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2020 NBA restart: The 5 most fascinating veterans in Disney World, starring Al Horford

2020 NBA restart: The 5 most fascinating veterans in Disney World, starring Al Horford

Assuming the NBA season can continue in Orlando (fingers crossed), some of the league’s best players have the chance to add exciting new chapters to their career stories.

Both Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James could become the first player to be named NBA Finals MVP with three different teams. But their legacies as all-time playoff greats are already secure. 

We’ll get our first look at Luka Doncic in the playoffs, but he’s just getting started. It will be fun to see Zion Williamson and Ja Morant in their first truly meaningful NBA games, but they should get plenty of chances in the years to come.

Here are five veteran players with a chance to shine in the playoffs and change how they are viewed around the league.

5. Kemba Walker

Walker missed seven games in February with a left knee injury and didn’t look totally right even when he returned, shooting 28 percent from the field in his final three games before the COVID-19 shutdown. In Walker’s absence, Jayson Tatum ascended to the role of Boston’s top offensive option.

Walker says he is healthy and will head to Orlando with the chance to win a playoff series for the first time in his nine-year career. In Charlotte, he was the proverbial “good player on a bad team.” Now, he needs to prove he can make winning plays in the playoffs.

Tatum’s emergence as a go-to scorer could help Walker immensely. Instead of having to carry the offense, he’s more likely to get some open looks, great news for one of the NBA’s best high-volume three-point shooters (37.7 percent on 8.8 attempts per game).

If he can make some clutch threes, Walker could provide Boston with the perimeter threat that made Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet so crucial in Toronto’s title run last season. The undersized Walker will also need to defend well enough to be on the floor for those moments.

In his only Game 7, back in the first round in 2016, Walker shot 3 for 16 from the floor in a 33-point loss to Miami. There’s no doubt he’d like a chance to redeem himself. 

4. Anthony Davis

Davis is talented enough on both ends of the floor to be the NBA Finals MVP. He just needs to prove himself on that stage.

If the Lakers and Clippers meet in the Western Conference Finals, Davis needs to dominate, because James will have his hands full with Leonard and Paul George. Davis is too big for Montrezl Harrell and too quick for Ivica Zubac. If the Clippers put George on him, Davis has to win that matchup decisively.

The Lakers aren’t going to win a championship unless both James and Davis have incredible playoff runs. The gap is too great between those two superstars and the third-best player on the roster (take your pick of Danny Green, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma). 

Davis has shown he can be a playoff monster. Two years ago, he averaged 33.0 points, 11.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.8 steals to lead New Orleans to a playoff sweep over the higher-seeded Portland Trail Blazers. He may need to put up those numbers for four rounds to win a championship this season.

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo

Antetokounmpo and the Bucks dominated the regular season like few teams before them, winning by an average of 11.2 points per game on their way to an NBA-best 53-12 record.

But plenty of questions loom after their Eastern Conference Finals loss to Toronto last season.

Khris Middleton has had an outstanding season, but can he knock down shots for four rounds? Can Eric Bledsoe erase the memories of that series loss to Toronto, when he shot 29 percent from the field and 17 percent from three-point range in six games? Can Antetokounmpo make enough perimeter shots to keep defenses honest? 

Antetokounmpo may have the most pressure on him of any player going into this NBA restart. He has been, by far, the best player in the Eastern Conference this season. It isn’t even close. There is no proven playoff performer like Leonard blocking his path to the Finals. This is his time.

Antetokounmpo is almost certainly going to win back-to-back league MVP awards. He’s a free agent after the 2020-21 season. If he and the Bucks don’t get to the NBA Finals this season, will Antetokounmpo think about leaving Milwaukee for greener pastures?

2. Russell Westbrook

For the first three months of the season, the offseason trade to bring Westbrook to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul looked like an abject disaster.

While CP3 became one of the league’s best clutch shooters in Oklahoma City, Westbrook struggled to find his footing as the second banana to James Harden, shooting under 43 percent from the field in 30 games through December.

But just as people began to write him off, Westbrook’s efficiency numbers skyrocketed. In his final 23 games before the season paused because of COVID-19, Westbrook shot over 52 percent from the floor and averaged 31.7 points.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey decided to go all-in on the Harden/Westbrook brand of small ball, jettisoning center Clint Capela and bringing in Robert Covington. Either the 6-foot-7 Covington or 6-foot-5 P.J. Tucker are tasked with defending opposing big men. We’ll see if that works in a playoff series.

For that style of play to have any chance of succeeding in the playoffs, Westbrook will have to hit the defensive glass like a monster and score as efficiently as he did later in the season. 

1. Al Horford 

There’s no sugarcoating the fact that Horford’s four-year contract for $97 million guaranteed looks like a mistake to this point. But the final three words of that previous sentence are the most important. 

To this point.

Yes, the on-court fit with Joel Embiid hasn’t worked. The Sixers have a negative net rating with Embiid and Horford on the floor together. But that doesn’t mean Horford can’t be valuable when the playoffs begin.

