NBA Winners and Losers: Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum continue to climb; Sixers' season takes another turn
Two of the NBA's youngest stars are putting up tremendous numbers in February
One of the most painstaking parts of All-Star break is the period that lasts from the end of the All-Star game to return of regular-season play. Those few days at the beginning of the week seem to drag on forever as basketball fans anxiously await the return of their beloved NBA entertainment.
As a result, the first week back from All-Star is reduced to a long weekend of games. In this season's iteration, teams began playing again on Thursday night. But because this league is filled with riveting narratives and storylines, there were no shortages of winners and losers from the past four days of basketball.
Let's scan the league and see which players or teams got off on the right foot for this season's homestretch, and who might have stumbled out of the gate.
Winner: Zion Williamson
The NBA has seen its fair share of super teenagers over the years, and despite a small sample size of 12 games, it's safe to say Zion Williamson is among the most elite 19-year-old's the league has ever seen.
Since making his debut on Jan. 22 – a game where he scored 22 points in 18 minutes and set social media on fire with his explosive play – Williamson has scored fewer than 20 points just twice. Immediately he has become the biggest gravitational force on the New Orleans Pelicans' roster, and on a nightly basis provides a glimpse of a talent already so efficient and so naturally dominant -- and he's only scratching the surface of his capabilities.
Simply put, Williamson is already a star.
In two games following the All-Star break, Williamson exhibited his growing level of comfort on an NBA court. A 25-point effort on Friday night helped lift the Pelicans past the Portland Trail Blazers -- the team directly ahead of New Orleans in the standings -- and a 28-point performance Sunday night led the way in a victory over the Golden State Warriors.
Along with the crucial wins for New Orleans, Williamson also displayed the ability to do outrageous things on the court:
Don't mind Zion, he just casually makes other grown men look like children.
With 25 games remaining in the regular season, Williamson and his Pelicans sit just 3 1/2 games behind the Memphis Grizzlies for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
If Williamson's first two games following the break are any indication of how he'll be playing down the stretch, it should be safe to assume that the Pelicans will be in the thick of the playoff race down to the wire.
Winner: Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder continue to impress.
Written off by many fans and analysts before the season began due to the departure of Paul George and the trade that shipped franchise icon Russell Westbrook to Houston in exchange for Chris Paul, the Thunder were supposed to be entering a transition year into the team's next phase.
Instead, OKC is 35-22 and just 1 1/2 games behind the Rockets for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference and the right to host a first-round playoff series.
Coming out of the break, the Thunder were tasked with a nationally televised Friday night matchup with the Denver Nuggets and Nikola Jokic. No sweat. Paul led the way for Oklahoma City to the tune of 29 points and a variety of clutch plays in the game's final quarter that resulted in a 113-101 victory.
Next up was a Sunday evening game against the struggling San Antonio Spurs. This time Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 22 points in a balanced scoring attack that featured eight Thunder players in double figures. OKC won again, this time in a blowout, 131-103.
The Thunder spent this past week beating contenders and pummeling bottom-feeders, just as a tough playoff team should. With Paul showing he can still lead a playoff team, and the variety of depth and youth the Thunder are armed with, a team that began the season as a rebuild candidate and a potential seller at the trade deadline could be one of the toughest first-round outs come playoff time.
Loser: Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers' roller coaster ride of a season continued with its peaks and valleys following the All-Star break.
First, Ben Simmons was ruled out of Thursday night's matchup against the Brooklyn Nets with what was originally reported as lower back tightness. Small valley, but nothing major. Philadelphia still managed to open up a 20-4 lead over the Nets in the first quarter of the game. Small peak -- the Sixers were clicking despite no Simmons.
Then the Nets completely obliterated Philly, going on an absurd 44-8 run to take complete control of the game and suck the life out of the Wells Fargo Center. Major valley.
After entering All-Star break with an impressive win over the Los Angeles Clippers, the Sixers appeared to revert back to their discombobulated self on offense while simultaneously showing no life on the defensive end. Despite all the back and forth, Joel Embiid was somehow able to lead Philadelphia past Brooklyn in overtime with 39 points in a 112-104 victory. It was a perfect microcosm of the Sixers' season up until this point.
