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Burning questions for Nets, 76ers: Concerns, absences and closers

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PHILADELPHIA — Teams typically introduce their entire roster prior to their home opener. But as the Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers prepared to tip off at the Wells Fargo Center Friday night, only Philadelphia’s starting five was introduced to the crowd.

The reason was obvious: it would allow the Sixers to avoid either ignoring their star point guard, Ben Simmons, or introducing him in absentia to a chorus of boos.

It was yet another example of the space both Brooklyn and Philadelphia find themselves occupying this season. After they finished with the top two records in the Eastern Conference last season, only to each lose in the second round of the playoffs, they entered this season as the epicenters of NBA news because of the absences of Simmons and Kyrie Irving.

While the night ended in dramatic fashion, with Brooklyn storming back from a 10-point deficit in the final five minutes with a 16-1 closing run to claim a 114-109 victory, the fact that no return is in sight for either Simmons or Irving continues to hang over both teams. Both teams have plenty of star power remaining and plenty of other questions to answer besides when, or if, their point guards will return to the court.

Here’s a look at four questions with two games down and 80 more to go:

Brooklyn Nets (1-1):

Should the Nets be concerned there have been stretches when they have looked far from the team expected to win it all?

The Nets have gotten off to alarming consecutive slow starts and were outhustled and physically pushed around in the season opener by the Milwaukee Bucks, 127-104. In order to win their first game of the season in Philadelphia, the Nets needed a triple-double from Kevin Durant, a throwback game from LaMarcus Aldridge, a 16-1 closing run and multiple late 3-point airballs from guard Danny Green.

“It’s not going to be pretty for a little while here,” coach Steve Nash cautioned after the win.

Nash is preaching patience as he uses the start of the regular season almost like an extended preseason to experiment with big lineups and different rotations, all while guard Kyrie Irving sits out until he complies with New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. The Nets’ veteran-ladened roster is also building its conditioning as Brooklyn tries to stay healthy.

There have been a couple of early developments that might be big for the Nets. Guard Patty Mills looks like an early Sixth Man candidate making the most of Irving’s absence. He hasn’t missed from deep, drilling his first 10 3-point shots. And Aldridge won’t be the Trail Blazer (four-time All-Star with Portland) version of himself, but he is capable of a 23-point outburst like the one he had against center Joel Embiid and the Sixers and that is a massive difference-maker for the Nets.

How has Kyrie Irving’s absence affected Kevin Durant and James Harden?

When Nash was asked how Durant and Harden have adapted to playing with 10 new teammates, the Nets coach pointed out the glaring missing piece from Brooklyn’s championship puzzle.

“We lost a big piece,” Nash said in reference to Irving. “It is not just the new pieces, it’s the void that we are used to playing with. It is a lot for us to take on at this moment in time. But hopefully in the weeks coming, we start to clear some of the debris so to speak and figure out how we can best play together.”

Having two superstars in Durant and Harden to clear the path helps. Friday night was a perfect example of how Durant and Harden will have to adjust game to game without their starting point guard. Durant opened the game aggressively scoring. But then he said he felt the need to attack the paint and create for teammates due to what the Sixers defense was giving him. He finished with his second triple-double as a Net.

“Every game is different,” Durant said. “We all know some of these contending teams like physical play defensively, they’re so versatile defensively. So going into the game, I’ve got to just be prepared to do anything.”

Harden will be tasked with more playmaking. Nash said Harden might facilitate more with the starters while being a more aggressive scorer with the second unit. Through two games, Harden is averaging 20 points, 8 assists and 7.5 rebounds, and the feeling is he will only get better as he builds his way back from his hamstring injury last postseason.

Philadelphia 76ers (1-1):

Will oft-injured Embiid stay healthy this season?

It took one game for the one consistent theme around the 76ers in recent seasons — besides maximum chaos, anyway — to return to the fore: will Embiid be able to play?

After Philadelphia’s 20-point victory in New Orleans Wednesday, Embiid was listed as questionable for Friday’s game with right knee soreness. While Embiid wound up playing, he was clearly laboring during the game, and said afterward he probably should not have taken the floor.

