In Nerlens Noel's return, Sixers get emphatic glimpse of new possibilities

In Nerlens Noel's return, Sixers get emphatic glimpse of new possibilities

You have heard, perhaps, of Turn Back the Clock Night? This was Turn the Page Night.

The night the Sixers moved on from the Nerlens Noel era, and emphatically so. The night the fans expressed appreciation for him, but began developing an appreciation for a guy acquired from Dallas in the Feb. 23 trade involving him.

That would be Justin Anderson, who in Noel's homecoming game Friday night matched his career high of 19 points as the Sixers blasted the Mavericks, 116-74 (see game recap).

Can we at least begin to entertain the notion that the Sixers acquired more for Noel than it first appeared? Is that not fair?

Anderson is an athletic, tough-minded wing. Fits right in with how the Sixers play, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. He has matched his career-high three times in 11 games here, and he highlighted Friday's victory, the most lopsided by the Sixers in nine seasons, with a ringing third-quarter follow slam (see dunk).

So, yes, he can help. He has helped. 

This is not to short-change Noel. He's a fine player -- a rim protector on defense and, Sixers coach Brett Brown said, "a deer" when running the floor.

It's just to say that we might want to rethink what happened at the trade deadline. Or at least hold off on the hate for a moment.

Noel, for his part, collected nine points and five rebounds in nearly 19 minutes off the bench Friday, a tidy game on a decidedly untidy night for his team (see Noel highlights).

The Mavs shot 34.5 percent, missed 18 of 23 three-point attempts and saw the Sixers outscore them 44-16 over a 15-minute stretch beginning late in the second quarter, including 36-16 in the third. That put the home team up 87-56.

Drive home safely, if you drove.

"It's not the best feeling at all," Noel managed as he sat, slump-shouldered, in the Dallas locker room. 

And, he added, "We just came out a little flat." 

His understatement might be excused, seeing as he has been on the wrong side of games like this before. And in this building, too.

Carlisle was far more blunt.

"This is by far the worst of the year in terms of energy, effort and togetherness," he said. "There's not a lot to say. They outplayed us in every way possible. …We just didn't show up."

There was more.

"We've all got to look in the mirror," he said.

And still more.

"I'm not going to write it off as 'one of those nights,'" he said. "This kind of performance is inexcusable, and I'll pretty much leave it at that."

Even before the game, he expressed his appreciation for the Sixers' energetic approach.

"Philadelphia has been one of the funnest teams to watch this year for me," Carlisle said. "I love the way they move the ball. I love how hard they play. … Over this four-year period, Brett's just done an amazing job positioning this franchise to keep moving ahead. It's pretty clear next year they're going to take an even bigger quantum leap."

The Mavs, on the fringes of the Western Conference playoff race, are in the meantime still figuring out what they have in Noel, who is averaging 10.1 points and 7.5 rebounds while coming off the bench in seven of eight games. 

"He's given us something that we were lacking, and he's helping us," Carlisle said.

That rim protection. That "deer."

Carlisle did not expect Noel to act like a deer in the headlights in his homecoming game, but it looked that way when he fumbled away two first-half alley-oops. He explained that his hands were wet on the first, and that he was too far under the rim on the second -- that he should have come down with the ball instead of trying to power it through.

He had a few decent moments in the game's all-too-brief competitive phase, like a lefty dunk and a block on Anderson. The Sixers provided him a couple nice ones themselves, like the video tribute midway through the first quarter, which was followed by a warm ovation (see story).

Noel waved, then pounded his heart.

"That was great," he said later. "Me and the fans here had a special bond, and it was definitely great that they came out and supported and gave me a clap during that video."

In addition, the team gave him a framed jersey earlier in the day.

"Definitely means a lot to me that this organization definitely respected me and showed a lot of love," he said. "It was a good three years of learning experiences and good relationships here, so I'm definitely appreciative of it."