After avoiding what would've been an embarrassing loss at home, the confusing Sixers had a primetime Saturday night showdown with the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks, and Simmons was expected to return.
And return Simmons did. For about five minutes.
The Sixers' star point guard left the matchup against the Bucks early in the first quarter after re-aggravating the back injury. Ultimately without Simmons on the floor, Milwaukee proved to be too much of a task, and the top team in the East sent the Sixers packing in a 119-98 loss.
The losing didn't stop there for Philly, though. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski reported Saturday night thatto determine the severity of his back injury, and even went as far to report that "sources described Simmons emotional upon leaving the X-ray room at the Fiserv Forum late Saturday." Not great for the Sixers.
Wojnarowski's reporting continued Sunday, stating that Simmons would undergo further evaluation following the initial MRI and that he would be ruled out of Monday's game against Atlanta.
For a team in the midst of trying to nail down its offensive identity in a season that began with championship aspirations, losing Simmons this late in the regular season to a serious injury would be nothing short of disastrous.
Winner: Jayson Tatum
It's time to start talking about Jayson Tatum making "the leap."
Despite losing on Sunday to the Los Angeles Lakers, Tatum was the brightest star on the court -- one he shared with LeBron James, who ultimately hit the game-winning jumper. and for a majority of the game was an unanswerable force inside Staples Center. His efficiency was more than impressive, taking just 20 shots to amass his scoring total and hitting 13 of his 15 free throw attempts. It was an absolute scoring clinic.
Since returning from the All-Star break, Tatum's turned in his impressive Sunday performance and a 28-point effort on Friday to go along with it. Extending that span to his las 10 games shows that Tatum really has been kicking it into another gear, as he's been averaging 28.7 points per game while shooting 45.2 percent from 3-point range in that time frame.
When Kyrie Irving left Boston for Brooklyn, the Celtics decided to replace their star guard with another in Kemba Walker, someone to carry the mantle of the team's most lethal scorer. Instead, Tatum took that title for his own this season, which ultimately led to his first All-Star appearance. He effectively became a major scoring threat at 21 years old.
As the season enters its final stages and Boston continues to shape itself into a contender for the Eastern Conference crown, the continued development of Tatum will serve as the driving force for just how far the Celtics can go. If Sunday's performance is any indication of that ceiling, another legendary Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals doesn't feel too far out of reach.
Loser: Bradley Beal
It's been a rough season for Bradley Beal, and it only got rougher last week.
Despite averaging 29.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, and six assists per game, Beal was not selected to the All-Star team. The argument that Beal's lack of team success was held against him feels hollow as well, considering the Wizards are just 3 1/2 games out of a playoff spot.
Regardless, Beal's squad picked up where it left off coming out of the break. First, Washington suffered a home loss to the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers, 113-108. Beal contributed 26 points. The other four starters combined? Just 32 points.
But what acted as Beal's biggest loss this week came on Sunday. The 26-year-old shooting guard had a career day. It appeared that Beal could not miss from the field. He was on fire and poured in a career-high 53 points against the Chicago Bulls. On just about every other team, that would be enough to secure the victory. That, however, was not Beal's reality. The Wizards lost the game 126-117.
Without wondering to yourself how Beal felt in that moment, losing a game where he scored 53 points, take a look at his reaction on the bench.
This is hardly the first time Beal has shouldered the scoring load only to fall short in the win column. In fact, the Wizards are just 1-10 in Beal's 11 highest scoring games this season. Just one win. That came all the way back on Nov. 15 against the Timberwolves, when Beal scored 44 points in a 137-116 victory.
With the Wizards current state of the franchise and John Wall's injury, it's hard to imagine Beal expected an outcome much different than the one he is currently facing. That doesn't make it any less frustrating when your best efforts continuously fall short. Tough break for Beal. Hopefully his next 50-point showing comes with a more successful result.
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