Blake Griffin

Sixers will find plenty of challengers in attempt to take over Eastern Conference

Sixers will find plenty of challengers in attempt to take over Eastern Conference

“Run it back.”

After striking out on the big fish in free agency, the Sixers essentially appear to be going this route for next season.

They have reportedly agreed to a one-year deal to bring back JJ Redick and a trade for Denver Nuggets swingman Wilson Chandler to help offset the departures of bench standouts Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova. A little juggling to add a reserve center, and you will be looking at your 2018-19 Philadelphia 76ers (barring a blockbuster deal for Kawhi Leonard, in which case all bets are off).

And there’s no reason to believe that won’t be enough to take another leap next season. Think about it, from a personal standpoint the Sixers had Joel Embiid be named a starter in the All-Star Game and finish as the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year. Despite all of the noise, Ben Simmons snagged Rookie of the Year in a landslide. Plus, the team had Robert Covington (first) and Embiid (second) each be named to All-NBA defensive teams.

All of those individual accolades helped propel the team to a 52-win campaign (24 more than the previous season), a playoff berth for the first time in six seasons and a first-round series victory.

With that level of production under their belt, there is no reason to believe the Sixers won’t continue climbing up the Eastern Conference ranks.

Just don’t think it will be easy.

Even with LeBron James’ exodus to the West, the Sixers’ path to the NBA Finals won’t all of the sudden become a cakewalk. Some other squads will have a say about that, starting at the top.

Toronto may have ditched its head coach, but the Raptors appear to be sticking with the core that won a franchise-record 59 games last season. That group beat the Sixers in three of the four regular-season meetings by an average of 18.3 points.

Of course, the Boston Celtics had the Sixers’ number all season long. Between the preseason, regular season and playoffs, the C’s won nine of the 11 matchups by an average of 9.2 points. Plus, you’ve likely heard they’ll be getting a couple All-Stars back in the lineup come next season in Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward.

Even the teams a step below have reason for hope. The Indiana Pacers have faith in their own young core led by Most Improved Player Victor Oladipo. The Milwaukee Bucks have one of the game’s best players in Giannis Antetokounmpo and boosted their bench by swiping Ilyasova from the Sixers and drafting Villanova standout Donte DiVincenzo. The Washington Wizards (John Wall, Bradley Beal) and Detroit Pistons (Blake Griffin, Andre Drummond) have prolific tandems that could cause trouble for anyone.

It’s all wide open in the East now that the King’s throne has shifted to Hollywood. And the Sixers have to feel as good as any team about being able to secure the crown, but it definitely won’t be an easy task.

More on the Sixers

The bizarre NBA-celebrity dating circle that involves Ben Simmons

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The bizarre NBA-celebrity dating circle that involves Ben Simmons

This is a love triangle that even Phil Jackson could appreciate.

Or perhaps it's a quadrangle? A rhombus? Tough to say at this point. Lotta sides. Does anyone care? Who knows.

A quick refresher on how we got here ...

Ben Simmons was dating pop star Tinashe a few months ago. She talked about him and their relationship fondly. She even said she wrote songs about him. At some point over the past few weeks their relationship cooled. Photos of Tinashe disappeared from Ben's Instagram account.

Then Page Six dropped the story that Simmons was rumored to be dating Kendall Jenner. Then the two were spotted in Los Angeles together in the wee hours of the morning.

That's when things started to get a little weird. Tinashe was rumored to be hanging out with Ben's Rookie of the Year nemesis, Donovan Mitchell.

Not weird enough yet? Let's keep going.

TMZ reported on Tuesday that Kendall was spotted making out with a celebrity sibling of Bella and Gigi Hadid: "Kendall was spotted smack-dab in the middle of a heavy makeout sesh early Tuesday morning with Anwar Hadid at a CFDA Awards after-party in NYC. You can tell it's him from the bleach blonde hair he was sporting at the event. Plus, Kendall took a photo of his tattooed hands herself."

OK, not the best news for Ben, maybe? Maybe it's great news. But things still get stranger from there.

Simmons wasn't the first NBA star to be involved with Jenner. She has also dated Detroit Pistons star Blake Griffin.

What's Griffin up to now?

