Wednesday night’s NBA slate of games includes numerous intriguing matchups, from the top team in the East facing the top team in the West, the drama of James Harden‘s return to Houston, All-Stars going up against each other with the Chicago Bulls‘ Zach LaVine facing the New Orleans Pelicans‘ Zion Williamson, and two of the league’s top scorers squaring off in Stephen Curry meeting Damian Lillard.
Additionally, 12 teams are wrapping up the first half of the season as All-Star Weekend rapidly approaches.
With so much action to keep an eye on, we asked our NBA insiders for their biggest takeaway from the biggest games.
Embiid makes MVP case by stunning Jazz
Embiid — who told ESPN’s Jackie MacMullan back in December that he should have made an All-NBA team over Rudy Gobert last season, and has been campaigning to be the league’s Defensive Player of the Year — was dominant at both ends in Wednesday’s win, scoring 40 points to go with 19 rebounds, three assists, a steal and two blocks in 40 minutes.
On offense, Embiid repeatedly powered through Gobert inside, getting his characteristic double-digit free throw attempts while also getting several buckets at the rim. Meanwhile, on the defensive end, Embiid was flying around, repeatedly breaking up lobs to Gobert and, on one possession, contesting a Donovan Mitchell drive and then recovering fast enough to block Gobert at the rim.
Embiid has said since before the season began that he is on a mission to prove that the lack of leaguewide recognition he received last year was a mistake. Wednesday night was the latest example of how successful that campaign has been. And while Embiid might not win Defensive Player of the Year — in fact, Sixers coach Doc Rivers said before the game that Embiid’s teammate, Ben Simmons, should be at the top of ballots for that award — games like Wednesday’s are why Embiid is one of the favorites to be the NBA’s Most Valuable Player this season, and the Sixers enter the All-Star break with the best record in the Eastern Conference. — Tim Bontemps
Harden dominant in return to Houston
James Harden gets the ball at the top of the arc and steps back for a 3-pointer in his return to Houston.
Nothing about James Harden’s return to the Toyota Center came as much of a surprise. Harden received a mixed reaction from Rockets fans in the pandemic-sized crowd, as some cheered in appreciation for his eight spectacular seasons in Houston and some booed, letting out the fresh, hurt feelings from Harden forcing a trade less than two months ago.
As he’s done consistently since joining the Brooklyn Nets, Harden dominated, posting his eighth triple-double since the trade with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists. And the Rockets lost, 132-114, extending the franchise’s longest skid in two decades to a painfully fitting 13 games, matching Harden’s jersey number that will one day hang from the Houston rafters. — Tim MacMahon
Dubs can’t thwart Blazers’ ‘Dame Time’ decision
Damian Lillard pulls up from way downtown and knocks down the 3-pointer to give Portland the lead late.
The Golden State Warriors did exactly what they hoped they would do throughout the first 47 minutes of Wednesday’s 108-106 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers — they slowed down Damian Lillard. They threw body after body at the All-Star point guard, limiting him to just 2-for-9 from beyond the arc and forcing the rest of the Blazers to try and beat them. But then with 14 seconds left and the Blazers down two, there was Lillard draining a three-pointer that gave the Blazers a lead and there was Lillard 10 seconds later rotating under the basket to take a charge from Draymond Green to seal the win. “It’s always a good vibe when you go against somebody that plays at such a high level,” Warriors star Stephen Curry said of Lillard on Tuesday. The Warriors had chance after chance to close Wednesday’s game late, but they ran out of time. They knew Dame Time would eventually come — and they still couldn’t stop it. — Nick Friedell
Pacers’ McConnell sets record for robbery
T.J. McConnell’s nine steals in the first half are the most by any player in one half since the stat became official in 1973-74.
The Indiana Pacers facing the Cleveland Cavaliers wasn’t a marquee matchup, but Pacers guard T.J. McConnell found a way to steal the spotlight. McConnell had nine steals in the first half, the most by any player in one half since the stat became official in 1973-74.
McConnell ended up with 10 steals for the game, one shy of the record, but had 16 points and 13 assists for a very unusual triple-double in Indiana’s 114-111 win.
Tonight, T.J. McConnell recorded the 11th triple-double with steals since steals became official in 1973-74. He’s the first to do so off the bench according to @EliasSports.
He is also the first Pacers player with a triple-double off the bench since Detlaf Schrempf in Feb. 1993 pic.twitter.com/u7LL1tPL1M
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 4, 2021
McConnell was 8-for-8 from the field to become the first player to record 10 steals while shooting 100% from the field in a game, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He had the highest field goal percentage in a game with 10 or more steals, passing Michael Jordan (78% in 1988).
LaVine adds to his All-Star season
Zach LaVine bounces the ball between his legs and then reaches back for an impressive dunk.
In his final tuneup before Sunday’s All-Star Game, Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine continued to show why he was selected to the league’s midseason showcase. LaVine finished with 36 points and eight assists in the win over the Pelicans, and helped put the game away in the fourth quarter in the process. As the Pelicans attempted to come back from a 19-point fourth quarter deficit, LaVine finished a tough layup over Josh Hart with 40.1 seconds remaining to put the Bulls back up eight. He also iced the game with two free throws with 9.7 to go.
It was LaVine’s 11th game this season with at least 35 points, tied for the most in the NBA. Also, Coby White might really enjoy playing New Orleans. The second-year pro finished with 25 points and two of his three highest-scoring games this season have come against the Pelicans. — Andrew Lopez
Hawks pull win out of their hat
The Atlanta Hawks went into the break on quite a high, but it certainly didn’t look like that would be the case for much of their game with the Orlando Magic. A Dwayne Bacon free throw put Orlando in front 106-90 with 6:08 to go and their win probability was 99.3%.
But from there …
The Hawks trailed 106-90 with just under 6 minutes remaining before coming back to win 115-112 vs the Magic.
Entering today, teams were 1-232 when trailing by 16+ points in the final 6 minutes of the game. pic.twitter.com/NgyV1v9GEb
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 4, 2021
Trae Young, who will have the weekend off despite entering the night 10th in the league in scoring (26.2 points per game) and third in assists (9.5 per game), scored 20 of his 32 points in the second half and gave the Hawks the lead for good with two free throws with eight seconds to play.
Double triple-double for Detroit
The other Pistons teammates with triple-doubles in the same game were Donnie Butcher and Ray Scott, who did it in 1964.
A win is a win for Mavs
To win a game where your best player (Luka Doncic) is sitting, and in which you shoot 8-of-40 from 3, and under 40% from the field, and do it comfortably, says … something. Either the Dallas Mavericks, in their 87-78 win, did an excellent job holding down the Oklahoma City Thunder‘s young talent, or the Thunder had a moderately worse offensive game than Dallas (their 78 points were the fewest since 2015).
Nevertheless, every win is precious to the Mavs and it was an encouraging sign to see Kristaps Porzingis play well (19 points, 13 rebounds). For Dallas, its potential resides in a healthy, dominant Luka and a healthy, confident Porzingis. So maybe not a notable win or performance, but always better than the alternative. — Royce Young
Mighty cold in Minnesota
So, how do you like life an NBA coach, Chris Finch?
Finch, who replaced Ryan Saunders as Minnesota Timberwolves coach last month, is still looking for his first win. Minnesota is 0-5 under Finch and has lost nine straight, with a 135-102 drubbing by the Charlotte Hornets the latest defeat. The 33-point win was Charlotte’s largest in the last three seasons, as the Timberwolves limp into the break with the league’s worst record at 7-29.
“Tonight’s performance was completely unacceptable,” Finch said.