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Can Zion and the Pelicans push their way into the playoffs?

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NEW ORLEANS — Alvin Gentry had seen enough. The players had seen enough. Management had seen enough. A change needed to be made.

The night was Dec. 17. The New Orleans Pelicans were on the wrong end of a call that sent their game against the Brooklyn Nets into overtime. New Orleans wilted defensively and lost in extra time, sending the Pelicans to a franchise-worst 13-game losing streak.

New Orleans, a team with playoff aspirations heading into the season, was 6-22. The Pelicans were one game better than the worst record in the league.

The Pelicans didn’t have Zion Williamson. Cornerstones Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball and Derrick Favors were part of a roster ravaged by injuries.

Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry wanted to play aggressive defense early on, believing they had the personnel to do so. A 114.5 defensive rating (28th in the league at that point) proved they didn’t.

Favors, returning for the Nets game after time-off following the death of his mother in November, would be key to the Pelicans’ resurgence.

Gentry made a simple change on defense with Favors, who returned for the Nets game after time-off following the death of his mother, by deciding to drop him on pick-and-rolls. This allowed the savvy pro to play the passing lanes more and take away angles for the ball handler coming off the screen.

That strategy, along with the team getting healthier, were catalysts for change.

The Pelicans are now 17-10 since the change following their 123-118 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder. That mark equates to a 52-win pace over a full season. Even before Williamson’s debut on Jan. 22, the Pelicans seemingly turned a corner.

Favors said dropping the big has allowed the Pelicans to stay at home on the weakside, which takes away the corner three that teams across the league have fallen so madly in love with. It also helps defend against dynamic rollers who just want to run to the hoop.

“(The guards) are trained to look and see that, almost like a quarterback seeing a middle linebacker, and throw it across the court for a corner three,” Favors said on Thursday night.

Favors added that being back also allows the guard to go over on a lot of screens to take away the three-point threat there as well. But with the dropping, it does open up other options for teams.

“You give up that mid-range jumper,” Favors said. “Some guys can make it, some guys not. But it’s not a layup or a three. But you have to give up something.”

Offensively, the team found a closer in Brandon Ingram, who came over in the Anthony Davis trade. The first-time All-Star began flashing the form many expected when the Los Angeles Lakers took him with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

With Ingram thriving and their starting backcourt getting healthy, The Pelicans began seeing results. Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin started to see the roster he envisioned coming together during the summer.

After the defensive change against the Timberwolves, the Pelicans put themselves back into the playoff race by winning 12 of 17 games.

But there was still a big piece missing.

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Abdel Nader’s running hook gets sent into the crowd on an unbelievable block by Zion Williamson.

Since Dec. 18, the Pelicans have a top-12 defense. While Favors played a role in that, Williamson did as well.

Williamson gave the Pelicans a second big who could drop back and play the passing lanes. While Williamson’s individual defense has room for improvement, his presence on the court has boosted the team defense.

When Williamson is on the floor, the Pelicans allow 102 points per 100 possessions. When he’s been off? The Pelicans allow 12.8 more points per 100 possessions. For comparison’s sake, when Giannis Antetokoumpo is off the floor, the Milwaukee Bucks allow 5.0 more points per 100 possessions.

“He still has a lot to learn, but he’s able to guard multiple positions,” Favors said about Williamson’s ability on the defensive end. “Able to guard bigger guys on the switch. Able to stay with guards on the perimeter. Able to rebound and protect the basket. He’s almost like a Draymond Green-type where he can switch 1-5 or 1-4 or whatever. If they do four or five pick and roll, he’s able to switch that. He’s versatile on the defensive end.”

Williamson’s effect on the offensive end has been stark. He’s averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds this season while shooting 57.6 percent from the floor.

He’s also changed how the Pelicans run their offense. Before Williamson’s debut, New Orleans averaged 4.7 post-ups a game. Since his debut, New Orleans is up to 10.7.

On Thursday, the Pelicans posted up a season-high 16 times, with Williamson responsible for 13 of those – the most any Pelicans player has posted up in a single game this season. In just 10 games, Williamson has posted up 75 times, more than any other player on the team for the entire season.

