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This Is Kevin Durant’s Team Now

KD put up inhumanly good numbers against his former team, and Joel Embiid and Dario Saric led the Sixers to their biggest win of the year

Welcome to the NBA Shootaround, the Ringer staff’s weekly run through the league, told in riffs and GIFs.

Bring Out the Fireworks

Danny Chau: This is Steph Curry. Here he is splitting a nascent double-team before it has time to decide what it wants to be when it grows up. Here he is bending physics with a Magic Johnson Special: the no-look, cross-body shove pass to a picnicking Klay Thompson on the right wing for a 3. Here he is, twirling and two-stepping on the levee before he knocks it over completely. With that 3, with just over seven minutes to go in the third quarter, the Warriors lead over the Thunder was eight; the game was tied not 45 seconds earlier. It was as though one of the many unfathomable STEPH! moments from last season was superimposed onto a game in 2017. This is Steph Curry, game-breaker.

Does the game ball go to Kevin Durant? Of course it does. Scoring 40 points on 13-of-16 shooting in the Warriors’ 121–100 victory is inhuman; so was his plus-32 rating playing the second-most minutes of anyone on his team. His team. From the outset of the season, the Warriors cast themselves in a new mold; their freakishness was no longer defined by Curry’s unlikely slingshots from the far reaches of the galaxy. Their freakishness became a reflection of Durant as a physical specimen, as a player: impossibly long, impossibly capable of everything. Durant became the face of the franchise, while Curry receded; for as dominant as the Warriors have been this season, there was something amiss.

Maybe it’s the lack of immediate history-chasing. Maybe it was the lack of imagination. This may be the perfect place for Durant to showcase the breadth of his versatility, but this is an NBA season that has upended our idea of what’s possible for an individual athlete. Russell Westbrook logged his 21st triple-double (and second dubious quadruple-double) of the season, and that feels like the third most compelling thing about the game. It’s felt at least a little odd not to see Steph in the conversation after being the entirety of the conversation last year. Maybe we ran out of things to say. But if these last few Warriors games are a sign of anything, it’s that maybe there’s still some magic to be discovered before the season’s through. Give Steph his pick-and-rolls and let’s see what unfolds. We’ve been spoiled this season, but I’ll take as much of it as I can get.

Fun With Numbers: Joel Embiid Edition

Jonathan Tjarks: The 76ers are 6–2 since the start of the new year, and they got their most impressive win of the season on Wednesday, a 94–89 victory over the Raptors. This is really starting to happen, folks.

You don’t want to make it just about Joel Embiid, because there are plenty of other interesting stories happening in Philadelphia, but it’s mostly about Embiid. He had 26 points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes, and the 76ers were plus-20 when he was on the floor.

Jonas Valanciunas is listed at 7-foot, 250 pounds, and he looks dwarfed going up against Embiid. Valanciunas isn’t as fast as Embiid, he doesn’t move as fluidly, he doesn’t have nearly the same shooting range, and he doesn’t have his feel for the game. So we’re clear: Valanciunas is the starting center for one of the best teams in the league. So it wasn’t even a contest when Brett Brown brought Embiid in against the Raptors’ second unit of Jared Sullinger (making his season debut after foot surgery and looking close to 300 pounds) and rookie Jakob Poeltl.

Now, for some numbers:

Embiid is averaging 19.7 points, 7.7 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 2.4 blocks, and 0.8 steals a game in only 25.3 minutes a game, as the 76ers still have him on a minutes cap. Average that out over 36 minutes and he’s at 28 points, 11 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 3.5 blocks, and 1.2 steals a game. He’s annihilating people whenever he’s on the floor, and he’s not putting up empty stats, either.

With Embiid in, the 76ers have a defensive rating of 98.8, which would be the best in the NBA. With him out, they have a defensive rating of 108.2, which would be 26th. Their offensive rating of 102.3 with him on the floor (26th) slips to 96.5 without him, which would be dead last in the league.

Rookie big men aren’t supposed to be this good this fast, especially not ones who haven’t played in two years. And he still has so much room to get better! He forces a lot of tough shots on offense, and he picks up a lot of cheap fouls on defense.

