NBA insider takeaways: What matters most from a stacked weekend slate

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Monday, February 27, 2023

This weekend featured five high-stakes NBA showdowns on ESPN and ABC.

The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers faced off in a huge Eastern Conference tilt Saturday night in a game that came down to a last-second 3-pointer by Jayson Tatum -- and a three-quarters-court Hail Mary by Joel Embiid that would have sent the game to overtime if it was made just a tenth of a second earlier.

On Sunday, the Milwaukee Bucks topped the (still Kevin Durant-less) Phoenix Suns to extend their winning streak to 14 games -- even with Giannis Antetokounmpo sidelined with a quad injury.

The Los Angeles Lakers successfully mounted a 27-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday afternoon on the back of a monster 30-point, 15-rebound game from Anthony Davis, continuing their late-season push into the playoff picture.

Behind Klay Thompson's 32 points, the short-handedGolden State Warriors rallied in the fourth quarter to defeat the Minnesota Timberwolves, 109-104.

And the best was saved for last as the Denver Nuggets defeated the LA Clippers134-124 in overtime. Nikola Jokic had 40 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists, improving his team's record to 23-0 when he has recorded a triple-double this season.

ESPN NBA insiders are breaking down the top storylines from a stacked weekend.

Denver Nuggets 134, LA Clippers 124

This time, the LA Clippers showed up in Denver and fought.

The problem is Nikola Jokic showed up once again as well.

In a big spot for the Clippers to gauge where they stand in the West with their new players, LA had a chance to win in Denver for the first time since Christmas night in 2020.

But in what was a scintillating duel between Kawhi Leonard and Jokic, the two-time regular season MVP beat the two-time Finals MVP -- again.

Like the rest of the NBA, Jokic is a major problem. But for the Clippers, the Nuggets improved to 12-2 against the Clippers since the Clippers' playoff bubble collapse started in Game 5 against the Nuggets in 2020.

Jokic dropped 40 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists to lead the Nuggets to a 134-124 overtime win over the Clippers. Jokic had his third 40-point triple-double this season, most by a non-guard in a single season. He also was clutch, scoring 15 points in his last 14 minutes of regulation and overtime combined and having two offensive rebounds in OT to turn the Clippers away.

Leonard did his best to beat the favorite to win a third straight MVP by hitting all four of his shots and scoring 12 of his 33 in the fourth quarter to help the Clippers overcome an 18-point deficit and take the lead in the fourth. Leonard and Jokic exchanged haymakers like it was a playoff duel.

This was the kind of fight that was nowhere to be found the last time the Clippers were in Denver when they trailed 66-32 at the half before suffering a humiliating 122-91 loss on Jan. 5.

But Sunday night was yet another reminder for the Clippers of who likely will be standing in their way if they are to come out of the West -- Jokic.

-- Ohm Youngmisuk

Golden State Warriors 109, Minnesota Timberwolves 104

With the Western Conference standings congested, Sunday's matchup between the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves was important for both teams. They entered the night both with .500 records and just one game back from sixth place -- the coveted last spot to avoid the play-in tournament.

The Warriors defeated the Timberwolves, 109-104, and are a half-game up on the Utah Jazz for the seventh seed and just a half-game behind the Dallas Mavericks for sixth.

"This is a huge win, not only for the standings, but for the confidence of the guys," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. "That was a team win. Everybody came in there and competed and played well ... against the team we're tied with in the standings, just an enormous win."

The Warriors needed this win, not just to give them a little more of a cushion in the standings, but because their upcoming schedule doesn't give them much room for error.

Eighteen of their final 21 games are against Western Conference opponents. Eight are against teams already in a playoff spot, and six more are against teams fighting for the play-in. Eleven are on the road, where the Warriors have struggled all season long (7-23).

Golden State is also missing three key players. Stephen Curry has been out since Feb. 4 with a lower left leg injury. Andrew Wiggins has missed the last four games due to a family matter. Draymond Green was ruled out of the last two games with a right knee contusion. The Warriors are also without Gary Payton II and Andre Iguodala.