New Orleans is 5-5 in games Williamson has played, with two of those losses coming with Williamson on a minutes restriction. His availability will be key as the team pushes for the No. 8 spot.

On Thursday, Williamson finished with a career-high 32 points in the Pelicans’ loss to Oklahoma City but continued to put himself in rarified air in terms of basketball history.

“He creates mismatches,” Gentry said following the Oklahoma City loss. “He can play against bigger guys, quicker guys, smaller guys. He allows us an opportunity to take advantage of those situations.”

According to ESPN Stats and Information research, Williamson became the fourth teenager in NBA history to have consecutive 30 point games joining LeBron James, Devin Booker and Luka Doncic.

The plan now for New Orleans, as it has been all season, is to make the playoffs. When the team was 6-22, Griffin and his staff never had the mentality to sell off veterans like Holiday, Favors or JJ Redick just to get pieces and tank.

Their playoff push has a pulse, as the Pelicans have six games remaining against teams between them and the No. 8 seed. Three against the Spurs, two against the Grizzlies and one against the Blazers, with a 5-1 record against those squads.

The Pelicans have the league’s easiest schedule following the All-Star break while the Grizzlies, currently sit in the eighth spot, have the hardest. It’s still an uphill climb though, especially with New Orleans sitting 5.5 games back of Memphis.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, only one team in NBA history has been that far back at the All-Star break and still made the playoffs – the 1994-95 Denver Nuggets. That Nuggets squad still had 36 games to play after the break though; the Pelicans only have 27.

Gentry has said that his team can control their destiny – but they aren’t looking too far ahead, despite the tough odds ahead of them.

“It doesn’t matter if we look at who is beating who,” Gentry said. “We just have to take care of the business on our side. We’re coming back (after the break) with 27 games. What we have to do is try to look at each and every one of those games and play at a real, real high level.

“I still think we control our own destiny until somebody tells me otherwise. We have to take care of business on our end.”

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Russell Westbrook scores 34 points after being guarded by Rudy Gobert

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SALT LAKE CITY — The most fascinating matchup in the potential playoff preview Saturday night at Vivint Smart Home Arena pitted the tallest man on the floor against the shortest, a 7-foot-1 two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year guarding a 6-foot-3 recent MVP.

The Houston Rockets‘ unprecedented commitment to a small-ball approach forces opponents to come up with unconventional game plans, such as the Utah Jazz giving center Rudy Gobert the assignment of guarding point guard Russell Westbrook.

“I don’t know if it’s working,” Westbrook said with a grin after scoring 34 points on 14-of-26 shooting a 120-110 win that pulled the Rockets even with the Jazz for fourth place in the Western Conference standings and clinched the series tiebreaker.

“I get what I want, get whatever I want. Get to the basket and shoot, drive and kick, pace and speed. It’s something you can’t scout for. You can scout moves, you can scout for all that, but speed you can’t scout for. And that’s what I’ve got to my advantage.”

It’s the second time in the last two weeks that the Jazz have used the strategy. Westbrook scored 39 points on 18-of-33 shooting in a 114-113 home loss to the Jazz on Feb. 9, when Utah’s Bojan Bogdanovic hit a tightly contested 29-foot buzzer-beater to beat the Rockets.

The Rockets put teams in a bind by surrounding NBA scoring leader James Harden and Westbrook with 3-point threats. Opponents often blink, to use Houston coach Mike D’Antoni’s term, by trying to match up with their own small lineups.

That’s not an option the Jazz are willing to consider, considering the value of their All-Star center.

“Obviously it didn’t work, but teams are going to have to try guarding different things,” said Harden, who had 38 points on 13-of-23 shooting and seven assists. “If they want to have Rudy Gobert out there, then they’ve got to find out who he’s going to guard.”

The most logical answer, Jazz coach Quin Snyder has concluded, is to put Gobert on Westbrook. Gobert’s rim protection would be mitigated if he guarded P.J. Tucker, who is listed as a center but is utilized offensively almost solely as a 3-point shooter, pulling his man away from the basket. Gobert sags far off Westbrook, daring him to take the jumper that the All-Star guard typically hits at a subpar percentage, and limiting his opportunities as a facilitator.