After his game-sealing block on Kyle Lowry in the final seconds, Embiid led the 76ers crowd with chants of “Trust the Process.” Say what you want about Sam Hinkie, but doing whatever it took to draft Joel Embiid was a pretty easy hill to die on.

Don’t Forget About the Big Homie Dario

Adapt or Perish

Jason Concepcion: The Rockets’ galloping 111–92 win over the Bucks on Wednesday night was interesting for several reasons. First, and most obvious, the game involved James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. There are currently five major storylines in the NBA: The Warriors-Cavaliers rivalry; Russell Westbrook averaging a triple-double; Joel Embiid; James Harden forming the point guard Voltron of Mike D’Antoni’s deepest and most secret dreams; and Giannis, night after night, screaming “I GOT NEXT” at the top of his lungs. Bucks at Rockets, in other words, represented 40 percent of what’s best about the league right now.

Second, the game brought the outlines of both teams into focus in intriguing ways. The Bucks came into the matchup having lost two in a row. Their formerly top-10 defense has been slouching toward mediocrity and worse — a 114 defensive rating in the five games heading into the game against Houston. That would be the worst mark in the league if extrapolated over a full season. The cause of the slippage has been the Bucks’ increasing inability to guard the deep ball. “We were one of the best at guarding the 3-point line a couple weeks ago,” head coach Jason Kidd said. “We’ve got to find that energy and effort, that concentration of being able to take teams off the [3-point line].”

Offensively, the Bucks are an inconsistent shooting team that depends on the dynamism of Giannis and, to a less godly extent, Jabari Parker. Only the Golden State Warriors get the ball into the paint more than the Bucks. But the Dubs have the jiu-jitsu power of spacing; the Bucks get their rim drives essentially by attacking defenders with brute Greek Freak force. It’s difficult to stop a guy who can fold space.

One would expect that a Milwaukee team that has, of late, been struggling to run opponents off the 3-point line would be in for a full-body waxing against the Rockets, who hit 37 percent of the 40 (!!!) 3s they take every game.

Well, yes and no. Like I said: intriguing. The Rockets didn’t hit their first bomb, courtesy of Eric Gordon, until the second quarter. The Bucks held the Rockets to 26 percent 3-point shooting through three quarters. All well and good, except the Rockets led by 14 going into the fourth by taking advantage of Bucks turnovers and making smart cuts into space. Houston shut down everyone not named Giannis (32 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, three blocks) just by throttling the paint with bodies.

The Bucks are defined by their inability to shoot from deep, while the Rockets proved on Wednesday that they can transcend their seeming dependence on the 3-pointer.

James Harden’s Charm Offensive Is Working

This is James Harden giving a game ball to a lovely Rockets fan on her 100-year birthday. And this is James Harden projecting love and happiness into the universe with Doris Burke:

Hold your head, Dwight.

Still Living at Home

Haley O’Shaughnessy: The Wizards (yes, the Washington Wizards, of the National Basketball Association), who started out the season 2–8 with their devotees begging for a trade, a front-office upheaval, or a presidential pardon, are now 22–19. They are fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. They are a team that deserves nice things said about them.

On Wednesday, Washington had one playcall on offense: fireball Sonic the Hedgehog–style through Memphis’s top-four defense. It took the Grizzlies, who ball at the third-slowest pace in the NBA, a full three quarters to adjust. Washington won, 104–101, largely by doing away with notions like half-court sets or holding the ball for longer than three seconds before pulling up for a shot.

Otto Porter Jr., who is currently the league’s sixth-most accurate deep-ball shooter, dropped four straight 3-pointers to start the game, then added two more during a tight fourth quarter for a career-high six 3s and 25 points. John Wall, the only point guard in the East to average a double-double, logged his latest with five minutes to go in the third. Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris finished in double figures, and even Marcin Gortat, who was overpowered and overwhelmed by Marc Gasol, managed 11 rebounds. That five-man lineup, which averages the second-most points of any starting rotation in the NBA, opened up a double-digit lead for the third consecutive game — all at home, where they have one of the best records in the league.

