Joel Embiid makes strong MVP case; James Harden dominant in his return to Houston

Wednesday night's NBA slate of games included numerous intriguing matchups, from the top team in the East facing the top team in the West, the drama of James Harden's return to Houston, All-Stars going up against each other with the Chicago Bulls' Zach LaVine facing the New Orleans Pelicans' Zion Williamson, and two of the league's top scorers squaring off in Stephen Curry meeting Damian Lillard.

Additionally, 12 teams wrapped up the first half of the season as All-Star Weekend rapidly approaches.

With so much action to keep an eye on, we asked our NBA insiders for their biggest takeaway from the biggest games.

Embiid makes MVP case by stunning Jazz

Anyone who watched the Philadelphia 76ers' 131-123 overtime victory over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night could tell the game meant something extra special to Sixers star Joel Embiid.

Embiid -- who told ESPN's Jackie MacMullan back in December that he should have made an All-NBA team over Jazz center Rudy Gobert last season, and has been campaigning to be the league's Defensive Player of the Year -- was dominant at both ends in Wednesday's win, scoring 40 points to go with 19 rebounds, three assists, a steal and two blocks in 40 minutes.

On offense, Embiid repeatedly powered through Gobert inside, getting his characteristic double-digit free throw attempts while also getting several buckets at the rim. Meanwhile, on the defensive end, Embiid was flying around, repeatedly breaking up lobs to Gobert and, on one possession, contesting a Donovan Mitchell drive and then recovering fast enough to block Gobert at the rim.

Embiid has said since before the season began that he is on a mission to prove that the lack of leaguewide recognition he received last year was a mistake. Wednesday night was the latest example of how successful that campaign has been. And while Embiid might not win Defensive Player of the Year -- in fact, Sixers coach Doc Rivers said before the game that Embiid's teammate, Ben Simmons, should be at the top of ballots for that award -- games like Wednesday's are why Embiid is one of the favorites to be the NBA's Most Valuable Player this season, and the Sixers enter the All-Star break with the best record in the Eastern Conference. -- Tim Bontemps

Harden dominant in return to Houston

Nothing about James Harden's return to the Toyota Center came as much of a surprise. Harden received a mixed reaction from Rockets fans among the reduced-capacity crowd, as some cheered in appreciation for his eight spectacular seasons in Houston and others booed, letting out the fresh, hurt feelings from Harden forcing a trade less than two months ago.

As he has done consistently since joining the Brooklyn Nets, Harden dominated, posting his eighth triple-double since the trade with 29 points, 10 rebounds and 13 assists. And the Rockets lost 132-114, extending the franchise's longest skid in two decades to a painfully fitting 13 games, matching Harden's jersey number that will one day hang from the Houston rafters. -- Tim MacMahon

Dubs can't thwart Blazers' 'Dame Time' decision

The Golden State Warriors did exactly what they hoped they would through the first 47 minutes of Wednesday's 108-106 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers -- they slowed down Damian Lillard. They threw body after body at the All-Star point guard, limiting him to just 2-for-9 from beyond the arc and forcing the rest of the Blazers to try to beat them. But then with 14 seconds left and the Blazers down two, there was Lillard draining a 3-pointer that gave the Blazers a lead, and then there was Lillard 10 seconds later rotating under the basket to take a charge from Draymond Green to seal the win. "It's always a good vibe when you go against somebody that plays at such a high level," Warriors star Stephen Curry said of Lillard on Tuesday. The Warriors had chance after chance to close Wednesday's game late, but they ran out of time. They knew "Dame Time" would eventually come -- and they still couldn't stop it. -- Nick Friedell

Pacers' McConnell sets record for robbery

The Indiana Pacers facing the Cleveland Cavaliers wasn't a marquee matchup, but Pacers guard T.J. McConnell found a way to steal the spotlight. McConnell had nine steals in the first half, the most by any player in one half since the stat became official in 1973-74.

McConnell ended up with 10 steals for the game, one shy of the record, but had 16 points and 13 assists for a very unusual triple-double in Indiana's 114-111 win.

McConnell was 8-for-8 from the field to become the first player to record 10 steals while shooting 100% from the field in a game, according to Elias Sports Bureau research. Michael Jordan previously held the record for the highest field goal percentage in a game with 10 or more steals with a 78% shooting performance in 1988.