“I think I would do it again,” Gobert said. “Having Russ being guarded by one of our guards is a mismatch. When I’m guarding him, at least he doesn’t get to the rim. He’s going to miss shots, he’s going to make shots, but at least he doesn’t break us down and bring the double team and find his teammates.

“We make him work. That’s pretty much it. We make him work, and he’s able to make those shots sometimes and sometimes he’s not. We’ve got to live with that and do what we do.”

Westbrook is shooting only 40.9% on midrange jumpers this season, according to NBA.com/stats, but he was 7-of-13 on those shots in Saturday’s win. The Rockets came up with wrinkles that allowed Westbrook, whose four assists matched his total from the other matchup with the Jazz this month, to basically walk into some of those shots.

For example, after the Rockets pulled within seven points with just under four minutes remaining in the game, Harden brought the ball up the floor and dished the ball to Westbrook on a dribble handoff that served as a screen. When Gobert went underneath to cut off Westbrook’s driving lane, Westbrook swished an uncontested jumper from the left elbow.

“That’s cash,” Westbrook said. “Cotton shot. Me and my pops worked on that since I was 14 years old. Cash money.”

Westbrook has consistently dominated since the Rockets fully committed to playing a small-ball style by attacking the basket. He has converted 67.8% (61-of-90) of his shots in the restricted area during the seven games Westbrook has played since former Houston center Clint Capela’s last game with the Rockets.

Westbrook was 5-of-9 in the restricted area Saturday night. Of those five baskets, the only one that came off a drive out of a halfcourt set happened when Gobert was off the floor. Westbrook finished over the Gobert after grabbing an offensive rebound, had a pair of dunks in transition and caught an alley-oop from Harden when he cut backdoor behind the Jazz big man, a highlight that happened immediately after a trash-talk exchange with a fan sitting courtside.

“Before the oop, the guy was telling me, ‘Shoot the 3! Shoot the 3! Gobert’s the best defensive player in the league’,” Westbrook said. “I said, ‘OK, OK,’ and while he was talking, I went backdoor. It happened that quick.”

The Rockets are used to facing unique defensive schemes. Harden is frequently doubled as far as 40 feet from the basket as opponents try to force the ball out of his hands, a tactic that has become less effective as Westbrook has become more comfortable with after an offseason in which he underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and switched teams after spending the previous 11 seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Houston went all in on small ball in large part to open up the floor for their two All-Star playmakers, who have led the Rockets to seven wins in the nine games since going to a 6-foot-7-and-less lineup.

“Every game is going to be different,” Harden said. “Obviously, every team’s scheme is different. If we lock in and are engaged, no matter what they’re doing defensively, they can’t stop it.”

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Sixers’ Ben Simmons to get MRI after injuring lower back

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Amid concerns of an injury, Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons will undergo an MRI on his lower back on Sunday, league sources tell ESPN.

Simmons left the Sixers’ 119-98 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks after tweaking his back in the first quarter. Sources described Simmons as emotional upon leaving the X-ray room at the Fiserv Forum late Saturday.

There is some level of concern surrounding the possible nature of the injury, league sources tell ESPN. A clearer picture is expected after testing on Sunday in Philadelphia.

Simmons left the game after playing less than five minutes, during which he tallied five points and two rebounds.

Simmons missed the Sixers’ victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Thursday with lower back soreness.

Simmons is averaging 16.9 points, 7.9 rebounds and 8.3 assists for the Sixers this season. The 76ers are currently the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to level up and be decisively great

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MILWAUKEE – With Lil Wayne’s “Kobe Bryant” song blasting throughout Fiserv Forum, reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo went through an intense pre-game workout, two hours ahead of the tip-off against the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

Once the sweaty, 6-foot-11 Milwaukee Bucks superstar wrapped up on the court, he hit the locker room for recovery with his legs stretched out in NormaTec recovery boots while studying film inside his stall next to Bucks assistant Ben Sullivan.

He then displayed the same determination, focus, and drive that he does on every night while leading the Bucks to a 119-98 victory against All-Star big man Joel Embiid and the visiting Sixers in the midst of an historic start.

“Not trying to be selfish, because people confuse focusing on yourself and selfish as two different things,” said Antetokounmpo, who ended with 31 points on 12-17 shooting from the field, 17 rebounds and eight assists.

