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The Sixers’ Title Bid Gets Serious, and the Five Most Interesting Teams of the Week

The Raptors take off the training wheels, the Trail Blazers test out life without their second star guard, and more intrigue from around the NBA

Jimmy Butler, Damian Lillard, Dwyane Wade, Kawhi Leonard, and Mike Conley  Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Springtime is officially here, my friends. For the rest of the sports-loving world, that means it’s time for March Madness. For those of us who focus on the pro game, though, it means we’re finally entering the last leg of the regular-season marathon and closing in on the beginning of the fun part: the 2019 NBA playoffs. Good ol’ April Absurdity. No, that doesn’t have the same ring to it. May Mania, maybe? June Derangement? OK, we’re getting further away now.

While I try to figure out a catchy name that I can brand so that if you use it without my permission I can sue you, let’s take a look at the five most interesting teams in the NBA for Week 23, starting with a plan that seems to be coming together in Philadelphia ...

Philadelphia 76ers

After Joel Embiid expressed, in unambiguous terms, that he believes himself to be the best defensive player and the most unstoppable player in the NBA, he showed some Conner4Real-level humility. Sure, he was the game-breaker who blitzed Boston with 37 points, 22 rebounds, and four assists to help Philly knock off the Celtics on Wednesday. But when it came time to give credit for getting the Sixers off the schneid against their rival, Embiid deferred.

“We talked about it before the game,” Embiid told reporters. “I told him that I needed him tonight, that I needed this win, and he told me to get him to the fourth [quarter], and he was going to take over.”

He is Jimmy Butler, and take over late is exactly what he did. Butler scored 15 of his 22 points in the final frame—12 in the last 5:31—and capped the Sixers’ come-from-behind effort on a swaggerful 18-footer with 5.5 seconds left that sealed the win:

“Obviously, in the fourth, he’s our best closer,” Embiid said. “[We’ve] got to put the ball in his hands in the fourth. I’m going to do my thing whenever I have the ball, but that was my job tonight, and he showed up in the fourth. He was fantastic.”

He’s been fantastic a lot lately, averaging 23.5 points, 5.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game through the 76ers’ past four contests—which were all wins that helped create some separation from the Pacers in the race for the East’s no. 3 seed. More than that, though, wins against NBA-leading Milwaukee on Sunday and the bogeyman C’s on Wednesday helped brighten a dark spot on Philly’s résumé: a 1-7 mark against the Bucks, Raptors, and Celtics, the opponents posing the greatest threat to the Sixers’ chances of making it past the conference semifinals for the first time since Allen Iverson stepped over Tyronn Lue.

Butler has racked up 40 points in 41 fourth-quarter minutes in Philly’s past four wins, which is the most in the NBA, and is shooting better than 50 percent from the field and the arc while dishing six assists against just two turnovers. It’s exactly what the Sixers hoped they’d get from Butler when they swung the blockbuster deal to import him back in November.

Those critical late-game possessions don’t all work perfectly. Butler fired two wild quick 3-pointers with the Sixers up two and just under a minute and a half to go on Wednesday, which I suppose is better than passing up good looks, but still isn’t great. He also nearly lost the ball after backing Kyrie Irving down before hitting the game-icing jumper. But he combines skills in a way the Sixers’ other options don’t. He provides surer ballhandling and passing than Embiid, greater willingness to shoot and/or get fouled and greater effectiveness when doing so than Ben Simmons, more playmaking juice than Tobias Harris, and more size and strength to get to his spots and shoot over defenders than JJ Redick. Butler is one of the most efficient and effective one-on-one scorers in the NBA, and is averaging 1.05 points per isolation possession used, according to Synergy, which is tied for sixth-best in the league among players to finish at least 50 isos this season. Perhaps most importantly, he turns the ball over on a microscopic 3.5 percent of those plays.

