NBA

Vogel rates win over Nets among Lakers' best of the year

By Sports Desk April 11, 2021

Frank Vogel felt the depleted Los Angeles Lakers' 126-101 victory over the Brooklyn Nets was one of their best of the year.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kyle Kuzma were among the Lakers' absentees at the Barclays Center on Saturday, but they came out on top against a Nets side who occupy second place in the NBA Eastern Conference.

Lakers guard Dennis Schroder and the Nets' seven-time All-Star Kyrie Irving were ejected after clashing in the third quarter.

The defending champions went on to improve to 33-20, Andre Drummond weighing in with a double-double of 20 points and 11 rebounds, with Talen Horton-Tucker laying on a career-high 11 assists.

Lakers coach Vogel said: "When you see guys out and you see a great opponent like the Nets, you can be a little bit overwhelmed and not sure if you're going to have a chance to win it.

"But you want to have a go-after-these-guys mindset. And we knew coming in that if we were able to prevail short-handed against this opponent that it would feel good and it would be one of the best wins of the year. So, we're happy about that."

Vogel added: "Like I said all along, all season long, when we play scrappy on the defensive end, we always have a chance. I'm super proud of our group."

Drummond was impressed with the character shown by his team-mates in a big victory on the road.

"I learned a lot from today's game: that we have a lot of guys in this locker room that are very tough," he said.

"Despite who is on the other side of the court, they're going to come out and play. No matter how many minutes guys play, they're going to play to the best of their ability. And we have fun doing it. We had a lot of fun tonight playing and getting this win."

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    When has a player averaged at least 29 points and 10 rebounds per game in a season but failed to win the NBA MVP award?

    Here's a hint: the internet was in its infancy, Hootie and the Blowfish were selling albums by the millions and the Orlando Magic, of all teams, were the league's biggest thing.

    Not since Shaquille O'Neal in 1994-95 has a player reached those numbers without taking away the NBA's most cherished piece of individual hardware. Shaq actually did it twice without winning an MVP, losing out to Hakeem Olajuwon in 1993-94 and David Robinson the following year. O'Neal did average 29 and 10 while winning an MVP with the Lakers in 1999-2000, and the two players who have hit those marks since (Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 and Giannis Antetokounmpo in 2019-20) each came home with the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.

    Joel Embiid appears destined to buck that recent trend.

    If money talks, it's given an emphatic answer as to who will seize the honour in 2020-21. Nikola Jokic has emerged as an overwhelming favourite in betting markets across the globe to claim his first MVP, with Embiid holding the second-shortest odds and a rising Stephen Curry emerging as a clear third in the public's mind.

    Jokic's credentials are unquestionably worthy. The Denver Nuggets big man is closing out an unprecedented season for a player who spends his time predominately in the post, having posted averages of 26.5 points, 10.8 rebounds and 8.4 assists heading into Denver's final three regular-season outings.

    Only two players in league history have averaged 25-10-8 in a season, and neither was a frontcourt player. The great Oscar Robertson did it three consecutive times across 1960-63, and Westbrook had two straight across 2016-18.

    Jokic's immense value to a Nuggets team who have successfully withstood the season-ending injury to Jamal Murray to secure a top-four seed in the Western Conference is perhaps best illustrated by his share of the team's combined points, rebound and assists. No player this season has accumulated a higher percentage than his 24.5, with the Mavericks' Luka Doncic and the Knicks' Julius Randle tied in second at 22.8 per cent.

    Embiid is well down on the list, ranking 16th overall due to the 20 games the somewhat fragile seven-footer has missed this season. His dominance and importance to the Eastern Conference front-running Philadelphia 76ers would show, however, if the chart were adjusted to exclude games in which a particular player was absent.

    Using that criteria, Embiid has accounted for 23.2 percent of the 76ers' points, rebounds and assists in games that he's taken the floor. That number is right in line with that of the defending two-time MVP Antetokounmpo and would put him in the top five. For the record, Doncic would move ahead of Jokic for the top spot at 24.8 percent.

    Embiid's scattered availability is no doubt detrimental to his case, more so when factoring in that Jokic hasn't sat out a game all season. Just once has a player missed 13 or more games in a season and been named MVP, when Bill Walton earned the award in 1977-78 despite playing in only 58 of the Trail Blazers' 82 games.

    On the flip side, it's hard to find anyone who's been more instrumental to his team's success than Philly's All-Star center. The Sixers are 9-11 when Embiid has missed a game and 38-11 when he plays, a .776 winning percentage that would tower over the rest of the NBA this season.

    Embiid's importance becomes even more apparent when viewing the 76ers' performance when he's been on the court as opposed to off.

    Their points per 100 possessions drop to 105.1 from 117.2, while opponents' points climb slightly from 103.9 to 105.8. That means a point differential of +13.3 falls dramatically to -0.7. Their shooting from the field (50.5 per cent to 45.4 per cent) and from three-point range (40.4 per cent to 34.7 per cent) also decreases.

