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Wednesday NBA Roundup: Joel Embiid, Kristaps Porzingis in Disparate Situations

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 11:  Joel Embiid #21 of the Philadelphia 76ers handles the ball against the New York Knicks on January 11, 2017 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2017 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 12, 2017

After T.J. McConnell's buzzer-beating game-winner lifted the Philadelphia 76ers over the New York Knicks on Wednesday, it officially became impossible not to trust the process.

Not because the Sixers' 98-97 triumph produced win No. 11 on the season, one more than they amassed in all of 2015-16, and not because Joel Embiid soundly outplayed Kristaps Porzingis.

Instead, the true validation of a painful, much-derided rebuilding process was in the way it produced a Sixers team so profoundly different than the one New York put on the floor.

Call it a juxtaposition of patience and impatience. Or, if you want to get more graphic, think of the Sixers' and Knicks' organizational philosophies like this: One has shown an uncommon willingness to take lumps, while the other has avoided growing pains at all costs, only to inflict mortal, franchise-killing wounds upon itself.

The contrasting results of those processes (yeah, I said it again) was evident after McConnell's mid-range winner fell, when everyone in a three-mile radius celebrated a fourth win in five nights and a 10-point comeback in the final two minutes.

Philadelphia—players, home crowd, broadcast team, executives on the sidelines—was deliriously jubilant.

The Knicks were in despair, and that contrast is really just a macro version of the emotions that arise when watching both teams.

When New York hits a rough patch, misses a defensive assignment or stagnates on offense, it's dispiriting. And that's because this is a Knicks team desperately trying to win right now. It's hungry for relevance, thirsty for a playoff berth.

You don't ink Joakim Noah to a ludicrous contract or trade for Derrick Rose if you're building for the long haul.

The Sixers' missteps, of which there were many Wednesday, lack that emotional soul-sapping quality because they're expected. Even invited.

Embiid scored 21 points and grabbed a career-high 14 rebounds, but he was asked to do far too much in this game—as has been the case all season. But in overburdening their franchise player, the 76ers are really fostering growth. Though his rookie season has been a resounding success, Embiid has failed over and over again.

Noah stoned him in the post several times down the stretch, but Philly kept trusting Embiid as a low-block fulcrum. This is an approach you can take when wins in the present don't really matter. You can thrust someone like Embiid into adverse situations, even set him up to fail in some sense, but not worry about the short-term consequences.

While the Knicks stifle themselves and Porzingis with win-now expectations, Philadelphia liberates Embiid with its future vision and disregard for present failure.

Which is partly why you get sequences like this from the first quarter, in which Porzingis, limited in his role, hits a perfect buttoned-up three, only to see Embiid unleashed for a wild Eurostepping finish on the other end:

 

One guy has to fit in; the other gets to show out.

And when Embiid clanked an entirely too ambitious dunk attempt, sending himself sprawling to the floor, it was funny—not gut-wrenching like Porzingis' air-balled corner three on New York's final offensive possession.

 

Maybe if KP, who finished with just seven points on 3-of-10 shooting, had played at all in the fourth quarter, he would have been a little looser on that final attempt. But no, the Knicks had to let Carmelo Anthony run the show and score 28 points.

Because New York is a team with grand dreams of the eighth seed in the East.

Those fantasies are fading, and that's the most damning part of this comparison. Over the last month, the overwrought Knicks are 4-12 with a minus-4.6 net rating. Philadelphia, growing joyfully and expectation-free, is 6-7 with a minus-2.4 net rating.

Perhaps the Sixers are the ones who should be thinking about playing in late April. They seem into it, as Embiid's comments indicate, via Derek Bodner of Philadelphia Magazine:

 

But hey, the whole Process teardown destroyed the fanbase, right? Missing the playoffs for the last four years wasn't worth it.

Except...what's four years, really? And how much worse is it than three years, which is when the Knicks last made the postseason? If you want to get a longer view, the Sixers have been in the playoffs seven times in the last 15 years. New York: four times.

