PHILADELPHIA — Joel Embiid‘s night started with a loss and ended with a win in perhaps his most impressive playoff performance to date.
The Philadelphia 76ers‘ 118-102 Game 2 victory over Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday began shortly after the NBA announced Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic won league MVP honors, with Embiid finishing second. Jokic soundly defeated Embiid, with 971 voting points to Embiid’s 586.
That didn’t stop the raucous Wells Fargo Center crowd, itching for a win after the Hawks took the series opener Sunday, from showering Embiid with “MVP! MVP!” chants all night long as he put up a career playoff high 40 points, along with 13 rebounds to tie the series at 1-1.
“It’s disappointing because as a player, you work hard for moments like this,” said Embiid, who in April said there was “no doubt” he should win the award. “But then again, it’s out of my control. There’s nothing I can do about it. You just got to come out every year and just be ready and do my job.
“But I’m focused on the playoffs, I’m focused on winning the championship. Like I’ve been saying all season, we got a good chance. So I’m not worried about those awards and stuff. If and when I’m holding that [Larry O’Brien] Trophy, anything else won’t matter.”
Jokic was the first center to win the award since 2000 when Shaquille O’Neal earned it for the Los Angeles Lakers. Embiid is trying to be the first player to lead the Sixers to a title since 1983 when another center, Moses Malone, helped Philadelphia sweep the Lakers out of the Finals, coming through on his “Fo’, fo’ and fo'” declaration.
And he’s trying to do it without two healthy knees. Embiid was listed as questionable leading up to tipoff, as he’s still recovering from a torn meniscus in his right knee that he suffered in the first round against Washington.
“No excuses,” said Tobias Harris when asked about Embiid’s mindset. “He understands that. This is the playoffs. The way the NBA season was, I don’t think anybody is 100%. So, when he steps on the floor, he has that attitude and that mentality that it’s, ‘win.’
“As a whole group, we all have that tonight, but tonight, you just saw the dominance of him as a player.”
Harris also said Embiid’s defense was instrumental in keeping Trae Young in check in Philadelphia’s pick-and-roll coverages. The Hawks guard finished with 21 points on 6-for-16 shooting, 11 assists and four turnovers after controlling Game 1 with 35 points and 10 dimes.
“I’m trying to do the best I can, limited movement and all. I’m trying to be a better presence around the rim. Obviously not being 100% doesn’t help, but tonight I just wanted to be big,” Embiid said. “It’s tough because if I come up, they throw the lob. If I stay back, it goes with that floater.”
Beyond his 7-foot, 280-pound frame taking up Young’s room to roam, Embiid — known for his clever comebacks — tried to outwit the Hawks’ offense.
“Playing a game, you can call that, of cat and mouse,” he said. “Faking and going back. Just trying to keep them guessing.”
Embiid also had a pretty good hunch of his own before the game when he approached Sixers backup guard Shake Milton, who had just 17 total points in the postseason on 4-for-19 shooting coming into Tuesday.
“For some reason, I felt like he was going to be needed, so I told him before the game to get ready,” Embiid said.
Milton would go on to score 14 points on 5-for-8 shooting — even outscoring Young 14-10 in the second half — to help Philly break it open. He also helped erase the damage done by the Hawks’ bench in the first half when Atlanta’s reserves, led by Kevin Huerter (20 points on 8-for-10 shooting), outscored the Sixers’ subs 32-0.
“I love all these guys,” Embiid said. “[Milton is] one of them and I believe in all of them because I want to win it all, and I’m going to need them to do so. So I’m extremely happy for him.”
Embiid’s coach, Doc Rivers, was happy for the big man, knowing the look of an MVP performance when he sees one.
“It was awesome,” Rivers said. “I remember being on the other side of the night that David Robinson got the MVP and we had to play [Hakeem] Olajuwon. I was on that Spur team.”
Robinson received the trophy at center court before Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals back in 1995. Then Olajuwon put up 41 points and 16 rebounds and the Rockets won by 10.
“That didn’t go well for us,” Rivers said. “Tonight, you felt like that was Joel. He was that magnificent.”
New Orleans Pelicans officially name Willie Green as next head coach
The New Orleans Pelicans officially named Willie Green as their next head coach Thursday.
Green is coming off a stint as an assistant with the Phoenix Suns, who just made a run to the NBA Finals, which delayed the timing of the Pelicans’ announcement.
“After an extensive and collaborative search, Willie stood out among an impressive group of candidates as the best person to lead our team moving forward,” Pelicans governor Gayle Benson said in a statement. “We are very happy to welcome Willie as our new head coach and we look forward to working with him to guide our team on the court as we work towards bringing a championship to New Orleans.”
Pelicans executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin called Green, a 12-year NBA veterans one of the “most respected assistant coaches in the NBA.”
“He brings a vast amount of basketball knowledge and experience to our team as both a coach and former player, along with exceptional leadership qualities and an innate ability to connect with players, staff and fans alike,” Griffin said in a statement.
Green spent three seasons as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors before joining Phoenix.
“I want to thank Mrs. Benson, David Griffin, and the entire Pelicans organization for having faith in me to lead this talented group of players moving forward,” Green said. “It’s a blessing and an honor to get this opportunity in a special place like New Orleans. I look forward to getting to work and immersing myself and my family into the local community.”
As a player, Green made the playoffs in seven of his 12 seasons including the lone year in New Orleans (2010-11), one of just seven playoff trips the team has made in franchise history.
That season, Green made it on a team coached by Monty Williams and led by point guard Chris Paul. Now the Pelicans are hiring Green away from a Suns team led by Williams and Paul.