    Though the Sixers have remained an elite defensive team without Embiid, all of those off-court offensive splits would rank near the bottom of the NBA. It's not hyperbole to summarise that without their franchise player, Philadelphia would be scrapping for a spot in the play-in round instead of being on the verge of claiming a conference regular-season title.

    Embiid is far from the only star whose team perform at a significantly lower level when he's not around, though. The Warriors have won just one of the eight games Curry has missed, while defending champions the Lakers are a mediocre 12-15 when LeBron James has been injured or rested and have been 11.6 points per 100 possessions better when 'The King' has taken the court compared to off it.

    Like Embiid, the slew of missed games is going to be hard for James to justify in the minds of voters, and he's not playing for a team set for the top playoff seed in his conference. And the Lakers' descent into the West's middle tier can't all be attributed to James' absences – they also were without Anthony Davis in two-thirds of the games LeBron hasn't played.

    Curry also represents an interesting case, and if there were an MVP for only the season's final month-plus, he'd be a hands-down winner. The veteran sharpshooter has averaged an insane 36.7 points per game since April 10, a stretch in which the Warriors have gone 13-5 to elevate themselves from a postseason question mark to a lock for the play-in round.

    The two-time MVP also has the on/off split factor working in his favour, as the Warriors are +4.0 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent when he's on the court and a lottery-level -4.9 differential when he's not. Another potential feather in Curry's cap would be if he can hold off Washington's Bradley Beal for the league's scoring title, as four of the past seven MVPs led the NBA in points per game.

    Curry has rightfully received the most credit for Golden State's late-season surge, but a closer look shows it hasn't been a one-man show. Andrew Wiggins is finally at least bearing some resemblance to the player the Minnesota Timberwolves thought they were getting back in 2014, one teams build franchises around, and the Warriors have posted a league-low 105.1 defensive rating since their hot streak began.

    For all his heroics on the offensive end, Curry hasn't been a primary contributor to the Warriors' recent stretch of lockdown defense. Since April 10, opponents score fewer points (98.6 per 100 possessions, down from 107.6) when Curry is off the court and are less accurate from the field (41.9 per cent, down from 44.9), beyond the arc (27.9 per cent, down from 35.4) and in their effective field goal percentage (47.6, down from 51.9).

    Jokic also won't be adding any All-Defensive Team mentions to his expanding resume, and it is a bit harder to quantify exactly where the Nuggets would be without him simply because he hasn't missed a game.

    One thing's for certain, however – no player this season has had a larger impact on his team's offensive performance than the Serbian star. Their points climb to 118.2 per 100 possessions when he is involved, meaning a +6.0 point differential versus -0.7 when he is absent – despite the team allowing more points with Jokic on the court. The field goal percentage improves to 50.4, while their assists per 100 (28.4, from 22.1) are up and their turnovers (12.7, from 15.7) are down.

    The Nuggets are arguably the league's most efficient offensive team with Jokic on the floor. Combine that with a unicorn quality of being the best passing big man of the digital age and a consistency edge on his main rivals, and you've got a recipe for a likely MVP winner. Curry and Doncic's otherwise strong candidacies take a hit by their teams currently standing eighth and sixth, respectively, in the West. Antetokounmpo likely gets hurt by recency bias (no one wants to vote for the same player three straight years) and his own team's success (the Bucks have still played at a relatively high level when he's missed games or not been on the court).

    In reality, though, the race shouldn't be as lopsided as the betting odds suggest, provided voters can overlook Embiid's spotty attendance record. History shows, however, that will be a factor that ultimately works in Jokic's favour.

  • Hawks and Knicks clinch NBA playoff berths as Harden returns for Nets Hawks and Knicks clinch NBA playoff berths as Harden returns for Nets

    The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks both secured spots in the NBA's postseason on Wednesday.

    Trae Young fuelled the rallying Hawks to a 120-116 win over Russell Westbrook's Washington Wizards midweek.

    Young posted 33 points and John Collins hit the go-ahead three-pointer with 24.4 seconds remaining as the Hawks (39-31) – fourth in the Eastern Conference – clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2017.

    The Knicks (38-31), who are sixth in the east, were not in action but they still reached the playoffs thanks to some help from elsewhere.

    For the first time since 2012-13, playoff basketball will return to Madison Square Garden after the Boston Celtics were upstaged 102-94 by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    The Celtics (35-35) were consigned to a play-in berth following a fourth straight defeat.

    The play-in tournament will include teams with the seventh through to the 10th-highest winning percentages in each conference, taking place between May 18-21, in pursuit of the playoffs.

     

    Westbrook joins exclusive club

    After making history for the most triple-doubles in the NBA on Tuesday, Westbrook was at it again. The Wizards star scored 34 points and dished out 15 assists. He has recorded 15-plus assists in six consecutive games. Westbrook is the fifth player in league history to record 15-plus assists in six or more straight games, joining John Stockton, Isaiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Kevin Porter.