The Knicks have destroyed themselves with one shortsighted gambit after another. Meanwhile, the 76ers are thriving because they thought harder about the big picture.

 

Both Embiid and Porzingis remain enviable cornerstones. They'll have years to butt heads, and it'll be a privilege to watch them. But right now, Philadelphia is producing better results than the Knicks, which hardly matters to the Sixers.

Because for them, as always, it's about the process.

 

 

Vengeance Is Westbrook's...And OKC's

Who cares if the Oklahoma City Thunder are right to be mad about Memphis Grizzlies guard Troy Daniels bombing garbage-time threes the last time these two teams met? Just know OKC was aggrieved, as Fred Katz of the Norman Transcript relays here via an interview with Andre Roberson:

 

See that? Miffed. Bothered. Annoyed. Ticked, even.

No surprise, then, that the Thunder got after it early in their 103-95 win against the Grizz.

Russell Westbrook, who finished with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists in his 18th triple-double this season, seemed particularly motivated:

 

And in terms of retribution, maybe Enes Kanter's development into a competent passer (unheard of last year, and even earlier this season) might actually sting the Grizzlies even more. Because while you can prepare for Westbrook's statistical onslaught, you really don't expect Kanter to dice you up with dimes.

 

In addition to point-Kanter's three assists, the reserve big man also bullied his way to 19 points and 13 rebounds.

Though it's probably a beacon of mental instability in the real world, taking minor slights and inflating them for motivational purposes tends to be a sign of a dangerous NBA team. Just to be safe, opponents should probably stop shooting threes against OKC entirely.

Don't want to incur any extra wrath.

 

The Timberwolves Can't Blow 'Em All

 

Credit the Minnesota Timberwolves for not collapsing into the fetal position and surrendering to the fear. Up a dozen points heading into the fourth quarter against the Houston Rockets, all the ingredients were in place for yet another devastating implosion.

Kind of like the last time these two teams faced, when Minnesota gave up a 12-point lead in the final 2:19 and lost. 

Instead of coughing up yet another late advantage (the Wolves have lost 12 games this year in which they've led by double digits), Minnesota capitalized on an uncharacteristically cold Rockets squad, exploiting the absence of Clint Capela by running up 56 points in the paint and hauling in 49 rebounds to Houston's 32.

The Wolves won, 119-105.

Normally, the Rockets would have just rained triples to make up the deficit and extend their winning streak to 10. But they made a mortal 35.7 percent of their 42 three-point tries and converted a measly 41.4 percent of their shots overall. Eric Gordon's absence was a factor there.

James Harden, because he's James Harden, scored 33 points and handed out 12 assists in 39 minutes.

But Karl-Anthony Towns finished with 23 points, 18 rebounds and five assists, while Ricky Rubio produced a career-high-tying 17 assists against just one turnover.

Most of all, though, the Timberwolves didn't blow this one.

Maybe all that yelling is paying off.

 

The Celtics Have Some Fight

Isaiah Thomas got it done in regulation, scoring 38 points to lead the Boston Celtics to a 117-108 win over the Washington Wizards.

And Jae Crowder and Marcus Smart handled the extracurriculars:

There's some history here, as Smart and John Wall got into it when these teams met on Nov. 9.

"(Wall) made a hard foul and I didn't take too fond of it," Smart told reporters after that meeting two months ago. "So I let him know what I had to say. I ain't backing down from nobody and that's going to be understood from here on out. I don't know what he thought but I think he got the message."

Message received.

Meanwhile, on the basketball side, this was a solid win for the Celtics, who didn't have Avery Bradley, Jaylen Brown, Amir Johnson or Tyler Zeller. After falling to the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, Boston quickly re-established its potency.

For now, there are still only two teams in the East that are clearly better than the Celtics. Washington isn't one of them.

 

Wednesday's Final Scores

 

Follow Grant on Twitter @gt_hughes and Facebook.

Stats courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise indicated. Accurate through games played Wednesday, Jan. 11.

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