Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid returned Sunday after an eight-game, 24-day absence to recuperate his sore left knee, and it was as if he never left.
Indeed, about the only thing that slowed him down against the Indiana Pacers was foul trouble. Embiid otherwise did pretty much whatever he wanted, tuning up the Pacers' hapless frontcourt for 33 points, 15 free throws and 12 rebounds in just 27 minutes as the Sixers rolled to a 106-89 triumph.
"He is a difference maker in all ways, shapes and forms,'' said coach Brett Brown, emphatic praise that somehow still almost sold Embiid short given the full extent of his dominance; the 7-footer notably scored 24 in the second half as the Sixers erased an eight-point halftime deficit .
Embiid's return couldn't have come soon enough for the Sixers, who split their eight games without him and find themselves in a battle with the Pacers and the Boston Celtics for the third playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
The Sixers have only 15 regular-season games remaining, and nine of them on the road, so every win is key. And perhaps even more important than positioning? Developing the chemistry that has sometimes eluded the Sixers due to Embiid's injury and the in-season acquisitions of Tobias Harris and Jimmy Butler.
"We are on the clock," Brown said. "The sense of urgency and awareness of where we are getting close to having to perform at is real for these players."
Brown can at least comfort himself with the knowledge that -- in the rare instances his full lineup has been available -- it's been utterly dominant. Per ESPN research, the five-man unit of Embiid, Butler, Harris, Ben Simmons and JJ Redick has outscored opponents at a rate of 24 points per 100 possessions in 83 minutes together, compared to a minus-0.3 per 100 in 159 minutes without Embiid.
Given that Embiid said he only felt better as the game wore on, that's bad, bad news for the rest of the East.
A breakout for the Phoenix Suns! Roughly a week after pulling off one of the NBA's bigger upsets in recent decades with their victory over the Milwaukee Bucks, they did it again by stunning the Golden State Warriors 115-111 at Oracle Arena.
Granted, they got a huge break with the right ankle contusion that sent Kevin Durant to the locker room for good with 6:34 remaining. But the Suns had played well up to that point, even leading for most of the third quarter before the Warriors fought back to tie things up at 91 when Durant left.
The Warriors led by one several minutes later, just before the Suns ripped off a 12-0 run, fueled by nine points from Devin Booker and capped by Kelly Oubre's no-no-no-YES!!! 3-pointer. It was 1-on-5 when Oubre, a career 32-percent shooter on 3s, let fly with 18 seconds left on the shot clock. But as the Romans used to say, fortune favors the bold.
The Warriors, who entered as 17-point favorites and led by 16 in the first quarter, made their inevitable run. But the Suns held firm, snapping an 18-game losing streak to the Warriors dating back to November 2014.
The Suns closed as a 17-point underdog against the Warriors.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 11, 2019
It's just the 2nd time in the last 20 seasons that a 17-point underdog won a game outright. The Lakers upset the Warriors as a 17.5-point underdog on March 6, 2016. pic.twitter.com/mLi8SVD4oI
The air up there
One of the most captivating aspects of the NBA is the freakish athleticism we're treated to on a nightly basis, and Sunday delivered in spades with a pair of truly ridiculous alley-oops from Miami's Derrick Jones Jr. and Atlanta's John Collins.
Neither were served with very good passes. But when you can jump and catch like these two, accuracy is but a luxury.
Chris Paul, rim protector
A nine-time All-Defensive selection, Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul is used to making game-changing plays on the ugly end of the floor. But that usually involves steals and tenacity rather than blocked shots. Indeed, the future Hall of Famer entered his 935th career regular-season game with just 116 blocks, an average of 0.1 per.
So, with Sunday's game against the Dallas Mavericks on the line, of course Paul stepped up to deny Jalen Brunson's jumper at the buzzer and preserve a 94-93 victory for the Rockets.
It was a fitting finish to a big day for Paul, who also surpassed Isiah Thomas for seventh on the NBA's career assists list.
Klay did WHAT!?!?!
It was impossible to tell who was more shocked at Klay Thompson's wraparound slam against the Suns, his teammates or the man himself. Either way, the reactions were entirely justified given that this was just Thompson's 20th dunk out of 548 total field goals this season.
The real Batman
Bats continued their decade-long invasion of the AT&T Center with the latest in a long line of court incursions during the Spurs' 121-114 conquest of the Milwaukee Bucks. Which couldn't have been more perfect given that Bucks center Brook Lopez, a noted comic book geek, has said he'd "absolutely" let a bat bite him if given the chance, disease and infection be damned. As he told SB Nation in February:
"If you’ve learned anything from the modern superhero myth, if you see a bat around and it bites you, you have a 75 percent chance of ending up a superhero. Otherwise you’ll probably get really get sick. But it’d be cool to be a superhero. You don’t need to be too afraid, I’d say give it a shot."
But it's that other 25 percent, Brook. According to Live Science, bats can carry more than 60 human-infecting viruses, including ebola and salmonella.
Which is why teammate Eric Bledsoe couldn't have gotten out of the way fast enough, and lived to tell the tale.
Mama I got attacked today😔 #theundefeatedSanAntoniobatslol— Eric Bledsoe (@EBled2) March 11, 2019