Vie. Jun 21st, 2024

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The NBA has been celebrating Rivals Week, with key matchups pitting star players against each other and putting the spotlight on team rivalries both new and old. Saturday’s tripleheader on ABC features three such matchups.

The Miami Heat get things started by visiting the New York Knicks (3 p.m. ET on ABC) in a revival of one of the NBA’s best rivalries from the 1990s — and one that could have playoff implications in the Eastern Conference.

Then, reigning MVP Joel Embiid takes his Philadelphia 76ers on the road to face reigning Finals MVP Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets (5:30 p.m. ET on ABC) in a battle of the NBA’s two best big men.

Finally, in a rematch of last year’s Western Conference semifinals, the Los Angeles Lakers take on the Golden State Warriors (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC), giving us another chance to watch 20-time All-Star LeBron James face all-time 3-point leader Stephen Curry.

Before the action tips off, we asked our NBA experts to dive into these three rivalries, plus others from around the NBA.

1. Which team will have a deeper playoff run: the Knicks or the Heat?

Tim Bontemps: Miami for one reason: Jimmy Butler. This man has led the Heat to the NBA Finals two of the last four seasons, as well as to a seven-game Eastern Conference finals another time. The Knicks have done a terrific job steadily building a deeper roster each transaction cycle, but until they have a deep run, Miami is more likely to go further in the postseason.

Jamal Collier: The Heat have proven that as long as they have Butler and head coach Erik Spoelstra, they’re always going to have a chance at a deep playoff run. Combine that with Bam Adebayo having one of his best all-around seasons and adding Terry Rozier, Miami is not going to go quietly come playoff time.

Andrew Lopez: Currently, Miami seems better equipped, but Miami’s offense has struggled throughout January, and Rozier has only scored a combined 15 points in his first two games with the Heat. With two weeks until the trade deadline, New York could make a move that could easily shift this answer back to the Knicks.

Dave McMenamin: I’m going to go with the known versus the unknown. I know that a Miami team — with its offense led by Butler, its defense led by Adebayo and its schemes drawn up by Spoelstra — has made it to two of the last four NBA Finals. Jalen Brunson, OG Anunoby and Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau haven’t been in a single postseason game together yet. Advantage: Heat.

Brian Windhorst: Miami hasn’t been equipped, in surface-level analysis, for a deep playoff run for the last two seasons. But there they were. Spoelstra’s record of game-planning and problem-solving in the postseason is sterling, and Playoff Jimmy Butler is absolutely a thing. It’s not so much a vote of no confidence in the Knicks as it is a belief in the Heat’s routine ability to maximize their roster in the playoffs.

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Why Stephen A.’s getting excited about the Knicks

Stephen A. Smith says his excitement for the Knicks is growing after their dominant win over the Nuggets 122-84.


2. The Nuggets host the 76ers in a battle of MVPs. Who’ll win the award this season — Jokic, Embiid, or someone else?

Collier: Embiid certainly seems poised as the current front-runner. If there were any doubts, his recent 70-point performance is historic enough to quiet them for now. There’s still a long way to go, and Jokic’s Nuggets appear to be more formidable title contenders, but Embiid’s dominance this season has reached another level.

Bontemps: Embiid wins it because I believe he’ll find a way to get to the 65-game threshold under the league’s player participation policy. Jokic would be the favorite to claim a third MVP if ESPN’s recent straw poll is any indication, but don’t count out Oklahoma City Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. If the Thunder finish with the best record in the Western Conference, he’ll get a lot of support.

Windhorst: Gilgeous-Alexander’s quiet brilliance in leading a stunning Thunder surge this season deserves real consideration for the award. Jokic’s efficient dominance is breathtaking. But Embiid is having perhaps the greatest offensive season since Wilt Chamberlain averaged 50 points a game in 1961-62 and the 76ers are also deemed as overachieving to this point. For these reasons, he remains the leader.

McMenamin: Anthony Edwards’ unabashed praise of Embiid back in December is not the type of thing you normally hear someone say about an opposing player. «He’s unstoppable, man,» Edwards said when Embiid dropped 51 on the Wolves. «I don’t see how they lose a game, honestly.» When the MVP race is as close as it is once again, voters should take a wider view by answering this straightforward question: Who is the most dominant player in the league? Embiid is that guy. So long as he reaches the 65-game threshold, the trophy should be his.

Lopez: It’s hard for me to say anyone but Embiid after watching his 70-point performance in person, but the only thing that could stop Embiid from holding up his second MVP trophy could be… well, Embiid. If he doesn’t hit the 65-game threshold, that would open the door for Jokic or Gilgeous-Alexander.