“I’m just trying to get better because I know that my team wants me to be better and I know when getting better, I can help my team win easily, put them in the right spots easily. It just makes the game for my teammates a lot easier so that’s my mindset,” Antetokounmpo continued. “We’ve got 26 more games until the playoffs. Just try to take as much of these 26 games, play good basketball, learn as much as possible, take notes watch clips, so I can make my mind stronger and smarter and that’s pretty much it.”

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Giannis Antetokounmpo talks about how the Bucks need to get better before the playoffs and whether he can get sleep with his newborn son.

Just two nights earlier, Embiid declared himself as the “best player in the world.” But Antetokounmpo was the clear-cut best player on the floor in their head-to-head matchup Saturday as the Bucks improved to an NBA-best 48-8.

“At the end of the day, I feel like Joel is a great guy. Obviously, when I go on the court, I’m going to go as hard as I can but off the court, I like him. I like his personality, he’s a down to earth guy,” Antetokounmpo said of Embiid. “We were good teammates in the All-Star game, but at the end of the day, every player in the NBA should feel like he’s the best player. Like who am I to tell him he’s not the best player in the world? Who are we to tell him that he’s not the best player in the world?

“Everybody should feel that way but at the end of the day, you’ve got to go on the court and if you feel that way you’ve got to show it so there’s nothing wrong with Joel feeling like he’s the best player in the world,” he added.

Embiid was held scoreless in the opening quarter, but contributed 17 points with 11 boards and four assists without All-Star teammate Ben Simmons, who exited with 7 minutes, 16 seconds remaining in the opening quarter with lower back tightness.

But Embiid struggled with efficiency on offense, making only 5-of-18 field goals and committing four turnovers. With Embiid as Antetokounmpo’s primary defender, Antetokounmpo went 5-for-8 from the field with 12 points — his best game of the season against Embiid’s defense.

Outside of Antetokounmpo’s 8-for-27 performance with 18 points on Christmas Day, he averages 39.2 points on 57 percent shooting in five other games versus Embiid’s 76ers, under Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer, per ESPN Stats & Information research.

The Bucks scored 54 points on 44 possessions when Antetokounmpo had a touch — an average of 1.23 points per play. According to Second Spectrum, Antetokounmpo made eight uncontested shots, which is the most in a game in his career, regular season or playoffs. He made four field goals in the paint, 2 mid-range and then 2 3-pointers – including a trey at 10:14 in the fourth which he followed up with a Steph Curry-style shimmy celebration dance.

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Giannis Antetokounmpo knocks down the 3-pointer then does a little shimmy down the court.

Milwaukee centers Brook Lopez and Robin Lopez drew the majority of the defensive assignments versus Embiid, which prompted Bucks guard Eric Bledsoe to declare Brook as the “Defensive Player of the Year.”

But following the Bucks’ 18th 20-point win of the season, it was their MVP who proved to be the star among stars. His 11 consecutive points out of halftime followed by a string of assists helped seal the win for Milwaukee as they’ve now won 16 of their last 18 games.

Antetokounmpo has established himself as the best scorer in the NBA in two facets: in the paint, and on the fast break.

When it comes to points in the paint this season, Antetokounmpo leads all scorers with 17.9 interior points per game this season. Antetokounmpo made 7-of-8 baskets in the paint Saturday night against the 76ers for 14 points.

When it comes to points on the break, Antetokounmpo leads all scorers with 6.3 fastbreak points per game this season. Against Philadelphia, Antetokounmpo scored nine points on the break.

And according to Second Spectrum, the Bucks scored 54 points on 44 possessions when Giannis Antetokounmpo had a touch on Saturday, an average of 1.23 points per play. By comparison, The 76ers scored 27 points on 37 possessions when Joel Embiid had a touch on Saturday night, an average of 0.73 points per play.

On Saturday, that ultimately led to the Bucks earning their 18th 20-point win of the season. That’s tied for the 3rd-most through 60 games in NBA history, according to ESPN Stats and Info. Decisive wins, led by a decisive offensive centerpiece.

“That’s what we want him to do,” Bucks All-Star Khris Middleton said of Antetokounmpo. “We want him to play aggressive and prove that he’s the best player on the court every night and we’re going to be right behind him backing him up.”

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