“We will see,” Embiid said when asked if he’d have to miss games moving forward because of the knee. “I mean, after last game, that was a pretty good hit by the big fella, but we’ll see how it feels tomorrow but I’m not planning on sitting. I want to keep playing as long as there’s not any big damage on it.”

Embiid, on a per-minute basis, was arguably the NBA’s best player last season. If not for missing 21 games last season with various injuries, he might have won the league’s Most Valuable Player award.

With the status of Simmons up in the air indefinitely, Philadelphia needs Embiid on the court now more than ever. His health could be the difference between the 76ers having home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, or potentially being in danger of being in the play-in tournament.

Who will be Philadelphia’s closer?

This question has followed the 76ers around for years. It was one they briefly answered by trading for All-Star guard Jimmy Butler and Philadelphia has failed to find another since trading him away two years ago.

The issue of a closer certainly reared its head in this game, as Philadelphia’s offense sunk into quicksand down the stretch with Embiid hobbled. The Sixers missed nine straight shots to end the game, while Harden and Durant made plays to drag Brooklyn back into the game and to a win.

“We got the lead by playing,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said. “We finished the game by holding the ball, and we’re just not that type of team. That’s not who we are. We don’t have the playmakers that can do that.

“[The Nets] have the ability to give the ball to Durant, he can dance 1-on-1, Harden can do that, we really don’t have that type of team, so we have to get ours through motion and movement and we have to keep believing that.”

That’s a bit of an indictment of Tobias Harris, whom the 76ers gave $180 million two years ago and, effectively, chose to keep over Butler. Harris had a strong game Friday, finishing with 23 points, seven rebounds and four assists. But when Philadelphia needed a bucket down the stretch, neither he or Embiid could deliver one.

It’s also one that Simmons, notoriously quiet in the fourth quarter, won’t solve, either, if he returns. If Philadelphia wants to be a true championship contender, it eventually has to.



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Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis a game-time decision vs. Miami Heat on Sunday after 16-game absence

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MIAMI — Anthony Davis, out for the last five weeks with a sprained MCL in his left knee, has been upgraded to questionable for the Los Angeles Lakers‘ game against the Miami Heat on Sunday and is considered a game-time decision, according to the team.

Davis missed the last 16 games since the Minnesota TimberwolvesJaden McDaniels collided with the Lakers All-Star’s knee and L.A. went 7-9 without him.

“Whenever AD is ready, we’re going to love that, that’s for sure,” LeBron James said of Davis on Friday. “I mean he’s one of our biggest guns that we have, and having him on the floor, it just creates so much for us offensively and defensively, able to do so much more. But his health is what’s most important, and once we know that he’s healthy, he knows that he’s healthy, we get him back on the floor, and then we start getting his wind and his rhythm.”

Davis was averaging 23.3 points on 52.1% shooting, 9.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 2.0 blocks and 1.2 steals this season prior to the injury. His jump shot, however, had been off. Davis is shooting just 60-for-185 (32%) on shots outside the paint this season, according to NBA.com.

Davis has used the rehabilitation to work on not only his knee but his shot mechanics as well, sources told ESPN.

Davis had been eyeing the Lakers’ six-game road trip to return, as ESPN reported last week, and his presence could certainly help his team that has absorbed reports about Frank Vogel’s job security and Russell Westbrook‘s role in his absence.

If Davis makes his return against Miami, it could evoke warm memories for the Lakers big man. Davis averaged 25 points and 12.8 rebounds in the 2020 NBA Finals, downing the Heat in six games en route to his first championship.

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Damian Lillard, content to ‘make decisions that suit you for the long haul,’ slowly works his way back to Portland Trail Blazers’ lineup

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During the Tokyo Olympics last summer, when Damian Lillard‘s abdominal injury flared up, Jrue Holiday suggested it was time for surgery.

Lillard finally took his fellow Olympian’s advice and had the procedure Jan. 13. The Portland Trail Blazers‘ star point guard spoke to reporters Saturday for the first time since the injury sidelined him on Jan. 3.