Last spring, Philly had the top-end talent to beat the injury-riddled Celtics, but frequently couldn’t seem to get out of its own way late in games. The Sixers now seem like they’ve got what they wanted: a lineup that can take advantage of mismatches—don’t think it was an accident that Butler and Simmons forced Irving to switch onto them in the closing minutes—and wring the most out of big possessions. It’s been a winding and sometimes rocky road to get to this point, one marked by a lot of turmoil and moving parts, but the Sixers are here, led by an MVP candidate who can carry them to the finish line and a high-floor playmaker who can push them over it. Now we’ll see just how far they can go.

Toronto Raptors

There wasn’t an official parade or anything, but this week marked a pretty big milestone in Toronto. When the Raptors woke up on Tuesday morning, having just blown the doors off the New York Knicks one night after falling to the Detroit Pistons, they did so knowing they wouldn’t face another back-to-back set for the rest of the 2018-19 season.

No back-to-backs means no resting Kawhi Leonard for one of those two games as part of an ongoing attempt to keep the All-Star forward healthy following almost an entire season lost to right quadriceps tendinopathy. (And, by extension, to keep him happy heading into an offseason when he can opt out of his contract, enter unrestricted free agency, and choose his next team, which the Raptors would very much like to be his current team.) And that means that Leonard’s season-long sojourn into the unexplored depths of “load management” should be just about at its end.

No more carefully contoured optimization schedule and lineup restructuring to account for Kawhi’s absence—just a game every other day, roughly, until someone beats the Raptors four times in seven tries. It’s about time to see Leonard truly and wholly unfettered, for the first time in 22 months. In case you’ve forgotten, this is what it looks like:

It’s felt like Leonard is ramping up to full speed. After having his best stretch of the season—a 23-game run from Thanksgiving through mid-January in which he averaged a shade under 30 points per game on 52 percent shooting—interrupted with four games of rest and fits-and-starts production through the All-Star break, Leonard has been his brutally efficient self over the past three weeks, averaging 27.6 points per game while knocking down 53.8 percent of his field goal attempts and 43.5 percent of his 3-point tries.

And while Leonard’s score-first nature remains a sticking point in the Raptors offense overall, he has seemed to be a slightly more willing playmaker of late. He’s averaging 3.8 assists per game since the trade deadline, up from 3.1 per game before it, and three of his six highest-assist games of the season have come in the past six weeks, including a six-dime outing in Wednesday’s win against the Thunder:

Leonard wasn’t the star of the Raptors’ win in Oklahoma City—it was Pascal Siakam, which is something we seem to be saying more and more these days—but we’ve reached the point in the program when he needs to be. The Bucks have been the class of the Eastern Conference, but they’re entering the home stretch more wounded and vulnerable than they’ve looked all season. The Raptors have kept Kawhi fresh to have one of the game’s most physically dominant and skilled players at his absolute best, against the absolute best, on both ends of the floor in the season’s most important moments. If Leonard’s equal to the task, Toronto has what it takes to make the Finals. No more restrictor plates or half-steps. Let’s find out.

Miami Heat

Give Erik Spoelstra enough options and enough time and he’ll figure something out. He’s like the MacGyver of NBA coaches—which I thought was a pretty washed reference until I remembered that they rebooted MacGyver a couple of years ago. Then I remembered the reboot was on CBS, so now I know it is a washed reference.

Point being: From a mismatched, misfit-toys-like roster full of players who skew more solid than stellar, Spoelstra has found enough things that work to put the Heat in the driver’s seat for their third playoff berth in four years. Miami has won eight of 10 and boasts the East’s best net rating in that span, outscoring opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions. (Being good in March is kind of the Heat’s thing.) According to FiveThirtyEight’s projections, the Heat have a 61 percent shot at making the playoffs; Basketball-Reference.com’s model pegs their postseason probability at 68.8 percent.

Spoelstra has found success through heavy reliance on a zone defense that short-circuits opposing offenses and deters penetration into the paint; only Milwaukee, Golden State, and San Antonio allow fewer field goal attempts at the rim per game, and only the Bucks allow a lower field goal percentage on those up-close shots. Add it all up—the zone, more traditional pressure on opposing ball handlers, sharp and disciplined help rotations behind the ball, the tenacity of rangy perimeter defenders like Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, and Derrick Jones Jr.—and you’ve got the recipe for the league’s best defense in the month of March.

