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Three Things to Know: Embiid waves Durant, Nets off court; shows potential for 76ers

As Corey Robinson and Kurt Helin reflect on the biggest NBA moments from 2021, they can't help but reflect on what was so special about Giannis Antetokounmpo winning the 2021 NBA Finals with the Bucks.

Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks going that make the NBA great.

1) Embiid waves Durant, Nets off court; shows potential for 76ers

Dear basketball gods: Can we get a playoff series between these two teams? Please? We need six or seven games of this.

Thursday night was payback for Philly. Two weeks ago, the Nets beat the 76ers 114-105 and after the game Kevin Durant waved the Sixers off the floor. Durant believed the 76ers had disrespected the Nets, and he told them to go home.

Thursday night, Joel Embiid returned the favor after scoring 34 to lead a 110-102 win over Brooklyn.

After the game, both Embiid and Durant said their trash talk came out of respect for how they push each other. It was all good competitive fun.

It’s the kind of fun we need to see in a playoff series.

A playoff series that the 76ers could make very interesting, depending on what happens in the next six weeks before the trade deadline.

It’s hard to project what the 76ers will look like after the Ben Simmons trade — and there will be a Ben Simmons trade before the deadline — because we don’t know who is coming to Philly. It could be someone to help shore up their rebounding issues and defensive concerns (areas Simmons was important to them). It could be a lot more offense. Maybe both.

Embiid is a question the Nets can’t answer directly — he is too big, too strong, too quick for their defenders inside.

If the play around Embiid is good enough, the 76ers can beat anyone. Thursday night they got that quality play, with Tyrese Maxey scoring 25, Seth Curry adding 17, and Matisse Thybulle making Durant work for his points. Add a quality player or players to that mix after the Simmons trade, and this 76ers team could be a threat.

The pecking order in the East right now has the Nets — getting Kyrie Irving back for road games starting soon — and Bucks at the top, with the Heat looming as a sleeper and the Bulls as a threat as well (especially if they make a move at the deadline and get a quality four). With a healthy Embiid, Philadelphia could vault into that mix with the right deadline move.

Embiid is good enough to lift the 76ers to contender status, and to wave Durant and the Nets off the court. Which is why Daryl Morey knows he can’t waste a year of prime Embiid playing the leverage game in the Simmons deal. A move is coming.

2) COVID latest: Nuggets/Warriors postponed, no fans in Toronto, Randle enters protocols

This latest COVID surge continues to disrupt this NBA season. The league isn’t hitting pause, it will push through, but this season has taken a punch to the gut.

Here’s the latest on the COVID front with the NBA:

• The Knicks Julius Randle enters protocols. When he exits, the Knicks need him to bring his disappeared 3-point shot with him.

• The NBA had to postpone its 11th game of the season, the Warriors visiting the Nuggets. Earlier on Thursday, the Nuggets announced that coach Mike Malone and three players — Jeff Green, Bones Hyland and Zeke Nnaji — entered the league’s health and safety protocols. Add in the Nuggets injured players — Jamal Murray, Michael Porter Jr. and P.J. Dozier are all out, plus Monte Morris, Aaron Gordon and Austin Rivers were all listed as questionable — and the Nuggets couldn’t dress eight healthy players.

• The NBA has become a game of “who is that?” and “who does he play for?” because of all the 10-day hardship contracts being signed. How many? That number was at 109 earlier on Thursday but kept climbing.

Philly’s Doc Rivers joined Denver’s Malone in protocols, making it nine NBA coaches in protocols.

About 36% of NBA referees also are in league protocols, which has led to G-League callups on that front as well.

• The Raptors will play home games without fans for the next three weeks.

• If you read all that and thought, “why doesn’t the league just pause for a week or two?” you should know two things. First, Hawks coach Nate McMillan agrees with you.

Second, it’s not going to happen. The NBA is going to push through. It has increased testing, shortened the time positive but asymptomatic players have to quarantine (matching CDC recommendations), is forcing teams to bring in temporary players when roster guys test positive, but hitting the pause button is not on the table.

3) Cavaliers near trade to acquire Rajon Rondo from Lakers

This trade benefits both teams but doesn’t really move the needle in the big picture.

After Ricky Rubio tore his ACL the Cavaliers went looking for depth at point guard (remember they also lost Collin Sexton for the season due to knee surgery). Rondo is the target.

Rondo is currently in COVID protocols and would not head to Cleveland until he was cleared. Rondo is not a regular part of the Lakers’ rotation — he played in just 18 games for the Lakers, averaging 3.1 points per game and shooting 32.4%, and the Lakers have been 10.1 points per 100 better when he is on the bench — but he could fill a role next to Darius Garland in Cleveland. At the least, he provides veteran depth.

What the Lakers get out of this trade is a cleared roster spot (technically something has to be traded back for Rondo, likely a heavily protected second-round pick). That open roster spot lets Los Angeles keep 10-day contract hardship player Stanley Johnson on the roster without taking a substantial luxury tax hit. This trade opens a roster spot, removes Rondo’s salary from the books, and lets the Lakers slot Johnson in that space on a minimum contract.

Highlight of the Night: Pitt football turnover dunk is awesome

It’s college bowl season, and that means we bet on watch teams we barely paid attention to all season. With all due respect to Pitt, they were that team for me, and I had no idea they did a turnover dunk after the Panther defense forces one.

That is awesome.

Last night’s scores:

Philadelphia 119, Brooklyn 102
Milwaukee 136, Orlando 118
Washington 110, Cleveland 93
Golden State at Denver, postponed