Thomas plays big in long-awaited Cavs debut

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Thomas plays big in long-awaited Cavs debut

CLEVELAND -- Isaiah Thomas showed flashes of what made him an All-Star in his long-awaited Cleveland debut as the Cavaliers snapped a three-game losing streak with a 127-110 win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

Thomas scored 17 points and played 19 minutes in his first game in seven months, an impressive return to action for the dynamic point guard. Thomas added three 3-pointers and three assists before leaving with 8:10 left and the Cavs up by 12.

LeBron James scored 24 points, Kevin Love had 19 and Jae Crowder added 15 for the Cavs, who were coming off losses at Golden State, Sacramento and Utah.

Damian Lillard scored 25 for the Blazers after missing five games with a hamstring injury. Jusuf Nurkic added 23 and CJ McCollum had 19 for Portland.

The Cavs were unable to separate from the Blazers until Thomas and Dwyane Wade teamed up in the fourth quarter.

Thomas, who finished 6 of 12 from the field, knocked down a jumper and then fired a pass toward the baseline to a cutting Wade, who made a reverse layup. On Cleveland's next possession, Thomas spotted up in the corner in front of Cleveland's bench and buried a 3-pointer to give the Cavs a 100-91 lead.

A few moments later, James was sent in for Thomas, who first got a hug from his teammate and another from coach Tyronn Lue as the crowd roared (see full recap)

Aldridge, Leonard lead Spurs past Knicks
NEW YORK -- LaMarcus Aldridge scored 29 points, Kawhi Leonard had a season-high 25 and the San Antonio Spurs beat the New York Knicks 100-91 on Tuesday night to give Gregg Popovich sole possession of fifth place on the NBA's coaching wins list.

Manu Ginobili finished with 12 points -- three of them coming on what appeared to be a pass that went into the basket without everyone noticing.

Popovich has 1,176 victories, all with the Spurs. The five-time champion broke a tie with his friend George Karl.

The Spurs beat the Knicks for the second time in six days and won for the fourth time in five games. They beat New York 119-107 on Dec. 28.

Michael Beasley had 18 points for the Knicks, who were playing one of just four home games this month. They play 12 times on the road.

Kristaps Porzingis shot just 5 for 19 and was one of three Knicks to finish with 13 points (see full recap).

Suns pull off late comeback over Hawks
PHOENIX -- Devin Booker sank three free throws to put Phoenix ahead with 12.3 seconds to play, Marquese Chriss blocked Taurean Prince's shot at the rim with 7 seconds to go and the Suns rallied from down 10 in the final 2 minutes to beat the Atlanta Hawks 104-103 on Tuesday night.

Booker scored eight of his 34 points in the final 37 seconds as the Suns finished with a 15-4 run. T.J. Warren scored 31 and Chriss had 17 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks for Phoenix.

Ersan Ilyasova scored 21 points for Atlanta. Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder added 20 apiece.

Bazemore made 7 of 8 shots, including 4 of 5 3-pointers, but he fouled Booker on a 3-point attempt with the Hawks clinging to a two-point lead.

Booker made all three to put the Suns on top 102-101. Prince then got free for what looked to be an open layup, but Chriss came from the other side of the court to block the shot.

Booker made two more at the line with 6.5 seconds remaining to make it 104-101. With the Hawks needing a 3-pointer to tie it, Schroder instead drove for the layup to cut it to one, but by then there was just a half-second to play and the Suns handed Atlanta its seventh straight road loss (see full recap).

Sixers weekly observations: The case for three All-Stars, improved defense, painful loss to Thunder, more

Sixers weekly observations: The case for three All-Stars, improved defense, painful loss to Thunder, more

The Sixers went 3-1 this week, but their most recent (and most painful) memory is of the one that got away, Saturday’s 117-115 loss to the Thunder (see observations).

In the big picture, the Sixers are 30-17 and 19-9 in games in which Jimmy Butler has played.

Let’s get into a few observations:

• Ben Simmons told reporters he considered pulling up for a three-point shot on the Sixers’ final possession vs. Oklahoma City. Only Simmons can know his thoughts in that moment, but the notion that he deliberated attempting the first non-heave three-pointer of his career in the final seconds of a two-point game is dubious.

Even if he did think about pulling up for a jumper, his track record rendered his intentions irrelevant. The Thunder had no reason to believe Simmons was going to take a jumper and played him accordingly.

If Simmons isn’t going to attempt jumpers in those spots for the time being, faking the dribble handoff and attacking the basket or rolling to the rim after giving the ball to Butler are other viable late-game options off that action. He did what he felt was best in the moment Saturday, but forcing defenses to be wary of him doing something besides handing the ball off would benefit the Sixers’ late-game offense moving forward.