Green replaces Stan Van Gundy, who mutually agreed to leave the Pelicans after just one season. The Pelicans went 31-41 last season, a disappointing result after the season started with playoff aspirations. In the end, New Orleans didn’t even make the Western Conference play-in.
At 39, Green becomes the third-youngest coach in the NBA behind Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault and Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins.
Thousands turn out for Milwaukee Bucks championship parade
MILWAUKEE — Thousands of fans lined downtown Milwaukee streets on Thursday to catch a glimpse of their beloved Bucks in a parade to celebrate the city’s first NBA championship in half a century.
Six police officers on horseback clopped past cheering fans at the head of a procession that included a hook-and-ladder fire truck, occasionally blaring its horn, and open-air buses and flatbed trucks carrying Bucks stars, including Finals MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday, and the trophy they captured Tuesday night with a Game 6 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
Fans could be heard chanting, “Bucks in 6,” an odd but beloved rallying cry with roots in a former Bucks player’s fruitless prediction in 2013 that the team would take down the playoffs’ top seed at the time.
Antetokounmpo held his son, 1-year-old Liam, atop a bus as fans along the route chanted “MVP!” Later, he shot a basketball into the crowd.
“Milwaukee, we did it, baby! We did it!” Antetokounmpo said to a cheering crowd in Deer District, the area outside the Bucks’ Fiserv Forum. “This is our city, this is our city. Man, we did it! Unbelievable.”
Neil and Rachana Bhatia, both 34 and from suburban Waukesha, brought 1-month-old son Zain to Deer District, saying they wanted to give Zain an early taste of being a Bucks fan.
Neil Bhatia called winning the title “surreal.”
“It unifies the city and puts the city on a global stage,” he said. “It’s great for the city and the state. It’s just bringing everybody together to celebrate something that hasn’t happened in 50 years.”
Said longtime Bucks fan and Milwaukee native Dameon Ellzey: “In my neighborhood, you could hear everybody on their porches screaming. Black, white, Asian. In a city like Milwaukee, that’s big.”
Milwaukee has long ranked among the most segregated cities in America. Team president Peter Feigin called it “the most segregated, racist place” he had ever experienced, remarks he later softened. As the Bucks drove toward a championship this year, some people were cheered by the diversity of the massive crowds that gathered in Deer District to watch the Bucks on big TV screens.
The team’s ascendance has invigorated a Midwestern city far from the NBA’s more cosmopolitan venues like Los Angeles, Boston or Miami — cities that have traditionally found it easier to attract the game’s top players. One reason fans have embraced Antetokounmpo is his loyalty to the team that drafted him eight years ago when he was 18.
Police estimated 100,000 people jammed Deer District for Tuesday night’s Game 6. Though the coronavirus pandemic has lessened compared to a year ago, the level of cases in both Wisconsin and Milwaukee County still is rated by the state as high, with daily new cases in the county roughly tripling over the past two weeks to 80 per day.
City health officials noted Thursday that announcements of the parade had urged that unvaccinated people wear masks. Few were visible among fans on the parade route or outside the arena. The city health department said its contact tracing team would closely monitor the event.
Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the state Department of Health Services, predicted the two large gatherings would lead to more COVID-19 cases.
“We are concerned,” she said. “We know people wanted to be jubilant and celebrate, but we know half the state is fully vaccinated and half the state is not and I assume the same is true for people in the Deer District and the arena. And I didn’t see half the crowd masked.”
Bill Russell to auction most of his prized NBA memorabilia
BOSTON — The most decorated man in NBA history will be giving the public a chance to own some of the prized memorabilia from his Hall of Fame career.
Bill Russell announced Thursday he is offering hundreds of items from his personal collection, including trophies, rings, basketballs, jerseys, letters, photos and other keepsakes. The items span his 13-year career as a player and coach for the Boston Celtics and also feature mementos chronicling his work during the civil rights movement and beyond.
Highlights of the trove include the first (1957) and last (1969) of the NBA-record 11 championship rings he won in Boston, four of his five NBA Most Valuable Player trophies and his 1956 U.S. men’s basketball Olympic gold medal.
“There are a few pictures I’ll keep for myself, but the rest I will share with the world,” Russell said in a video statement.
The sale will be conducted by Hunt Auctions, which has overseen the auctions of such sports greats as Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Roberto Clemente, Gale Sayers and Johnny Unitas.
The auction is tentatively scheduled for Boston this fall or winter.
Russell said one reason he decided to sell the items was to provide a portion of the proceeds for the Boston-based nonprofit Mentor, which he co-founded more than three decades ago. The group’s aim is to strengthen mentoring relationships.
An additional donation will be made to Boston Celtics United for Social Justice, which focuses on addressing racial and social inequities in the Boston area.
Hunt Auctions president Dave Hunt said his group is honored to handle Russell’s collection.
“There’s not a lot of folks at Bill Russell’s level. The air gets real thin,” Hunt said. “There’s just certain names of certain players that just transcend the sport, that changed the sport.”
It is unclear how much any one of Russell’s items will bring, but similar auctions overseen by Hunt have delivered big numbers. The most notable was in 2019 when a rare game-worn Babe Ruth Yankees road jersey dating to 1928-30 sold for $5.64 million. The auctioneer said that broke the record for the most expensive piece of sports memorabilia sold.
Hunt noted that among the items Russell is keeping is the Presidential Medal of Freedom given to him in 2011 by Barack Obama.
There’s also the letter Jackie Robinson wrote to Russell after Russell and other Black Celtics players boycotted a game in Lexington, Kentucky, after being denied service at a hotel.
“It’s just an amazing piece and it’s very difficult to put a monetary value on an item like that,” Hunt said. “But what better way for this to be shared than directly from the person who participated, and doing good as well as a result of that offering.”
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