Monday, April 22, 2024
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Joel Embiid returns, allowing 76ers to dream big; Gearing up for Zach Edey vs. DJ Burns Jr. Final Four clash

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🏀 Good morning to everyone but especially …

JOEL EMBIID AND THE PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

He’s back, and not a moment too soon.

Joel Embiid made his long-awaited return from knee surgery in victorious fashion, keying the 76ers109-105 comeback win over the Thunder. The reigning MVP fittingly made the play of the game, stealing the ball from Josh Giddey with Philadelphia up one late and making two ensuing free throws to help seal the deal.

  • Embiid finished with 24 points, six rebounds and seven assists in 29 minutes. He shot just six for 14 from the field but made all 12 of his free throws.
  • It was Embiid’s first game since Jan. 30, when he suffered a displaced flap of the meniscus in his left knee against the Warriors. He underwent surgery shortly thereafter.
  • Philadelphia moved to 27-8 when Embiid plays compared to 14-27 when he doesn’t. At 41-35, Philadelphia is eighth in the East, 1.5 games behind the Heat for seventh and two games behind the Pacers for sixth. Seeds 7-10 have to go through the play-in tournament to make the playoffs.

Yes, the Thunder were without MVP candidate Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but the 76ers didn’t have Tyrese Maxey, and furthermore, Embiid was playing with Buddy Hield, Kyle Lowry and Cameron Payne for the first time.

But most importantly, the 76ers desperately need Embiid, and they desperately need wins, in that order. On Tuesday, they got both, and with him back, things are looking up, Sam Quinn writes.

  • Quinn: “That’s what having an MVP can do for even the most flawed of teams, and ‘flawed’ is the best way to describe just about everyone in the Eastern Conference besides Boston right now. … Yes, this is an injury-riddled team trying to generate chemistry on the fly and yes, the standings aren’t especially favorable at the moment. But as Embiid proved against the Thunder, having a single player who can stare down the opponent and think, ‘fine, I’ll do it myself,’ remains arguably the most valuable weapon any team can have in a wide-open playoff field.”

😄 Honorable mentions

  • LeBron James addressed Bronny James‘ future amid transfer portal rumors.
  • Another night, another historic Victor Wembanyama box score
  • The massively successful Stephen Curry-Sabrina Ionescu 3-point showdown from this year’s All-Star weekend could expand to include Klay Thompson and Caitlin Clark next year.
  • I enjoyed Cameron Salerno‘s look at how Alabama overhauled its roster and made the Final Four.
  • East beat West 88-86, in the McDonald’s All-American Game. Texas commit Tre Johnson, Dylan Harper (Rutgers) and Derik Queen (Maryland) impressed.
  • Bryce Harper hit not one, not two but three home runs, including a grand slam.
  • Four-time All Star and two-time NBA champion Rajon Rondo called it a career.
  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire is staying with the Chiefs.

😬 Not so honorable mentions

🏀 How Purdue is honoring Gene Keady, plus Zach Edey vs. DJ Burns Jr. showdown

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This year’s men’s Final Four is a fascinating combination. You have a program that’s plenty familiar with the stage in five-time (and reigning) champ UConn. You have a team that has never been there before in Alabama. And then you have two programs rich in history and heartbreak who are back for the first time in a while: NC State‘s magical run for its first Final Four since 1983 and Purdue‘s cathartic run for its first Final Four since 1980.

Matt Painter‘s long-awaited breakthrough for the Boilermakers is one his predecessor and mentor, Hall of Famer Gene Keady, never got to experience as a coach. But now, as a fan and a living legend, he’s been there every step of the way — so much so that Zach Edey gave him part of the net the Boilermakers cut down in Detroit. Keady’s legacy is thriving decades later, David Cobb writes.

