Everything you need to know about Wednesday night’s marquee NBA matchups.
Sixers 118, Celtics 115
It’s Not How Jimmy Butler Starts, It’s How He Finishes
Paolo Uggetti: Since hitting two game-winners in his first two weeks with the Sixers, Butler has slowly receded into the background. Even during Wednesday’s game, it sometimes felt like Butler wasn’t even there—in the first three quarters, he scored seven points. Once the fourth quarter began, though, Butler pulled out his best Mariano Rivera impression. In eight minutes and 40 seconds of game time in the fourth, Butler scored 15 points, including three 3s. His last two points came with the Sixers up only three with about five seconds left: After he backed down Kyrie Irving, nearly lost the ball, and got himself an open, Butler drilled a game-sealing baseline jumper. It was the quintessential Butler experience—result over process.
One could argue that this is exactly why the Sixers traded for Butler. And yet, it still feels like he should have a bigger impact throughout the entire game. In the playoffs, those late-arriving heroics won’t always pan out.
Marcus Smart Is Too Important to the Celtics Now to Be Getting Ejected
Uggetti: I believe it is written in the NBA rule book that we cannot have a game with Smart and Joel Embiid on the floor without it becoming a referendum on flopping. In the third quarter of Wednesday’s game, the two players got into a flop-off. As Smart made his way through the lane, he was struck by Embiid’s shoulder and crumbled dramatically to the floor. Smart got up and used both hands to push Embiid in the back. Embiid then fell to the floor himself, selling it like he was Billy McFarland in a pitch meeting. Smart was ejected; Charles Oakley weighed in. There was a lot going on.
Smart’s early exit gave the Sixers a noticeable advantage. Following the flops, Boston’s double-digit lead evaporated and Embiid began to play like he had just taken a shot of Red Bull. Smart’s stat line in his 19 minutes was meager but, as always, his benefit was more about the energetic edge he brings on both ends. Without him, Boston’s defense began to unravel; and when Butler hit the game-winner, it was Irving, not Smart, guarding. Smart also has been a semi-reliable offensive option this season (36.6 percent from 3), which Irving (1-for-6 overall in the fourth) could’ve probably used late.
Smart helped stabilize Boston’s rocky season some after being inserted into the starting lineup in late November. He’s too important now to act like a dispensable piece.
The Need for Embiid
Uggetti: Wednesday marked the Sixers’ first win against the rival Celtics this season. It felt more like Philly’s substitute for the Super Bowl this year than a regular-season game. Embiid himself said postgame that he came into the night with some bulletin-board material. “I’ve been hearing that these guys can guard me better than anyone else,” he told ESPN. “So I had to come out and show that I’m the most unstoppable player in the league.”
Embiid carried Philly with a ridiculous 37 points and 22 rebounds, which allowed Butler to come in and play hero at the end. Embiid was unstoppable … but at what cost? Embiid played 41 minutes, which marks only the second game this season that he’s played 41 or more minutes. The other game was a loss to Toronto in early February. Embiid’s value to the Sixers is monumental, and yet more Embiid minutes doesn’t always mean a Sixers win. Get this: In the nine games during which Embiid has played 38 minutes or more this season, the Sixers are 3-6. That’s not encouraging given the miles that are being put on Embiid’s odometer before the playoffs even begin. He’s averaging 33.8 minutes per game—three more minutes a game than 2017-18—but he’s already played 84 more total minutes than he did all of last season. There’s only so much physical toll a body can take, even if it’s a 7-foot, 250-pound body. A win against your division rivals is nice; not getting injured in the middle of a playoff series against them is a whole lot nicer. Protect Embiid!
Raptors 123, Thunder 114 (OT)
Can OKC Survive a Bad Paul George Game?
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Paul George rode into Wednesday’s 123-114 overtime loss to the Raptors on a Harley engulfed in flames, averaging 32 points on 41.2 percent 3-point shooting over his past three games. But whatever fire he had went up in smoke: He shot just 3-for-10 from 3, 6-for-14 overall, and fouled out before the end of regulation. As a result, the Thunder mustered just four total points in OT and lost for the fourth time in a row. With the defeat, OKC plummeted to eighth in the Western Conference standings. A team once expected to be one of Golden State’s biggest challengers this postseason all of a sudden might be its first-round opponent.
The George whose 3s have rallied MVP cries all season (MV-P if you’re feeling clever) missed seven deep shots by night’s end, including one attempt blocked by OG Anunoby to close the third quarter. It was like George had Freaky Friday’d with teammate Russell Westbrook, who shot uncharacteristically well (5-for-10 from 3) and leaned into efficiency (again, uncharacteristically) early on, opting to blow past his man and finish at the rim rather than take a contested, ill-advised deep shot. In the end, Westbrook finished with 42 points—his third-highest total of the season. George, meanwhile, returned to his heroic form just in time for his curtain call: He hit one 3 with 1:05 left in regulation, then another with 41 seconds left to bring the Thunder within two, 110-108. The next play, George fouled out. In true pre-Paul Thunder form, OKC failed to hit a shot in overtime until only 31 seconds remained.
Fixing OKC’s problems won’t be as simple as George being on the court. George suffered a shoulder strain in his shooting arm in February, and though he insists the injury is no longer aggravating his shooting mechanics, he hasn’t looked quite right. George takes the most shots on a team that averages the sixth-most points in the NBA. If he’s not able to take his usual allotment, how far can the Thunder go in the playoffs?
The Raptors Are Peaking at the Right Time
O’Shaughnessy: Among the crème de la crème of the league, Toronto is solidifying as its peers begin to soften. Which will make the Raptors’ monthslong battle with the Bucks for the 1-seed in the East quite interesting over the final three weeks to play. Milwaukee lost Wednesday to Cleveland, its fifth in 10 games, and is currently dealing with injuries to Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Mirotic, and Malcolm Brogdon; Mirotic (broken thumb) and Brodgon (plantar fascia tear in his right foot) could both wind up missing early parts of the playoffs. With the Bucks just two games up with 10 to play, it’s possible that the Raptors have a chance to supplant them. (The third-place Sixers, while on a six-game win streak, are still a safe four-game distance away from the Raptors in the standings.)
The injury bug could’ve kept Toronto out of Wednesday’s game, too. Kyle Lowry’s ankle sidelined him during an impressive Westbrook performance, leaving Fred VanVleet to fend in his place. But the Raptors’ depth has been a strength all season, and Wednesday was no different: VanVleet finished with 23 points, four starters chipped in six assists apiece, and the defense executed as a synced unit. (It also helps to have Jeremy Lin, whom the Raps acquired on the buyout market, as a steady hand to back up VanVleet.) That strength in numbers may be able to carry them over the Bucks in the final standings and crucially grant them home-court advantage should they meet up with Milwaukee in the East finals.