10:30 PM EST, TNT – Line: Warriors -9.5, Over/Under: 240.5
There ‘s star power aplenty in this potential NBA Finals preview, as the Philadelphia 76ers travel to ORACLE Arena to battle the Golden State Warriors in the penultimate stop on a four-game West Coast Road Trip. Winners of six of their last eight outings, the 76ers (33-18, 4th in Eastern Conference) head towards the All-Star Break with a sizable amount of momentum, as they continue to climb the ladder in the Eastern Conference. Currently sitting at Fourth, Philadelphia figures to ascend higher given their trajectory, particularly when you consider the misfortune of some of the teams ahead of them in the standings, particularly the Indiana Pacers, who despite lying just one game in front must somehow keep pace with their contemporaries without the services of All-Star Guard Victor Oladipo, who suffered a ruptured Quadricep Tendon in his Right Knee, and will miss the remainder of the campaign. Granted, the Sixers certainly know all about season-ending injuries to star players, for their two young gems, Joel Embiid (27.2 PTS, 49.0% FG, 31.0% 3FG, 13.3 REB, 3.6 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.9 BLK, 25.9 PER) and Ben Simmons (16.7 PTS, 56.9% FG, 9.5 REB, 8.2 AST, 1.3 STL, 0.8 BLK, 21.0 PER), have each missed significant time throughout their brief careers to various maladies, while last year’s No. One Overall Pick, Markelle Fultz (8.2 PTS, 41.9% FG, 28.6% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 3.1 AST, 0.9 STL, 10.5 PER), simply can’t stay on the court due to a mysterious shoulder injury. However, this is now a team that looks to finally be reaching full strength, now that they’ve welcomed back Jimmy Butler (19.0 PTS, 48.2% FG, 38.8% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 3.5 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.5 BLK, 21.1 PER), who had missed the previous three games before Tuesday Night’s 121-105 blowout of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Though there is always the potential for a seismic trade (or two) in the week leading tot he Trade Deadline, by far and away the biggest transaction came earlier in the season, when the Sixers acquired Butler from the Minnesota Timberwolves , a deal that was highly publicized given the drama surrounding the veteran Swingman’s departure. While we won’t dive into old news, his arrival to Philadelphia has absolutely improved Brett Brown’s team, giving it the serious shot in the arm that it lacked. Before the trade, this unit was mired in a disappointing 8-6 start to the term, but has since gone 25-12, with Butler fitting in quite well with Philly’s young stars, which was definitely a point of contention during his time with the Timberwolves. Butler & Co. jumped on the Lakers early on the strength of a 39-point First Quarter, that would ultimately be too much for the hosts to overcome. The four-time All-Star totaled Twenty Points on an efficient 7-of-9 shooting (77.8%), along with Five Rebounds, Six Assists, Five Steals, and a Block, while the aforementioned Embiid added a team-high Twenty-Eight Points on 7-of-16 shooting (43.8%), with Eleven Rebounds, Six Assists, and Block. The visitors held decisive advantages from beyond the arc, where they knocked down 15-of-36 Attempts (41.7%), and from the Charity Stripe where they netted 22-of-28 Free-Throws (78.6%), besting Los Angeles by Twenty-Four Points and Ten Points in those respective categories. If you’re one to read into building chemistry (we certainly are), then it’s worth noting that Butler’s inclusion into Brown’s preferred Starting Five including Embiid and Simmons, along with J.J. Redick (18.4 PTS, 44.6% FG, 38.4% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 2.8 AST, 15.3 PER) and Wilson Chandler (6.7 PTS, 43.8% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 4.7 REB, 2.0 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 9.1 PER) has reaped rewards for Philadelphia, who are 15-6 this season with this particular combination of players starting the contest.
Meanwhile, the more things change, the more they continue to stay the same as we had towards the All-Star Break and surprise, surprise, the Warriors (36-14, 1st in Western Conference) once again sit atop the Western Conference. Remember that stretch back in November in which they had dropped six out of eight games, dealing with a proverbial laundry list of injuries? Yeah, neither do we, for after four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, including three NBA Championships, it seems that the only thing that can truly stop Golden State is themselves. Simply put, no team in the league has been hotter than the Dubs since the turn of the New Year, winning thirteen of their last fourteen outings, including eleven straight heading into tonight’s meeting with the Sixers. During this particular run, they’ve been dismantling the competition with startling ease, dumping their opponents by an average margin of 17.4 Points per Game, all the while shooting a blistering 51.7% from the field, including 41.2% from downtown, and dishing out a ridiculous 33.6 Assists in comparison to a mere 11.6 Turnovers. Furthermore, they’ve some pretty solid defense as well, relegating their opponents to 44.1% shooting overall, while outrebounding them by a margin of 7.3 boards a night. When we last saw them, they were busy routing the Victor Oladipo-less Indiana Pacers 132-100, outscoring the home side 40-22 in the First Quarter and 31-21 to further kill them off in the final stanza. The visitors shot a scorching 54.1% from the field, including 13-of-31 from three (41.9%), assisting on thirty-nine of their fifty-three field goals. Five different Warriors scored in double-figures, led by two-time MVP Steph Curry (29.3 PTS, 49.5%, FG, 45.1% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 5.4 AST, 1.2 STL, 26.7 PER), who poured in Twenty-Six Points on 10-of-13 shooting (76.9%), including 6-of-8 from deep (75.0%), and a resurgent DeMarcus Cousins, who finished the night with Twenty-Two Points on 7-of-12 shooting (58.3%), along with Six Rebounds and Four Assists.
Of course, when the Warriors signed Cousins to a very modest, one-year, $5 million deal in the Offseason, many around the league shook their collective heads at the reigning champions’ gamble on a player that had recently suffered a crushing Achilles Tear roughly a year ago to the date. While some looked at it as a simple case of the rich getting disgustingly richer, there was some real concern about a team with a diminishing bench using their resources on a player that may never reach the All-Star level that he had exhibited earlier in his career. Surely, they could have used that money elsewhere on a more surer thing, right? Well, when you have a team with the likes of the aforementioned Curry, Kevin Durant (27.7 PTS, 50.5% FG, 37.7% 3FG, 7.2 REB, 5.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 1.2 BLK, 24.8 PER), and Klay Thompson (21.7 PTS, 46.2% FG, 37.9% 3FG, 4.0 REB, 2.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 0.6 BLK, 16.1 PER), you have the luxury of waiting on a guy like Cousins, who could potentially transform your team when he’s on the court, adding just about the only dimensions that Kerr’s charges lacked: a behemoth that can score and defend in the post. So what’s the verdict, you ask? While it is still far too early to properly assess this addition, the four-time All-Star Center affectionately known around the NBA simply as “Boogie” has impressed when on the court thus far. Since returning from injury five games ago, Cousins has been highly productive in limited minutes (21.8 MIN), averaging 15.2 Points per Game on 49.1% shooting from the field, even stepping out and knocking down 54.5% of his three-pointers, along with 7.0 Rebounds, 3.6 Assists, 0.8 Steals, and 0.6 Blocks. Furthermore, his Per 36 Minutes Statistics are in line with what they were last season in New Orleans before tearing his Achilles, and any notion of him being unable to fit into his new surroundings have bene completely dispelled; Golden State holds an +13.8 Offensive Rating with him on the floor this season in comparison to a +6.2 Rating when he’s on the bench. Of course, it’s no coincidence that his return has coincided with the Dubs’ current winning streak, and who knows how good this group will be once he really gets back into game shape. It simply isn’t fair…