  • Cobb: “‘He built this,’ Edey said. ‘It doesn’t go over our heads. He helped set this all up. To be able to pay him back and give him a little piece of net, it’s the least I can do.’ … The moment bridged the generations of Purdue basketball in an especially meaningful way for Painter, who played for Keady from 1989 to 1993 and joined Purdue’s staff for Keady’s final season in 2004-05 with the understanding that he would be the successor.”

Looking forward, we use “unstoppable force vs. immovable object” far too often in sports. And here’s the thing: Edey and his next opponent, DJ Burns Jr., are both unstoppable forces and immovable objects. Kyle Boone previews an exhilarating clash.

⚾ Which MLB teams are most in win-now mode?

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It’s very, VERY early, but the MLB season is already producing some expected results. The Dodgers are awesome. So are the Orioles and Rangers. The Athletics, Rockies and White Sox are not. And while there have been surprises pleasant (Yankees, Pirates, Brewers, Tigers) and unpleasant (Mets, Marlins), the season isn’t even a week old. We’ll see if those last.

Still, given expectations, payrolls and the first few days of the season, we can assess how much pressure teams are under to win right now. That’s exactly what Mike Axisa ranked, and while the Dodgers are an easy call at No. 1, Mike wonders if they’re under the most pressure … ever.

  • Axisa: “You don’t give Shohei Ohtani a record $700 million contract and Yoshinobu Yamamoto the largest pitching contract in history and not expect to win the World Series. The Dodgers won 111 games in 2022 and 100 games in 2023, then went a combined 1-6 in the NLDS. As successful as this franchise has been the last decade — 10 NL West titles in the last 11 years — Los Angeles has won one World Series since 1988, and it was during the shortened 60-game pandemic season in 2020. They invested heavily in Ohtani and Yamamoto to win it all in 2024, not at some undetermined point in the future. Anything short of a World Series championship this season will be viewed as a failure. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that.”

Seems fair to me!

🏈 Six NFL teams set to make playoffs after missing them last season

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The NFL is a league of tiny margins, and the recent playoff fields are perfect examples of that. Only about half of the postseason teams one year make it the next, leaving plenty of room for teams to climb up the ranks.

So, which teams are going to do that in 2024? Cody Benjamin ranked the top six candidates to make this postseason after missing last season’s, and I wholeheartedly agree with his first.

  • Benjamin: “Falcons (2023 finish: 7-10 | Last playoff season: 2017) — The Falcons had all the ingredients for a wild-card run in 2023, except a legitimate signal-caller. Now Kirk Cousins is under center, and while his career suggests more of a steady hand than a special talent, he’s got enough ascending skill talent and underrated defensive support to warrant an instant playoff berth in the wide-open NFC South.”

When Cousins signed with the Falcons, I wrote about why he’s a great fit, and it goes beyond the fact that he’s played well recently and that he’ll have a strong supporting cast in Bijan Robinson, Drake London, Kyle Pitts and a good offensive line. He’s also in the perfect coaching situation with Raheem Morris coming over from Los Angeles and bringing Zac Robinson in as offensive coordinator.

Over the past two seasons, Atlanta is 9-14 in one-score games, tied for fourth-worst in the NFL. Cousins, meanwhile, is 14-4. That’s … significantly better

Cousins isn’t the only quarterback coming off an Achilles tear whose team lands on Cody’s list, either.

  • Benjamin: “Jets (2023 finish: 7-10 | Last playoff season: 2010) — It all hinges on Aaron Rodgers (again). At 40, fresh off a season lost to an Achilles tear, are his MVP Packers days a distant memory? They could be. But at least his O-line and weaponry are slightly upgraded after the additions of Tyron Smith and Mike WilliamsRobert Saleh‘s ‘D’ also remains fierce at every level. If not now, then when?”

📺 What we’re watching Wednesday

🏒 Devils at Rangers, 7 p.m. on TNT
🏀 Thunder at Celtics, 7:30 p.m. on ESPN
🏒 Kraken at Kings, 9:30 p.m. on TNT
🏀 Cavaliers at Suns, 10 p.m. on ESPN

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