Holiday, who plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, had similar core surgery during the 2018-19 NBA season when he was with New Orleans. He and Lillard were teammates in Japan last summer on the gold-medal-winning U.S. team.

“He was the first person that pretty much confirmed that I needed to have surgery, because I sat out of practice one day and I was like, ‘I can’t move,’ and I was kind of just holding it. And he just started describing every single symptom,” Lillard said. “And he was like, ‘I had it.'”

Lillard, a six-time All-Star, averaged 24 points and 7.3 assists in 29 games this season for the Blazers. It was clear from the start that the injury — lower abdominal tendinopathy — was bothersome.

“It was just one of those things where I’ve always had control over how I moved and everything, and it had reached a point where my body couldn’t do what my mind wanted it to do and go places that I wanted it to go,” he said. “At some point you’ve got to play chess; you’ve got to make decisions that suit you for the long haul and not just right now.”

While the injury flared up in Tokyo, Lillard said he first felt the abdominal pain in 2015, and it had been gradually getting worse ever since.

The Blazers have struggled without Lillard, the undisputed leader of the team. Playing under first-year coach Chauncey Billups, Portland is 19-26 and in 10th place in the Western Conference.

Anfernee Simons has taken over as Portland’s point guard and has averaged 15.1 points per game. Portland was also playing for an extended period without Lillard’s backcourt teammate CJ McCollum, who had a collapsed right lung before becoming a father for the first time.

McCollum recently returned and had 24 points in Portland’s 109-105 victory at the Boston Celtics on Friday night.

There was no timeline for Lillard’s return, but he’s already been doing yoga. The team previously said he would be reevaluated in six weeks.

“I’m just a week from surgery. We said we’ll reevaluate my situation weeks out, six to eight weeks, and we’ll talk about it then. But I’m not in a rush,” he said. “My No. 1 goal is to win a championship. I’ve got to be in the best form of myself to make that happen and to be a part of that. So I’m not in a rush. We’ll talk about whatever that timeline is when we get to that point.”

The Trail Blazers, as play began on Saturday night, occupied the 10th spot in the Western Conference race. They were two games ahead of the Sacramento Kings.

Lillard was asked if he’d play if the Blazers decided to forgo a playoff push and play for a draft pick.

“I mean, if we’re gonna play for a draft pick, it wouldn’t make sense to me. Because I’m not gonna play for no draft pick. I’m just not capable of that,” he said. “So it’d be best if that was what we were doing, or what was decided, then it wouldn’t make sense for me to play.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Chicago Bulls G Alex Caruso to have surgery for fractured wrist, out 6 to 8 weeks, says team

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Chicago Bulls guard Alex Caruso will undergo surgery early next week for a fractured right wrist, the team announced Saturday.

Caruso suffered the injury during the Bulls loss to the Bucks Friday night in Milwaukee. Caruso was fouled hard by the Bucks’ Grayson Allen who was assessed a flagrant two foul and ejected from the game.

Caruso will miss six-to-eight weeks, the team announced

Caruso went up for a layup on a fast break with 5:45 remaining in the third quarter, but Allen hooked Caruso’s right arm, turning Caruso in the air and sending him hard to the floor on his right wrist. Caruso said his wrist was “a little banged up” after the game, but X-rays came back negative.

“Dude just grabbed me out of the air,” Caruso said after Friday’s game. “It’s kind of bulls—. I don’t know what else you can do about it. I’m just glad that I didn’t have any major scary injuries right away.”

Caruso said his wrist continued to bother him in the second half, especially while shooting. He finished 1-of-6 from the field for 3 points in the second half, but said he did not think the injury would linger long term.

Caruso added that Allen did not come to check on him following the play.

The foul particularly irked Bulls coach Billy Donovan, who is normally mild-mannered and rarely singles out players. But following Friday’s game, Donovan called Allen’s actions dangerous and cited his history playing college basketball at Duke.

“For Alex to be in the air and for [Allen] to take him down like that, he could’ve ended his career,” Donovan said. “He has a history of this. That to me was really — it was really dangerous. I hope the league takes a hard look at something like that because that could have really, really seriously hurt him.”

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