• The Sixers’ defense, a season-long concern, was much improved this week, and Simmons was especially impressive defensively. Victor Oladipo shot just 4 for 11 on Thursday when guarded by Simmons, and Russell Westbrook was 1 for 5

As a team, the Sixers posted a 103.9 defensive rating this week, fourth-best in the NBA, and that’s not a difficult number to believe based on the miscommunications that are gradually disappearing and the improved overall effort. As we suggested, using Jonah Bolden as Joel Embiid’s backup appears to be effectively concealing the flaws of the Sixers’ subpar perimeter defense off the bench, though Bolden will at some stage need to eradicate his habit of committing bad fouls. 

• We’ve avoided All-Star voting discussion until now, but with fan voting set to close Monday at 11:59 p.m., it’s an unavoidable topic.

First, the relevant logistics: As of Thursday, Joel Embiid had the third-most fan votes among Eastern Conference frontcourt players. Jimmy Butler was fifth in that category, while Ben Simmons was fourth among backcourt players in the East. 

Three frontcourt and two backcourt players from each conference will be named starters, with fan votes weighted at 50 percent, and media and player votes at 25 percent each. Head coaches will vote for the reserves of their respective conferences.

The Sixers should have three All-Stars this year for the first time since the 1986-87 season, when Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks and Julius Erving were selected. 

Embiid is a self-evident choice, by far the best center in the East. He’s averaging 27 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game. Defensively, he’s guarding more field goals than any player in the conference, and opponents are shooting just 44.3 percent against him.

Butler may be a divisive personality, depending on who you ask, but he's an excellent basketball player. He’s made two game-winners in his first 28 games with his new team and would have had a third on Saturday if not for Paul George’s heroics. Nineteen points, 4.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game with the Sixers isn’t too shabby, especially when you consider how little Butler turns the ball over (his 7.1 turnover percentage is lower than any rotation player besides Landry Shamet’s) and the fact that he usually defends the opponent’s best player.

Simmons should have removed any doubt about his All-Star case over the last month. Since Dec. 22, he’s posted 18.4 points per game on 60 percent shooting, 10.6 rebounds and 8.8 assists. 

Jump shot or not, Simmons has developed this season and is very worthy of an All-Star spot. 

After shooting an abysmal 21 for 70 on 254 post-ups last season, he’s already posted up 207 times this season and shot 39 for 75 on those possessions

Simmons is a unique player whose weaknesses (refusal to shoot jumpers and low efficiency when he does, turnovers, lapses in defensive effort) are easy to identify and criticize. He’s also a special talent who is doing a damn good job harnessing the skills he has.

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Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook has become must-watch television

Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook has become must-watch television

Joel Embiid vs. Russell Westbrook has become must-watch television.

In the national spotlight Saturday, the Sixers and Thunder put on one hell of a show at the Wells Fargo Center (see observations). Paul George’s four-point play with 5.1 seconds remaining sealed a 117-115 win for Oklahoma City.

What happened with 1:46 left in the fourth quarter was at the height of the day’s entertainment. 

Off a Sixers’ turnover, Westbrook took off in transition with Embiid waiting for him at the other end. Westbrook then lost the handle as he went up for the shot. As he was reaching to grab the ball, Embiid, who was attempting to block the shot, fell on top of Westbrook.

Westbrook was less than thrilled at the exchange.

I don’t think he just landed on me. He added a little extra to it. But it’s OK.

So everything is good between the two, right?

F--- no.

Westbrook doesn’t exactly have a warm and fuzzy relationship with the media, later telling a reporter, “Go home, bro,” when pressed further on his relationship with Embiid. Ben Simmons did a pretty good job on Westbrook, holding the perennial All-Star to 8 of 21 from the field.

Embiid, who finished with 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists, didn’t see anything wrong with the play and wasn’t really sure what Westbrook’s problem was. 

I don’t know why he was mad. I have no idea. But he’s always in his feelings, so I have no idea.

These two, of course, have a history dating back to last season.

It started on Dec. 15, 2017, during an epic triple-overtime game at the Wells Fargo Center. Embiid was able to get the better of big man Steven Adams. After Adams fouled out, Embiid waved to him as he was leaving the court — Embiid also waved after Westbrook fouled out Saturday.

After Oklahoma City got the win, Westbrook then waved to Embiid. Embiid went on to roast Westbrook postgame for shooting too much after the point guard went just 10 of 33 from the field.

In their next matchup a month later, Embiid posterized Westbrook and stared him down afterward.

The unfortunate thing for Embiid is that the Sixers just can’t seem to get the better of Westbrook. The team hasn’t beaten the Thunder in 11 years. That’s 19 straight games now.

Embiid was questionable again Saturday afternoon with a sore back. He was pretty clear as to why he wanted to play.

“Because the Sixers haven’t won against them in [11 years],” Embiid said. “That’s just ridiculous. I wanted to get the win. That’s one more reason that it pisses me off that we gave [the game] away and we had it.”

Embiid and the Sixers get another crack at Westbrook in Oklahoma City on Feb. 28. A good suggestion would be to get your popcorn ready.

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