Post-All-Star Break is the time when teams make their push for a spot in the NBA Playoffs. Every game becomes even more important as teams jockey for seed positioning and players look to make their cases for why they should win an individual NBA award or be named to an All-NBA team.
The road to the NBA postseason starts now and the lights are as bright as can be with last night being the first set of Friday night games of the second half of the season. These games did not disappoint as a handful of them quite literally had some second-half surges that flipped the outcome of those games as they ended in an exciting fashion.
With a promising second half to the season ahead, here are some of the top performers in the first slate of post-All-Star Weekend Friday night games!
A tale of two takeaways. Coming out of the All-Star break, seeing Joel Embiid listed to start in yesterday’s game had to be encouraging for Philadelphia 76ers fans. Especially when you take into consideration that he and Ben Simmons were ruled out of the All-Star Game due to Covid-protocols. Then watching him drop 23 points in 20 minutes showed signs that the MVP frontrunner was looking to continue his dominant run in the 2nd half of the season on the road to a playoff push.
Unfortunately for the Sixers organization and all NBA fans alike, it was practically cringe-worthy to watch Embiid go down midway through the 3rd quarter with a leg injury that left him writhing in pain after a big-time dunk. Nonetheless, he was able to walk off the court but did not finish out the game. The 76ers went on to blowout the Washington Wizards 127-101 on the back of Shake Milton and Furkan Korkmaz giving them 18 apiece off the bench.
Rough loss for a Washington Wizards team that went into the All-Star Break feeling pretty good about themselves after notching wins over the LA Clippers, the Denver Nuggets twice, the Los Angeles Lakers, and Portland Trailblazers in their last ten games. Tough night offensively as only Westbrook, Bradley Beal (19 points), and Robin Lopez (10 points) were the only Wizards’ players to score in the double digits. Big night for Westbrook though as he nearly recorded a double-double but struggled from the free-throw line and was not relatively efficient, but such things come with living the life of a high-volume mid-range shooter (led all players in shots attempted, next closest was Shake Milton with 14 shot attempts).
Near triple-double for the big fella down low as he led all scorers with 28 points and came up clutch in the final minutes of the game, scoring Denver’s final five points to help the Nuggets hold off the Memphis Grizzlies 103-102. With Jamal Murray struggling to score (1-of-14 from the floor), the bulk of the scoring came from Denver’s frontcourt. Alongside Jokic, Will Barton and Michael Porter Jr. chipped in with 21 points apiece with seven combined threes on the night.
To call the foul or not call the foul, that is the question as this game ended with a controversial non-call on Jokic as Grizzlies’ guard Ja Morant went up for a go-ahead shot attempt that would have stolen the game for Memphis. Nonetheless, Brandon Clarke was playing like a maniac in this game, giving the Grizzlies an offensive pop off the bench with 20 points off the bench while being very active on the defensive end. Dillon Brooks also had 20 points on the night while shooting 4-of-6 from three.
We also got to see Justise Winslow off the bench for 22 minutes which should be encouraging for Memphis fans considering he had not played a single minute for the Grizzlies since being acquired from the Miami Heat via trade last season. This team could be pretty interesting at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture if they can get significant minutes from Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. who they hope to get back at some point this season after spending the entire first half of the year on the shelf while nursing a left knee injury.
Blowout City in the Bayou and unfortunately for Collin Sexton, the Cleveland Cavaliers were on the wrong side of this loss. Sexton had a solid night overall despite struggling from three, but there was also the newly acquired veteran guard Quinn Cook who played well with 13 points in 17 minutes off the bench while shooting 3-of-4 from three on the night. Only Sexton, Cook, and Larry Nance Jr. (11 points) scored in double figures as the Cavaliers were only able to muster up 82 points.
Big time showing for the frontcourt duo of Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson as they combined for 51 points and 13 rebounds. Ingram was practically unstoppable inside the arc as he was essentially 8-of-8 on non-three-point attempts. The glaring stat in this game was the team rebounding. The rebounding battle was drastically lopsided as New Orleans outrebounded Cleveland 70 to 33 with Steven Adams leading the way with 17 boards. The Pelicans also got good production from their young guys in Jackson Hayes (13 points) and Nickeil Alexander-Walker (15 points) in their 20+ minutes off the bench.
Shout out to the grizzled veterans in Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Butler came at his former team with full force, notching 28 points alongside Dragic who gave the Heat 25 points off the bench. The most intriguing part about Dragic’s night was not how many points he got, but rather when he got them. Dragic was essentially cold through three quarters with only five points before exploding for 20 points in the 4th quarter to help beat the Chicago Bulls 101-90. This victory gives Miami their ninth win in their last ten games.
All-Star Zach LaVine is a serious problem for the rest of the league. As a guy who is proving this season that he is not all dunks, the man went 6-of-8 from three after struggling a bit in the Three-Point Contest this past weekend. Relatively efficient night across the board and even showed some defensive flashes with two big blocks. LaVine’s backcourt mate, Coby White, was held in check (eight points and five rebounds), but he did get some help from Lauri Markkanen who has been impressive in the two games he has played this week since coming back from a shoulder injury.
It was also noteworthy that Thaddeus Young, who may be an interesting talking point heading into the trade deadline, had a double-double with 13 points and ten rebounds. Maybe a guy the Bulls could shop to acquire some valuable draft capital or even a young, impressionable piece to grow alongside this core that Chicago is trying to develop.