"Tinashe was at Apex Social Club at Palms Casino Resort hanging out with Jenner’s ex Griffin," Page Six reported. “'Blake watched Tinashe perform,' said a spy. 'They were also at the same VIP table.'”

And now you are caught up on all of the drama. And can potentially understand this masterful tweet:

Blake Griffin does it all in Pistons debut

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Blake Griffin does it all in Pistons debut

DETROIT -- Blake Griffin had 24 points and 10 rebounds in his debut for Detroit, and the Pistons edged the Memphis Grizzlies 104-102 on Thursday night.

Griffin was impressive throughout his first game for the Pistons since they traded for him earlier this week. His teammates looked uncertain at times, but Detroit was able to outlast a Memphis team that is without Tyreke Evans and Mike Conley.

Anthony Tolliver's 3-pointer with under two minutes remaining gave Detroit a 101-100 lead, and the score stayed that way until the final seconds. Marc Gasol attempted to drive on Griffin but missed his shot, and a wild scramble led to a jump ball between Tolliver and Dillon Brooks with 10.4 seconds left.

The Pistons controlled that tip, with Reggie Bullock running the ball down in the corner. Tolliver gave Detroit a three-point lead with a pair of free throws, and then purposely fouled Wayne Selden with 2.6 seconds remaining. Selden made the first free throw and the second went in even though he was trying to miss and give his team a chance at an offensive rebound.

A free throw by Bullock closed out the scoring.

Griffin was the first Detroit starter announced before the game and received a big hand from the crowd. The arena still didn't appear full -- the Pistons have struggled with attendance for several years -- but the atmosphere was lively, especially during the tight finish (see full recap).

Butler shines as Timberwolves roll over Bucks
MINNEAPOLIS -- Jimmy Butler scored 28 points, Karl-Anthony Towns had 24 points and 11 rebounds for his NBA-best 46th double-double, and the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Milwaukee Bucks 108-89 on Thursday night.

Jeff Teague added nine points and eight assists for Minnesota, which was coming off consecutive losses at Atlanta and Toronto. The Timberwolves have lost six of their last seven road games and have returned home with back-to-back losses from their last three road trips.

Each time, Minnesota has responded at home with a victory, winning by an average of 14.25 points. The Timberwolves' 21-6 home record represents the second-most home wins in the NBA behind San Antonio's 22.

Khris Middleton scored 21 points for Milwaukee, which had won four in a row. Giannis Antetokounmpo had 17 points and 15 rebounds, but the Bucks shot 37.6 percent from the field and committed 15 turnovers.

Milwaukee had five turnovers and shot just 36.8 percent in the first quarter. Towns, who had single-digit shot attempts in five of the past seven games, was aggressive early on with nine points and three rebounds in the quarter.

The Wolves closed the first half on a 30-15 run for a 60-39 lead. The Bucks cut the lead to 12 in the third, but Minnesota responded and led by as many as 23.

In the first meeting between the two teams, Milwaukee erased a 20-point deficit in the third quarter for a 102-96 home win (see full recap).

Harden, Rockets dominate Spurs in 3rd straight win
SAN ANTONIO -- James Harden had 28 points and 11 assists, and the Houston Rockets dominated the San Antonio Spurs for the second time this season with a 102-91 victory Thursday night.

Clint Capela added 14 points and 13 rebounds in Houston's third straight win. The Rockets led by as many as 19 points in the first matchup between the Texas rivals since the Spurs' 124-109 blowout loss on Dec. 15 in Houston.

Danny Green had 22 points to lead San Antonio in scoring for the first time this season. LaMarcus Aldridge was held to 16 points on 8-for-15 shooting.

The Spurs' only lead came in the opening minutes. They trailed by double digits for much of the night.

San Antonio scored the first points of the fourth quarter to close to 82-76 with 10 minutes remaining. Chris Paul hit three jumpers to rebuild Houston's lead to 88-76.

The Rockets captured a 27-14 lead in the first quarter despite having their first four possessions end in two turnovers and two missed shots.

Ryan Anderson got Houston rolling, hitting three straight 3-pointers. Anderson's second 3 prompted San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich to angrily call his first timeout (see full recap).