Harrell's big game can't lift Lakers

With center Marc Gasol out for the Lakers on Tuesday because of the NBA's health and safety protocols, Montrezl Harrell -- the league's reigning Sixth Man of the Year -- started a game for the first time since 2019 and had one of his worst outputs of the season: 6 points, 2 rebounds and just 19 minutes played. Coming into Wednesday's game against the Sacramento Kings with Gasol still sidelined, Harrell had a talk with Lakers coach Frank Vogel.

"Even when Marc is out, he still prefers to come off the bench," Vogel said.

So big man Damian Jones, on a 10-day contract, got the start; Harrell got his wish; and he responded with perhaps his finest game as a Laker thus far: 26 points on 13-for-20 shooting with 11 rebounds and a block in 33 minutes.

As much of a lift as Harrell provided, it still wasn't enough to withstand the absences of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Gasol. Harrell's tip-in attempt following a missed potential winning layup by Dennis Schroder rolled off the rim in the waning seconds of a 123-120 loss. The Lakers head into the break losers of seven of their past 10 games. -- Dave McMenamin

LaVine adds to his All-Star season

In his final tuneup before Sunday's All-Star Game, Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine continued to show why he was selected to the league's midseason showcase. LaVine finished with 36 points and eight assists in the win over the Pelicans, and he helped put the game away in the fourth quarter in the process. As the Pelicans attempted to come back from a 19-point fourth-quarter deficit, LaVine finished a tough layup over Josh Hart with 40.1 seconds remaining to put the Bulls back up eight. He also iced the game with two free throws with 9.7 seconds to go.

It was LaVine's 11th game this season with at least 35 points, tied for the most in the NBA. Also, Coby White might really enjoy playing New Orleans. The second-year pro finished with 25 points, and two of his three highest-scoring games this season have come against the Pelicans. -- Andrew Lopez

Hawks pull win out of their hat

The Atlanta Hawks went into the All-Star break on quite a high, but it certainly didn't look like that would be the case for much of their game with the Orlando Magic. A Dwayne Bacon free throw put Orlando in front 106-90 with 6:08 to go, and the Magic's win probability at that point was 99.3%.

But from there ...

Hawks star point guard Trae Young, who will have the weekend off despite entering the night 10th in the league in scoring (26.2 points per game) and third in assists (9.5 per game), scored 20 of his 32 points in the second half and gave the Hawks the lead for good with two free throws with eight seconds to play.

Double triple-double for Detroit

Dennis Smith Jr. and Mason Plumlee became the second pair of teammates in Pistons history to each record a triple-double in the same game, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.

Smith got his triple-double by the slimmest of margins, with 10 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists. Plumlee had 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. Detroit beat the Toronto Raptors 129-105.

The other Pistons teammates with triple-doubles in the same game were Donnie Butcher and Ray Scott, who did it in 1964.

A win is a win for Mavs

To win a game in which your best player (Luka Doncic) is sitting, and in which you shoot 8-of-40 from 3, and under 40% from the field, and do it comfortably, says ... something. Either the Dallas Mavericks, in their 87-78 win, did an excellent job holding down the Oklahoma City Thunder's young talent, or the Thunder had a moderately worse offensive game than Dallas (Oklahoma City's 78 points were its fewest since 2015).

Nevertheless, every win is precious to the Mavs in a crowded Western Conference playoff race, and it was an encouraging sign to see Kristaps Porzingis play well (19 points, 13 rebounds). For Dallas, its potential resides in a healthy, dominant Doncic and a healthy, confident Porzingis. So maybe it wasn't a notable win or performance, but it's always better than the alternative. -- Royce Young

Mighty cold in Minnesota

So, how do you like life as an NBA coach, Chris Finch?

Finch, who replaced Ryan Saunders as Minnesota Timberwolves coach last month, is still looking for his first win. Minnesota is 0-5 under Finch and has lost nine straight, with a 135-102 drubbing by the Charlotte Hornets the latest defeat. The 33-point win was Charlotte's largest in the past three seasons, as the Timberwolves limp into the break with the league's worst record at 7-29.

"Tonight's performance was completely unacceptable," Finch said.