When he was with the Celtics, we saw firsthand how many winning plays Horford made in the playoffs. Maybe he can combine with Embiid and Ben Simmons to frustrate Antetokounmpo just enough to squeak by the Bucks in a series. Maybe he makes a couple of clutch three-point shots to win a key playoff game. 

Or maybe the playoffs show that Horford is simply a square peg in a round hole on this Sixers roster.

But if he has some big moments in a deep playoff run, the narrative of his time with the Sixers will be vastly different than it appears right now. If he plays well, maybe it’s easier to trade him if the front office doesn’t like the long-term fit. 

There’s no use coming to final conclusions on Horford’s time in Philadelphia just yet. 

It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.

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How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

How to watch Sixers at Rockets: Storylines, live stream, game time and more

For the first time since the 2011-12 lockout year, the Sixers will play fewer than 82 games in a “regular” season. Their 73rd and final game before the postseason is Friday night against the Rockets.

Joel Embiid (left ankle soreness) and Glenn Robinson III (left hip pointer) are questionable, and Russell Westbrook is out for Houston with a right quad strain. 

Here are the essentials:

When: 9 p.m. with Sixers Pregame Live at 8
Where: AdventHealth Arena
Broadcast: NBC Sports Philadelphia Plus
Live stream: NBCSportsPhiladelphia.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch: 

All about Monday 

Health and “spirit” are the two things Brett Brown has consistently said he hoped the Sixers would have intact for the postseason. The team’s health is significantly compromised with Ben Simmons out after undergoing surgery on his left knee, which is probably more important than an intangible quality like spirit. That said, the Sixers’ morale doesn’t seem too bad given the circumstances. There’s been a little time for everyone to wrap their head around Simmons’ injury and what it means, and the starting lineup enjoyed cheering on the reserves in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s loss to the Raptors.

The Sixers’ first-round series vs. the Celtics begins Monday night (see series schedule). It sounds simple enough … but just get to tip-off of Game 1 with the healthiest version of the current team. 

Is hot outside shooting sustainable? 

Before the NBA’s hiatus, the Sixers were shooting 36.2 percent from three-point range. They’re at 40.6 percent in Disney World, and Joel Embiid and Shake Milton are the only rotation players below their season averages from long range. 

That large of an increase is likely attributable to a small sample size, at least in part, but it does seem that players like Al Horford, Furkan Korkmaz and Alec Burks are comfortable and shooting with confidence. Perhaps it will carry over to the playoffs. 

Small-ball prep 

The Rockets will finish either No. 4 or No. 5 in the Western Conference, a distinction that means very little when there are no true home games. It would therefore be unsurprising if minutes were limited for Houston’s key players. 

One thing that will be interesting to watch regardless is how the Sixers will handle a team without a conventional center. Houston is an extreme practitioner of small ball, but the Sixers’ top lineups will generally be larger than the Celtics’. Horford’s perimeter defense will be tested by Boston.

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NBA Rumors: Buddy Hield's comments should have Sixers fans intrigued

NBA Rumors: Buddy Hield's comments should have Sixers fans intrigued

The Sixers haven't even started the playoffs, but a potential offseason storyline is already bubbling up.

Kings guard Buddy Hield has been long tied to the Sixers as a potential trade target, from insider chatter to fan speculation, to his accidental (?) fueling of those rumors when he liked an Instagram post earlier this year with a hypothetical trade moving him to Philly.

So when the Kings' season ended Thursday, and Hield was asked if he's comfortable with his role off the bench in Sacramento heading into next season, his answer raised some eyebrows.

Including, I'd imagine, some in Philadelphia.

Here's what Hield had to say:

[Hield] provided a series of short answers during a Zoom session with reporters and offered a cryptic response when asked if he could be content with his role going into next season.

"Y'all know me," Hield said. "Y'all know how I talk. Y'all know how I feel. Y'all can read me well, so I'll let y'all answer that yourselves."

Pretty spicy. That doesn't sound like someone who wants to stay where he is!

Hield signed a four-year extension with Sacramento last October, but the Kings regressed in their first year under head coach Luke Walton, and The Athletic reported in February that Hield, unhappy with his role, might be eyeing a move elsewhere.

It doesn't sound like Hield's concerns about his role have changed much since then. If he's unhappy, he could theoretically ask for a trade - or Sacramento could pre-emptively try to get something for the still-young shooter.

I examined the potential fit back in April, including the hypothetical Hield-for-Horford deal from that fateful Instagram post:

In terms of contract length and salary hit, the Hield and Horford deals are strikingly similar, and Hield's game would be an instant improvement for the Sixers' offensive spacing: he's a two-guard who shoots a career 41.1 percent from deep, and can create his own shot. Plus, he's substantially younger than Horford.

Will the move happen? If the Kings deem their relationship with Hield unfixable, it's possible. Horford hasn't fit well in Philly, but he's still a savvy veteran with a good track record. And Hield would certainly check the boxes for the Sixers' front office.

Hield shot 39% from deep this year on 9.5 (!) three-point attempts per game, is a career 41% three-point shooter over 315 games, and would be a perfect match for the Sixers. 

We'll see.

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