Spoelstra’s also found ways to change speeds on the offensive end. When the 6-foot-7, 225-pound Winslow is on the ball as the Heat’s point guard, Miami takes its time, trying to methodically maneuver its way into good looks. Since the All-Star break, the five-man lineup of Winslow, Richardson, Dion Waiters, Bam Adebayo, and Kelly Olynyk has averaged just under 99 possessions per 48 minutes of floor time, equivalent to a bottom-10 full-season offensive pace; they’ve been effective, blowing opponents’ doors off by 19.1 points per 100.

But the Heat pick up speed when Goran Dragic enters the game. With the veteran guard back in the lineup following two months on the shelf, Miami’s averaging 102.4 possessions per 48 minutes, equivalent to a top-10 pace. That’s been working, too: The Heat have scored 113 points per 100 with the Slovenian lead guard on the floor since his comeback, with a strong plus-6.1 net rating when he shares the court with Dwyane Wade.

To some extent, the Heat kind of feel like two separate teams: one cycling out of a recent past led by Wade, Dragic, and Hassan Whiteside; another in the early stages of a youth movement led by Richardson, Winslow, and Adebayo. Neither one’s really a world-beater, but both seem to be picking up steam at exactly the right time, and if Spoelstra can keep pushing the right buttons, the Heat could wind up being a real pain for the Bucks or Raptors in a 1 vs. 8 series in Round 1.

Portland Trail Blazers

The timing was brutal: CJ McCollum, fresh off a 10-game stretch during which he averaged 24 points per game and drilled half of his 3-pointers, went down midway through a key game against the Spurs with a popliteus strain in his left knee that would put the high-scoring guard on the shelf for at least a week. With games against the postseason-bound Pacers, Pistons, and Nets on the docket, and the race for home-court advantage in the West hotly contested, how would a Blazers offense that has scored seven fewer points per 100 possessions with him off the court this season fare in his absence?

The early answer: pretty damn well.

Portland cooked the Pacers and Mavericks to the tune of 116 points per 100 possessions in wins on Monday and Wednesday, which is well above its top-five full-season mark. Damian Lillard—who’s been a monster lately, averaging 28.1 points and 8.5 assists per game in his past 10 games on a scorching 63.9 true shooting percentage—conducted the symphony, stringing together the first consecutive 30-point, 10-assist outings any Blazer has had since Rod Strickland nearly a quarter-century ago.

Head coach Terry Stotts has designed all manner of ways to get his scorers open over the years, but sometimes it’s best to stick to a simple formula that works: Give Dame a high screen right after he hits half court, force a defender to pick his poison by going under to take away the drive or going over to contest the pull-up, and watch one of the game’s most gifted orchestrators carve up whatever look the defense shows him. With the way Portland can space the floor, and how effective Jusuf Nurkic has been when diving to the hoop (he’s scoring on 58.8 percent of his possessions as a roll man, 15th-best among bigs to finish at least two such plays per game, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting) it’s a recipe for clean looks on nearly every trip:

The Blazers will face tougher sledding than the limping Pacers and the shh-don’t-tell-anybody-we’re-tanking Mavs down the stretch, but winning the games you’re supposed to win can be huge at this stage in the season. Dispatching Dallas while the Rockets came up short in Memphis and the Spurs fell in Miami got Portland within a half-game of the third seed and boosted their fourth-place cushion to 2.5 games; according to the win probability metrics at Inpredictable, the Blazers now have 53 percent odds of landing in the no. 2, 3, or 4 spot, thus securing home-court advantage in Round 1, which could be huge if a returning McCollum is in any way compromised as the playoffs begin.