The Orlando Magic never stood a chance in this game. No Aaron Gordon (left ankle injury). No Evan Fournier (strained left groin injury). No Terrence Ross (sore left knee). And of course, they are still missing Markelle Fultz who has been ruled out for the season with an ACL injury, and their rookie point guard Cole Anthony is still out with a fractured rib injury that has kept him off the court since February 9th.
This game was basically Nikola Vucevic versus the San Antonio Spurs as the only other player to score in double-figures was Dwayne Bacon with 15 points. Nikola Vucevic is another interesting name as a two-time All-Star that could be shopped around in the coming weeks as we approach the NBA trade deadline. This Orlando team has just been smacked by the injury bug and this may be their best shot and flipping assets Vucevic, Fournier, and Aaron Gordon into future assets to kick off the rebuilding process for this franchise.
No DeMar DeRozan and the Spurs still got the job done as they took down the short-handed Orlando Magic 104-77 on the back of 19 points in 20 minutes off the bench from Rudy Gay. Mix that with 17 points apiece from the young backcourt of Dejounte Murray and Derrick White as well as Patty Mills who put up 13 points off the bench. The NBA world is aware that the Spurs are actively shopping former All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, but it does not seem to be affecting the team’s play on the court and some would argue that they have actually been better with him off the floor.
The rest of the Western Conference should keep an eye on San Antonio as they have not made an in-season trade since 2014 when they traded Nando De Colo to the Toronto Raptors for Austin Daye. This team could be a real player in the playoff picture with DeRozan leading the way, their young guys continuing to develop together on the court, and then pair them with whatever potential assets they can acquire through moving Aldridge. Watch out for Gregg Popovich and the Spurs in the second half of this season.
Kevin Porter Jr.
The G-League call-ups made some noise in Houston in spite of the 114-99 loss to the Utah Jazz. In the two games Kevin Porter Jr. has played in since being called up from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, he is averaging 13 points, five rebounds, and ten assists along with a total of four steals and three blocks in those games. Porter Jr. may have had a rough fallout in Cleveland but so far, he has been an unexpected young bright spot for a Houston team that is internally battling with whether or not to remain competitive or to kick off a post-James Harden rebuild. With Christian Wood coming back from injury and guys like PJ Tucker and Victor Oladipo on the move, these performances from Porter Jr. may be just the validation the organization needs to plunge into a rebuild.
Another interesting call up was Kenyon Martin Jr., son of former NBA big man and the first overall pick in the 2000 NBA Draft. Martin Jr. was part of Rio Grande’s one-two punch next to Porter Jr. in the G-League and it seems to be continuing on the main roster. Martin Jr. came off the bench and gave the Rockets 15 points and ten points in 29 minutes. Considering the fact that Oladipo, Wood, Tucker, John Wall, and Eric Gordon did not play in this game, Houston’s young guys were pretty impressive as they held their own against the Jazz who currently have the best record in the entire NBA (this does, unfortunately, push Houston’s losing streak to 15 straight though).
The All-Star duo of Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley combined for 48 points while shooting 6-of-15 from three in a solid victory over an undermanned Houston Rockets team. Rudy Gobert had yet another double-double with 15 points and 13 rebounds along with six blocks in the game. With Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid potentially missing time and Myles Turner and the Indiana Pacers struggling in the Eastern Conference, Rudy Gobert continues to make a strong case to win his third Defensive Player of the Year award.
Everyone in the Jazz starting lineup scored double-digit points and of course, Sixth Man of the Year frontrunner Jordan Clarkson made his presence felt with 15 points in 21 minutes off the bench. Utah has relatively overachieved all season and they look to continue to thrive in the second half of the season after a dominant start to the year (they are the only team left that still has not reached double-digit losses yet).
23 big ones in the first half! But unfortunately for Malcolm Brogdon, it is about how you finish not how you start. Brogdon would only score six points in the second half as the Indiana Pacers choked away an 86-74 lead with 10:04 left in the 4th quarter as they quite literally threw the ball away in the final seconds as Kentavious Caldwell-Pope came up with a big steal with 9.5 seconds left to essentially ice the game.
All-Star forward and 2021 Skills Challenge Champion Domantas Sabonis did end the game with 20 points and 14 rebounds, but he was 0-of-3 from three and was on the receiving end of the pass that led to the game-sealing steal. Indiana continues to head in the wrong direction and for Pacers fans, the hope should be that Indiana gets quality play from Caris LeVert and that hopefully, TJ Warren comes back from injury in time to help this team make a push for the playoffs.
With no Anthony Davis, the Lakers’ big men in Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell came up big off the bench while playing heavy minutes. Kuzma was the hot hand for Los Angeles as he led the team in scoring and rebounding on the night. Most of his points came in the 4th quarter as he got 15 of his 24 points just in the 4th. His late surge is what led the late rally for the Lakers after they spent practically the entire game behind (they did not take the lead for the first time until there was 6:33 left in the game when Kuzma hit a three to put the Lakers up 91-90).
Harrell also chipped in 17 points along with six rebounds and three blocks in this game. Then of course there is LeBron James who had a quiet 18 points and ten assists on 5-of-13 shooting from the floor and 1-of-4 shooting from three. He did lead all players with 11 free throw attempts as he hit seven of the 11 attempts. Not a great win but a win nonetheless as the Lakers look to keep the ship afloat as they await Anthony Davis’ return from nursing a calf strain.