Things are much different away from D.C., and we’re about to find out just how different. Four of the Wizard’s next five games are away, and at 4–13, the Wizards have the second-worst road record in the NBA behind only the Brooklyn Nets, which is barely an NBA team. When you add their road woes and the tight playoff race in the East (the difference between fifth place and 11th place is four games), there is a distinct possibility that the Wizards could plummet in the standings. But let’s focus on the now: Wednesday night’s victory was their 13th straight win at home, which goes along with what my Nana always told me: there’s no place like … the Verizon Center.

The Boston Box-Out Drought

Kevin O’Connor: From 1983 to Wednesday night, 12 teams had finished a game with at least 25 assists and three or fewer turnovers, per Basketball-Reference. All of them won, with an average margin of victory of 19.2. Last night, the Celtics became the 13th team to post those numbers and the first to lose while doing so. The Knicks beat the Celtics 117–106 by pummeling them on the boards, 57 to 33. New York had 18 offensive rebounds leading to 24 second-chance points.

For the Celtics, defensive rebounding is a chronic issue without a solution. Neither of their starting front court players are capable rebounders: Al Horford grabs boards about as well as a good wing, and Amir Johnson rebounds like a good point guard. Without bigs who rebound like big men, Boston is going to have nights like this. And there’s no one on the roster who can come to the rescue. Kelly Olynyk is statistically the team’s best rebounder with a paltry defensive rebounding percentage of 18.7, a poor number for a big man. They are the only team in the league lacking a player with a defensive rebounding percentage of 19 or higher.

One potential Band-Aid would be the simple act of boxing out. A huge chunk of the offensive rebounds allowed by the Celtics comes because they don’t put a body on the opponent.

Sometimes a big is able to swoop in:

Other times, it’s a guard:

The Celtics have the worst defensive rebounding percentage (73.5) in the NBA, and it’s not just because they’re all short, weak, or lazy. They need to improve by making a team-wide commitment to rebounding. Otherwise, once the playoffs come around, big men like Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valanciunas, Dwight Howard, and Joel Embiid (I can dream) will give them serious trouble.

The Silent Treatment Doesn’t Work

Micah Peters: In case you missed the Portland Trail Blazers’ Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Game against to the Wizards in Washington on Monday, they lost 120–101. And it really was only that close. In the wake of that spanking, the team called a film session and everyone spoke up about how extremely not-well they played, with the exception of Damian Lillard, who didn’t really say much. Joe Freeman of The Oregonian got the goods on the tape session, and Lillard’s explanation for his silence:

“I think, as a leader, sometimes you’ve just got to shut up and let other people say what they need to say. They might have an issue or address something that I didn’t do well. And I’ve got to be quiet and be open to that and listen sometimes. It can’t come off as me trying to boss everybody around or [seem like] I’ve got all the answers. I didn’t say anything.”

The answer seemed good enough until the Portland guard went back and forth with some random fan on Twitter who poked a few holes in Lillard’s handling of the situation. At which point the complexion of Lillard’s original explanation kind of started to change from rather diplomatic to just sort of convenient.

In search of a rebound, the Blazers traveled to Charlotte on Wednesday night to face a Hornets team that was trying not to lose its sixth game in a row, and, like Portland, was searching for some shred of evidence to justify spending so much to retain their pieces last offseason. The Blazers took what they learned from that film session, summoned their manhood from bottom to top … and fell flat on their faces for a third straight time.

They led the Hornets 26–23 through the first frame, but did it on 36 percent shooting. The poor marksmanship continued into the second quarter, in which Charlotte outscored them 31–20. And the mishaps continued on for the rest of the game: Portland finished shooting a woeful 35.1 percent from the field, and coughed up 15 turnovers. From start to finish, the Blazers were unable to put a cohesive effort together: When they got baskets, they couldn’t get stops; when there were stops, they were followed by turnovers. When the game was well out of reach at 100–80 with four minutes left to go in the fourth, the starters were pulled.

But the game wasn’t all terrible:

Charlotte 107, Portland 85.