While Curry is scheduled to be re-evaluated this week, there's no update on a return date. Wiggins' absence is indefinite, with the team giving him the space and time he needs to decide when he's ready to return. Green underwent testing on his knee Sunday night, but his status remains unknown. Timelines for Payton and Iguodala are also undecided.

The Warriors are relying on Klay Thompson, Jordan Poole and Donte DiVincenzo to give them an offensive boost. The trio secured them the win over the Timberwolves. The Warriors continue to struggle with consistency from night to night, and sometimes a quarter-to-quarter basis.

But Sunday saw them finally close out a tight game. That will be needed moving forward as their margin of error continues to shrink.

"It's huge," Thompson said. "Every game matters, but especially from here on out. The West is jammed packed right now."

-- Kendra Andrews

With All-NBA centers Rudy Gobert (illness) and Karl-Anthony Towns (calf strain) both sidelined, a less heralded Minnesota big man took center stage Sunday. Making just his 11th start of the season, Naz Reid had a career-high 30 points on 12-for-22 shooting, nine rebounds and five steals against the Golden State Warriors.

Even before Sunday night, Reid was averaging 15.6 PPG and 7.2 RPG as a starting center. Of Reid's starts, just one has come at power forward alongside Gobert. The other 10 have been as a center with both Timberwolves star big men unavailable. And it's not just empty stats. Despite Sunday's loss, Minnesota has gone a remarkable 7-4 in those games, with Reid's production a key factor -- which will make the 23-year-old Reid a fascinating free agent this summer.

Because the Timberwolves exercised Reid's minimum salary team option for this season, he'll be an unrestricted free agent. Minnesota can offer an extension of up to $58 million over four years through June 30, or pay him any amount using full Bird rights in free agency. However, that decision is complicated if the Timberwolves don't want to pay the luxury tax.

If Minnesota waives forward Taurean Prince, whose $7.65 million salary is non-guaranteed through June 28 according to ESPN's Bobby Marks, that would give the Timberwolves between $23 and $24 million to spend without going over the projected 2023-24 tax line. Minnesota may want to use some of that to re-sign two other free agents -- Nickeil Alexander-Walker (restricted) and Jaylen Nowell -- or on an outside free agent using their non-taxpayer midlevel exception.

As a result, if a team with cap space like the San Antonio Spurs views Reid as a starter, his free agency could get interesting in a hurry. On Sunday, Reid provided yet more evidence that he is good enough to start in the NBA.

-- Kevin Pelton

Los Angeles Lakers 111, Dallas Mavericks 108

It shouldn't be so hard for a team with two of basketball's best creators to get a shot off at the most critical moment of a game. But it has been a big problem for the Dallas Mavericks in the infancy stages of the partnership between Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving.

There is a long list of reasons the Mavs blew a 27-point lead Sunday afternoon against the Lakers, who pulled off the biggest comeback of the season on Dallas' home court. But it came down to clutch execution, or lack thereof, and the All-Star duo failed to finish for the third time in four games together.

This instance was especially egregious. Coming out of a timeout trailing by three points with 18.1 seconds remaining, Doncic committed a turnover because he forgot he could go into the backcourt to catch an inbounds pass.

"It's my bad," Doncic said postgame.

Doncic also took the blame after a Feb. 11 loss to the Sacramento Kings, saying he should have passed the ball back to a sizzling Irving instead of firing up a tough step-back down three points with seconds remaining in overtime. They shared the blame after a Feb. 13 home loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, when they passed the ball back and forth a few times before committing a turnover with the game on the line, showing too much mutual respect.

"It's just a process," Irving said Sunday. "I think as much as I would love for it to work and for us to be on the winning side -- I think he would like to be on the winning side as well -- we have only a few games together. Obviously, in the second half of this season, everything is going to be a little more heightened pressure-wise. We welcome that, but again, our mistakes and things that we're learning are going to be in game.

"Hard lessons that we're going to take, but the process itself is something that I can't be mad at or be angry at or be confused about who's fault it is or anything like that."

-- Tim MacMahon

It was a one-point game midway through the first quarter Sunday when Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham had no choice but to pull Jarred Vanderbilt, already saddled with two fouls.

In a blink, with Vanderbilt on the bench, the Dallas Mavericks pushed their lead to 12 by the end of the quarter. They got it all the way up to 27 midway through the second as Vanderbilt still sat.

