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz and shot 50 percent from 3-point territory to stay very much in the race with nine games remaining.

Bradley Beal led Washington with 24 points as it failed to gain ground in a competitive East where five teams are separated in the standings by four games (see full recap).

Brett Brown's top competition for Coach of the Year

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Brett Brown's top competition for Coach of the Year

The Coach of the Year award in every sport typically comes down to: 

1. Which team overachieved the most?

2. Which team increased its win total the most?

3. Which team that fits both descriptions has a media-friendly coach?

Brett Brown is a deserving candidate this season. Not saying he'll win, or even that he stands out as the most deserving, but he's more than just "in the conversation."

Before getting to the other candidates and their likelihood of winning, let's acknowledge why Brown deserves serious consideration. 

We all knew the Sixers would be better this season. A second year of Joel Embiid and the first of Embiid and Ben Simmons. Finally, a good veteran shooter in JJ Redick.

But did you expect the Sixers to up their win total by 20 games? Currently, that's what they're on pace to do.

Did you expect them to pick up wins over the Rockets, Spurs, Celtics, Raptors, Cavs and Spurs again? Yeah, the Sixers have laid some eggs this season, but they have just as many high-quality wins.

Factor in the continued development of players like Dario Saric and T.J. McConnell and it should be clear that Brown has gotten a whole lot out of this team.

Now, on to the other candidates. The way I see it, there are six in addition to Brown: 

• Dwane Casey (Raptors)
• Nate McMillan (Pacers)
• Brad Stevens (Celtics)
• Mike D'Antoni (Rockets)
• Quin Snyder (Jazz)
• Doc Rivers (Clippers)

Just being realistic here, I think Casey wins it. The Raptors will be the 1-seed in the East and may even end up with the NBA's second-best record given the Warriors' injury report.

It goes beyond that, though. Toronto revamped its system to place less stress on Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The result has been the emergence of the NBA's best bench. DeRozan is also now shooting threes, a big benefit to the Raps' spacing.

Lastly, Casey is a media darling. He's done the podcast circuit this season, and his long tenure as a personable NBA assistant will help him with voters.

Nate McMillan
McMillan's Pacers have overachieved, but that has so much more to do with Victor Oladipo than anything else. That's not meant to discredit McMillan, but the gap between expectations and reality for Oladipo is the reason the Pacers have surprised. Unless the Pacers finish several games ahead of the Sixers, I can't see McMillan finishing ahead of Brown.

Brad Stevens
The Celtics have faded of late, mostly because of mounting injuries to their backcourt. Stevens deserves a ton of credit for keeping this team 25-plus games over .500 with so many young pieces, but he won't finish ahead of Casey.

Doc Rivers
Rivers' case is dependent on whether or not the Clippers make the playoffs. The Clips, based on talent alone, have no business being 38-33 in a loaded West. They just play extremely hard and have been maybe the hungriest NBA team this season — so many contributions from guys on two-way contracts.

But LA is now 2½ games out of the 8-seed, so we can almost close the book on Rivers for COY.

Mike D'Antoni
The Rockets have been the best team this season and D'Antoni is a huge reason why. The Chris Paul addition is a bigger reason why, but the Rockets are where they are because of how Paul has been integrated into D'Antoni's system, and because Houston is finally focused on defense. D'Antoni should finish in the top three of the Coach of the Year voting, but it's hard to win when you add a veteran superstar in the offseason.

Predicted order of finish: Casey, Brown, Snyder, D'Antoni, Stevens, McMillan, Rivers