3. Fact or Fiction: We’ve already seen the last postseason (including play-in) meeting between LeBron and Steph.

Lopez: Fiction. We’ve already seen one play-in tournament showdown between these two back in 2021 and they could be headed for another one this season.

Collier: Fiction. Both players are still operating at a high level, even if they cannot carry their teams in the same way as the past. But with the play-in tournament, there’s a chance these two could play another high stakes game against each other, even if it’s unlikely to be a series.

McMenamin: Fiction. We’ve seen them go at it in the postseason six of the last nine seasons. With no clear-cut ending to either of their careers currently in sight, you’ve got to figure the Basketball Gods will cook up another Curry-James showdown.

Windhorst: Fiction. Crazy to bet against either of them elevating their teams both playing in markets that attract players.

Bontemps: Fact. Some of this is to just be a little contrarian, since everyone else is saying fiction. But given the state of both franchises at the moment, the safe bet is to go this way.


4. What’s the best current rivalry in the NBA? Either between teams or players.

Lopez: It felt like Warriors-Grizzlies could take this, but a lot of wind has been let out of those sails since last season. Warriors-Kings had such a big-time feel in last year’s playoffs as well. But Bucks-Celtics could be that kind of series this year, especially since Jrue Holiday is with Boston this time.

McMenamin: My personal favorite is Jokic vs. the microphone during postgame news conferences. But the best is Jokic vs. Embiid. They are the two best players in the sport and they play the same position. We haven’t gotten that at center since Hakeem Olajuwon and Shaquille O’Neal met in the Finals when Michael Jordan was off shagging fly balls with the Birmingham Barons.

Windhorst: Heat-Celtics. Undervalued and underrespected for no good reason. They’ve played in the playoffs six times since 2010 and staged three seven-game series in the conference finals including each of the last two seasons. From LeBron’s 46-point Game 6 in 2012 to Derrick White’s buzzer putback last year, this rivalry is jammed with memorable moments. Also, Pat Riley hates Boston, and Boston hates everyone.

Bontemps: Devin Booker vs. Luka Doncic. This has it all, led by epic playoff battles and a real dislike for each other — at least on the court. We saw that crop up again this week, and it certainly would be the case if the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks were to square off once again in the playoffs come this spring.

Collier: Jokic-Embiid is the most fascinating, both for games against each other — Embiid plays with an undoubtedly extra edge — and in the way they have competed for awards and ultimately their place in NBA history. Embiid could join Jokic as a back-to-back MVP if he wins it this season, but now that Jokic has a Finals MVP award, the discussion and comparison between the two has shifted.


5. What’s the next great NBA rivalry? Either between teams or players.

Windhorst: I know their early regular-season meetings have been mundane and the Thunder are several years ahead of the San Antonio Spurs, but I am convinced Chet Holmgren vs. Victor Wembanyama has a chance for a decade-plus of fierceness. It has all the ingredients, and it is absolutely in their personalities. They want it. No one is talking me out of this right now.

Bontemps: I’ll go with the Thunder against the Nuggets. The core of Denver’s roster isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, led by the dynamic duo of Jokic and Jamal Murray, while Oklahoma City — behind Holmgren, Gilgeous-Alexander and Jalen Williams — is the ascendant team in the West. This could easily become something akin to the great Thunder-Spurs rivalry from a decade ago, and could be the defining matchup in the West.

Collier: The Indiana Pacers and Milwaukee Bucks have all the right ingredients for a contentious playoff matchup. They’ve got established star power, an emerging young team with an emerging star, a history of intense games stemming from the in-season tournament, bad feelings from an argument over a game ball and an underdog who doesn’t fear the incumbent.

McMenamin: Much the same way Edwards went out of his way to praise Embiid, he also made a point to shade Gilgeous-Alexander. «You can’t touch him at any time of the game,» Edwards said of the favorable whistle that he believes SGA gets. The Thunder guard being named an All-Star starter over Edwards should only add to it. Both have already accelerated their development in their short spans in the league. It should make for delicious theater when they tip off against one another for a long, long time.

Lopez: It’ll go deeper than just Wembanyama vs. Holmgren and turn into a full-fledged Spurs-Thunder rivalry. With Gilgeous-Alexander playing at an MVP-type level, there’s no reason to think he falls off and the Thunder go with him. If San Antonio can build around Wembanyama and put a team around him that contends, the Spurs and Thunder could find themselves as rivals for years to come with plenty of playoff series to go along with it.

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