    James Harden returned from an 18-game absence to help the Brooklyn Nets beat the San Antonio Spurs 128-116. Back following a hamstring strain, Harden put up 18 points and 11 assists off the bench in Brooklyn.

    Double-doubles from Talen Horton-Tucker (23 points and 10 assists), Andre Drummond (20 points and 10 rebounds) and Kyle Kuzma (19 points and 10 rebounds) helped defending champions the Los Angeles Lakers outlast the lowly Houston Rockets 124-122. The result ensured the Lakers – playing without LeBron James and Anthony Davis – stayed within a game of sixth place in the Western Conference.

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    The usual suspects – Damian Lillard (30 points), CJ McCollum (26 points) and Jusuf Nurkic (11 points and 15 rebounds) – starred as the Portland Trail Blazers upstaged the NBA-leading Utah Jazz 105-98.

     

    Jazz lose again

    The NBA-leading Jazz suffered another defeat. Usually efficient from three-point range, Utah were just 30 per cent from beyond the arc, making 12 of 40 shots. Bojan Bogdanovic missed all five of his attempts, while he was five-for-14 shooting throughout the clash.

    The Pelicans were eliminated from playoff contention after going down to the Mavs.

    Durant had 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists for the Nets but he was far from his best. The former MVP was four-for-10 shooting in 29 minutes, missing all four of his three-point shots.

     

    Kuzma comes up big

    With the Lakers trailing 122-121, Kuzma drove to the rim and made the game-winning shot 6.9 seconds from the end in Los Angeles, where the franchise unveiled their 2020 championship banner.

     

    Wednesday's results

    Los Angeles Lakers 124-122 Houston Rockets
    Atlanta Hawks 120-116 Washington Wizards
    Brooklyn Nets 128-116 San Antonio Spurs
    Cleveland Cavaliers 102-94 Boston Celtics
    Dallas Mavericks 125-107 New Orleans Pelicans
    Portland Trail Blazers 105-98 Utah Jazz

     

    76ers at Heat

    Eastern Conference leaders the Philadelphia 76ers (47-22) can clinch the number one seed with victory at the Miami Heat (38-31) on Thursday.

  • Harden unsurprised by performance on Nets return: Not to brag, but I'm really good at this game Harden unsurprised by performance on Nets return: Not to brag, but I'm really good at this game

    Brooklyn Nets superstar James Harden was left unsurprised by how quickly he adjusted on his return to the NBA, saying "not to brag or anything, but I'm really good at this game".

    Harden made his long-awaited comeback from a hamstring injury that sidelined him since April 5, the former MVP posting a double-double as the Nets beat the San Antonio Spurs 128-116 on Wednesday.

    Coming off the bench, Harden finished with 18 points on two-for-eight shooting, 11 assists, two steals and two blocks in 26 minutes against the Spurs midweek.

    "Not really," Harden replied when asked whether he was surprised by his performance. "Not to brag or anything, but I'm really good at this game. I study the game, I'm very unselfish.

    "I take the game and I play it the right way every single night. I don't try to do anything I can't do or anything that doesn't benefit our team. That mindset keeps me in a really good place."

    Harden returned from the longest injury lay-off of his stellar career, having missed 18 games for the star-studded Nets, who are eyeing their maiden NBA championship.

    It was the first time Harden came off the bench in an NBA game since the 2011-12 season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, winning the Six Man of the Year Award that campaign.

    "That sixth man role, I've mastered that as well. You know, I've got an award for that role. That role is easy, coming out and impacting the game. Doing whatever it takes to win -- whether its offensively or defensively," Harden said as the Nets moved to 46-24 for the season to remain second behind the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference.

    "But that's my role no matter what. Especially on this team -- not necessarily scoring all the time when I don't need to. Communicating, being the leader on the floor, making sure guys are in their right positions defensively. And these last few games, we've been better."

    After the Nets improved to 28-7 when Harden plays, the nine-time All-Star said: "I know I can score the basketball, but I take pride in getting guys involved and letting guys be involved in the offense. That way, defensively, they'll all be locked in and it's a lot easier.

    "I want everybody to get their shots whether they're close to the rim or three-point shots or whatever the case may be, or just get an opportunity to get a shot. That's something I've been doing throughout the course of my career, especially when I was in Houston. Obviously, Kevin [Durant] and Ky [Kyrie Irving] get their shots however they want. But my job is to get everybody else on this roster easy opportunities.

    "When I was sitting out, I had multiple conversations with Steve [Nash] on our offense and kind of putting myself in position to be successful and that means getting guys better shots. It's something that we still continue to work on and these next two days that we have between games and the week after our last regular-season game is very vital to our success in the sense of offensively and defensively getting on the same page."

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