With the Mavs' cushion at 14 to open up the third quarter, Ham put the 6-foot-9, wiry-strong Vanderbilt back on Luka Doncic. Vanderbilt had four fouls to burn in the final 24 minutes before he'd foul out, so why not let him do what L.A. envisioned he would do when they traded for him: make basketball a living hell for the opposing team's best player.

"I really was just trying to up the intensity, be a little bit more physical," Vanderbilt said after the Lakers' 111-108 comeback win against the Mavericks. "I knew we needed it at that point. Just trying to bring the energy, bring the effort and just try to change the game momentum-wise."

Vanderbilt had 8 points, 8 rebounds and 3 steals in the third, hounding Doncic, pouncing on the Mavs' passing lanes and playing with an inertia that rubbed off on his teammates.

"I mean, to have a guy like that who can affect the game in so many different ways and then guard the other team's best player for however long he was on the court is great," Austin Reaves said. "I'm glad to have him."

Vanderbilt finished with 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting and registered season highs in rebounds (17) and steals (4).

In a game where L.A. was already missing starting point guard D'Angelo Russell (ankle injury) and had to overcome LeBron James suffering a right foot injury in the second half, Vanderbilt seemingly single-handedly turned the tide.

"That's why he's here: to create havoc with his energy and his efforts," Ham said.

In a way, Sunday's comeback was a microcosm of what the Lakers hope for their entire season after starting off 2-10 and now making a push for the playoffs.

Vanderbilt, and what he represents, is at the center of both turnarounds.

While Russell has already missed time with an injury, Malik Beasley is still looking to find consistency with his shot and Mo Bamba has a more limited role in the rotation, Vanderbilt has produced just by going all out.

He said he is so amped for the opportunity that he has to calm himself down in the pregame locker room by reading or meditating, because he is usually bouncing off the walls, waiting for his chance to contribute.

"If I know I have a big matchup that night, that already itself kind of gets me going," Vanderbilt said. "And I just love this game. There's not much that I need to get going. I get to play basketball for a living and that's enough energy for me right there."

At just 23 years old and with a cap-friendly $4.7 million contract for next season, Vanderbilt could very well be a part of the Lakers' turnaround beyond this season.

The win -- L.A.'s third in a row and fourth in five games since Vanderbilt suited up -- brought the Lakers a game out of the No. 10 spot and just 2 games behind Dallas for No. 6.

Vanderbilt's immediate impact already has his team imagining what's next, with a little more time together.

"We tell him something and he embraces it and picks it up and comprehends immediately," Ham said. "We're just happy to have him. He's that tall, that lanky, physical, live body that we've been looking for and now we have him."

-- Dave McMenamin

Milwaukee Bucks 104, Phoenix Suns 101

Despite Giannis Antetokounmpo's recent injury woes, the Milwaukee Bucks keep on rolling. They secured their 14th consecutive victory Sunday afternoon, a 104-101 victory over the Phoenix Suns to extend the longest winning streak in the NBA this season.

Antetokounmpo was sidelined Sunday after leaving each of the previous two games in the first quarter with an injury, but Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said before the game the team was confident Antetokounmpo's quad injury would keep him out only for a few days.

But the Bucks have been more than capable lately of extending their winning streak without the two-time MVP, thanks to a combination of lockdown defense and a roster that is suddenly as deep as any contender in the league.

Jrue Holiday led the way with 33 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds while providing relentless defense down the stretch on Suns guard Devin Booker. The combination of Holiday's efforts, Brook Lopez as a defensive force in the paint and Khris Middleton's offensive execution down the stretch allowed the Bucks to respond every time the Suns made a run.

Milwaukee outscored Phoenix 13-6 in clutch time to secure the win, including six points from Holiday, a pair of timely assists from Middleton and timely rim protection from Lopez -- the Suns shot 5-for-16 all afternoon when contested by Lopez.

During clutch time, Phoenix went 2-for-7 from the field for seven points while the Bucks converted 4 of 5 shots.

But it wasn't just the Bucks stars that showed up to lead the team to victory Sunday.