The learning experiences continue now, for others. For a guy like Anderson, whom in addition to his emphatic slam -- "I was, like, waiting for [the rebound] to come down," he said -- shared a tender moment with Mavs owner Mark Cuban, who was seated near his team's bench.

"He told me he didn't like my haircut, but it was cool," Anderson said with a laugh.

There were plenty of other things to like about him. Enough to turn the page. To move on from Noel, and consider new possibilities.

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

Hornets sting Grizzlies to the tune of 61-point win

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Hornets sting Grizzlies to the tune of 61-point win

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Kemba Walker scored 46 points and made 10 3-pointers, and the Charlotte Hornets rolled to the most lopsided victory in franchise history by beating the Memphis Grizzlies 140-79 on Thursday night.

Walker had the ninth 40-point game of his career as the Hornets easily overcame the absence of the suspended Dwight Howard. The All-Star guard hit 13 of 18 shots overall, including 10 of 14 on 3-pointers, and was 10 of 10 on free throws in 28 minutes.

He scored 17 points in the first quarter, 18 in the second quarter and 11 in the third before he was replaced for the final time with 1:48 left in the period.

It came one night after Howard's 32-point, 30-rebound performance that helped Charlotte rally from a 23-point deficit for a 111-105 victory at Brooklyn. But in the process, Howard was whistled for his 16th technical foul of the season, meaning he had to serve a one-game suspension on Thursday night.

It didn't matter as the Hornets roared ahead 12-2 in the first 4 1/2 minutes, were ahead 37-14 after one quarter, 75-42 at halftime and by a game-high 65 points (137-72) with 1:45 left before taking the 61-point win.

Charlotte's largest previous win in franchise history came by 52 points (136-84) at home against Philadelphia on Feb. 27, 1992 (see full recap).

Harden shakes off struggles to give Rockets OT win
HOUSTON -- James Harden scored 21 points, including 10 of Houston's 12 points in overtime, to shake off a tough four quarters and lift the Rockets to a 100-96 victory over the Detroit Pistons on Thursday night.

After going 2 of 16 in regulation, including missing a shot that would have won it, Harden warmed up in overtime. He put Houston up with a basket early in the period before making it 93-90 on a three-point play after a basket by Andre Drummond. He added three free throws with about a minute left before P.J. Tucker's tip-in made it 98-90 with 21 seconds to play.

Blake Griffin, who finished with a triple-double, had a 3-pointer after that, but Harden made two more free throws to push the lead to seven. Harden missed both free throws after a 3-pointer by Ish Smith with 4.2 seconds left, but the Rockets held on to extend their winning streak to seven games.

It was an ugly game which featured 71 missed 3-pointers combined. Houston was 12 of 51 and Detroit made just 6 of 38.

Eric Gordon added 22 points for Houston on a night Chris Paul sat out with a sore left hamstring.

Griffin had 21 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Drummond had 17 points and 20 rebounds (see full recap).

Kings beat Hawks amid protests outside arena
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Justin Jackson scored 11 of his season-high 20 points in the third quarter and the Sacramento Kings beat the Atlanta Hawks 105-90 on Thursday night in a game that was delayed due to protesters who were locked arm-in-arm surrounding entrances to Golden1 Center.

Jackson shot 7 of 8 and was perfect on four shots beyond the arc to help the Kings split the season series with the Hawks while avenging their worst loss of the season. Atlanta beat Sacramento 126-80 in November.

Buddy Hield and Frank Mason scored 16 points apiece, while Kosta Koufos added 14 points and 11 rebounds for the Kings.

A massive crowd shut down nearby freeways and gathered in the surrounding streets to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was in the backyard of his grandparents' house Sunday night. According to reports, Clark was shot 20 times.

Only a few hundred fans made it into the Golden1 Center before police decided to not allow anyone else to enter. Several of those who did get in were allowed to move down into the lower bowl of the arena, leaving the upper deck empty.

With so few fans in attendance, the game often had the look and feel of a high school playoff.

The Kings led most of the way and pulled away in the second half behind Jackson and Hield, who scored 10 points in the fourth quarter.