If the players Portland needs to hit release-valve shots, which includes Al-Farouq Aminu, Maurice Harkless, Jake Layman, and Seth Curry, gain confidence in McCollum’s absence, then the injury might wind up being a blessing in disguise. (A brief breather may also be a good thing for McCollum, who has played the fifth-most minutes in the NBA since 2015.) Only a deep playoff run will quiet the rumblings, from this outlet and others, that Portland needs to shake up its core to climb the ladder in an incredibly competitive West; merely navigating late-season adversity won’t convince anybody. It’s a hell of a lot better than the alternative, though.

Memphis Grizzlies

At least a couple of teams must be kicking themselves for not landing Mike Conley Jr. before the trade deadline. (Looking at you, Utah, Indiana, and Detroit.) Conley’s been on an absolute tear of late: With Memphis more frequently deploying smaller lineups in a four-out scheme, the veteran guard is using the greater spacing to look for his own shot more than usual. He’s 13th in the NBA in scoring through the past 10 games, and is averaging 26.7 points while shooting 50 percent from the floor, 48.2 percent from 3-point range, and 85.5 percent from the foul line on 7.7 attempts a night.

James Harden stole the show in Memphis on Wednesday with 57 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds. But the Grizzlies stole the game, with Conley (35 points, eight assists, and five rebounds) teaming with newfound inside-out partner Jonas Valanciunas (33 points, 15 rebounds) to push past Harden’s heroics:

After shipping Marc Gasol to Toronto to kick-start a perhaps overdue rebuilding effort, the Grizzlies stopped short of a total reset by hanging onto Conley, reportedly in part to help foster further development from 2018 lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr. A deep thigh bruise has kept the exciting rookie sidelined since mid-February, but the Grizzlies have remained competitive and tough, going 6-6 since the All-Star break with wins against the playoff-bound Blazers, Jazz, and Rockets.

Memphis is a respectable 16th in the NBA in post-All-Star efficiency differential, according to Cleaning the Glass, which strips out statistics accumulated in garbage time. That success has come thanks in large part to their 31-year-old point guard; a ramshackle Grizzlies roster has outscored opponents by three points per 100 possessions with Conley on the court since the break, and has been outscored by 1.3 points-per-100 when he’s been on the bench, according to NBA.com/Stats.

In the short term, Conley’s stellar play has been great for the Grizzlies’ chances of sending away their 2019 first-round pick. That might sound counterintuitive. Why would a team headed for the lottery want to lose its no. 1 pick? But there’s some logic here: Memphis owes a top-eight protected 2019 first-rounder to Boston. If the Grizzlies don’t convey the pick this year, it’s only top-six protected next year, and completely unprotected in 2021. The longer Memphis holds on to the pick, the more valuable the asset they’ll eventually hand over to Danny Ainge. The Grizzlies would probably prefer to just get it over with, meaning they need to finish outside the top eight in the draft order; as it stands, they’ve got the NBA’s seventh-worst record. The more they win, the better their odds of accomplishing that goal.

Conley’s late-season run also puts Memphis in an interesting position entering the summer. Plenty of teams will have lots of salary cap space to use in free agency; many of them will come up empty in the zero-sum shopping spree. And if you’re one of those unlucky teams who exits the first week of July still needing a playmaker who can shoot, drive, score, and play defense, and who has proved himself as a tough and capable postseason performer (albeit one who will be 32 on 2019’s opening day, who’s on the books for $32.5 million next season, and who has an early termination option for 2020-21)? Well, the Grizzlies just so happen to have one of those, and he can be yours, if you meet what should be a steep asking price. Unless, of course, they don’t wind up conveying the pick this June, try to be as good as possible next season to pay the pick debt before it becomes totally unprotected, look at what a healthy Conley has done in a spread offense, and think harder about keeping him around a little while longer.

The Grizzlies are kind of stuck right now—near the bottom of the standings but with no reason to tank, forced to wait for other dominoes to fall before they can move toward what comes next. Instead of dispassionately playing out the string, though, they’re playing their asses off, with Conley at the helm. Not exactly a novel concept, I know, but still: It’s kind of refreshing.