They also got a meaningful contribution from trade deadline acquisition Jae Crowder, who hit a pair of corner 3s in the fourth quarter against his former team. Veteran forward Joe Ingles, who did not make his season debut until December while recovering from a torn ACL, was figured into Milwaukee's closing lineup plans Sunday.

The Bucks returned their top nine rotation players from last year's squad and were able to add both Crowder and Ingles without making any subtractions to that rotation. Antetokounmpo was playing at a level worthy of MVP consideration during the first half before the injury, and once he's back in the mix at full strength, this Bucks roster looks deep enough to support their star for another extended playoff run.

"One of the deepest teams I've ever been a part of," Crowder said after Sunday's game. "We're all aware of it and we're all being selfless in our roles and sacrificing for one another ... So I just catch myself looking like, 'goodness gracious this is a deep team.' We got a lot of different combinations that we can throw out."

-- Jamal Collier

Boston Celtics 110, Philadelphia 76ers 107

For so much of this season, the Celtics have had a rotating cast of characters going on and off the injury report on a nightly basis. Because of that, there haven't been too many occasions when newly promoted coach Joe Mazzulla has had to decide how to dole out minutes across the NBA's deepest roster.

Coming out of the All-Star break, though, Boston is finally whole. And as a result, it's led to some hard choices. If Saturday night's 110-107 win over the Philadelphia 76ers proved anything, however, it's that Mazzulla doesn't have a choice about one thing: Derrick White has to remain an integral part of what Boston is doing.

White finished Saturday night's win with a nearly flawless line: 18 points on 7-for-9 shooting with a rebound, two assists, a block and no turnovers in 25 minutes. Even more telling: Boston was plus-25 in those 25 minutes White was on the court.

In many ways, White is emblematic of everything this Celtics team is about.

White isn't a flashy player. He doesn't throw down highlight dunks or make show-stopping passes. But what he does do -- and do consistently -- is stack one winning play on top of another. He's done that over and over again in recent weeks, allowing Boston to keep churning out victories even while Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown both missed significant time with ankle and facial injuries, respectively.

And yet, over the final few minutes of Thursday's overtime win against Indiana and for all but the final few seconds of Saturday night's win in Philly, White was watching from the bench. Again, there are hard choices to make across the board -- one of the obvious benefits of having a roster like the one Mazzulla has at his disposal.

But with the way White has played, he's more than making a case that he should be one of the five guys out there in the game's biggest moments and that, no matter what happens with Mazzulla's rotation, he needs to be a massive part of it.

-- Tim Bontemps

When people think about Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series between the 76ers and Toronto Raptors in 2019, they think of Kawhi Leonard's miraculous game-winning shot.

What they don't think of is that, in a game Philadelphia lost by two points, Greg Monroe was minus-9 in two minutes played.

Similarly, when people will think back on Saturday night's instant classic between the Boston Celtics and 76ers at Wells Fargo Center, they'll think about Jayson Tatum's tremendous stepback 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds to go ... and Joel Embiid's 70-foot heave that went in, only to not count because he let it go a moment after the buzzer sounded.

What they won't think of is that, in a game Philadelphia lost by three points, Paul Reed was minus-14 in five minutes.

When it comes to the 76ers and the backup-center minutes behind Embiid, time is a flat circle. No matter how many different ways Philadelphia has tried to solve the problem -- and, boy, have the 76ers tried to solve it. They are no closer to it today than they were when Embiid first stepped on the court seven years ago.

The irony of Saturday night's loss for Philadelphia is that two big reasons the 76ers blew what once was a 15-point lead were the 76ers falling apart when Reed was on the floor in place of Embiid, and Al Horford -- once given over $100 million to ensure Philadelphia would always have a good center on the court, and who is playing in the final year of that contract the 76ers gave him -- hitting five second-half 3-pointers.

Embiid was dominant throughout Saturday's game. He finished with 41 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocked shots in 39 minutes, 49 seconds. He was the best player on the court, and he was unstoppable whenever he got the ball.

And yet, like so many times before, Philadelphia couldn't manage to hold on in the few minutes he wasn't on the court. If the 76ers want to write a different ending than having a fifth second-round exit in six seasons, they'll have to finally find a solution to their eternal dilemma: surviving the handful of minutes Embiid needs to sit.

-- Bontemps

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