NBA Star Power Index: Julius Randle has Knicks streaking toward playoffs; Stephen Curry’s 30-point run snapped

Welcome back to the NBA Star Index — a weekly gauge of the players who are most controlling the buzz around the league. Reminder: Inclusion on this list isn’t necessarily a good thing. It simply means that you’re capturing the NBA world’s attention. Also, this is not a ranking. The players listed are in no particular order as it pertains to the buzz they’re generating. This column will run every week through the end of the regular season. 

Count me among the contingent of naysayers who have expected all season for Julius Randle and the New York Knicks to come back to earth. I say that relatively, of course. It’s not like the Knicks are making history. But they’ve won eight straight, their longest win streak since 2014, to assume the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference entering play on Thursday, and Randle is solidifying his All-NBA case with each passing game. 

Don’t start the MVP talk. That’s too much. 

But give Randle appropriate props. He’s turned into a star as the head of an offense. His shooting and playmaking (career-high assist rate) represent his biggest steps forward. He’s at 40 percent from 3 entering play Thursday, the top mark of his career, and he creates a lot of those himself. His off-the-dribble jumper is a game-changer. Also, the Knicks have been a top five defense all season, and he is not a peripheral part of that improvement. 

Over this eight-game win streak, Randle is averaging 30 points a night while shooting 42 percent on over seven 3-pointers a game. He’s also getting to the free-throw line over eight times per game, connecting at better than 85 percent. On Wednesday, Randle lit up the Hawks for 40 points, 11 rebounds and six assists. He hit six of his eight 3s and 12 of 13 free throws. It was his second 40-point game in under a week after he hung 44 on the Mavericks last Friday.  

Curry’s 30-point streak ended at 11 games on Wednesday, when the Wizards held him to 18 and defeated the Warriors, who are effectively tied with the Spurs for the West’s No. 9 spot. Golden State does have the head-to-head tiebreaker over San Antonio if it comes to that. 

Curry has been on a historic run, his scoring feats passing the likes of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan on the heels of overtaking Wilt Chamberlain as the Warriors’ all-time leading scorer. For the month of April, Curry is averaging 38.7 points on 52/47/91 shooting splits. 

That 47 percent mark from 3 is absolutely wild when you consider he is taking over 14 triples per game this month. One could argue he should’ve been shooting at least this much, if not more, all season. Curry (31.1) holds a slight edge over Bradley Beal (31.0) for the scoring title entering play on Thursday. His 49-point performance in a win over Philly on Monday was one of the best showings for any player all season. 

It’s not often you end up all over the NBA radar for missing a shot, but this near-full-court, rebound-and-chuck bomb Embiid almost banged to send the Philadelphia 76ers‘ game against the Phoenix Suns into overtime on Wednesday is quite possibly the greatest miss I’ve ever seen. 

The whole key here is that Embiid did this all in one motion. Watch it again. He jumped for the board and, immediately upon landing, fired that thing one-handed some 75 feet like he was turning a double play. The strength to pull that off is wild. But the subtle shift in momentum is even more impressive for a guy the size of Embiid, who got himself going in the direction of the shot in mid-air so that when he landed there was a slight semblance of a two-step gather. That is nifty. 

But alas, the shot didn’t go in and the Sixers lost the game. Fortunately for them, the Brooklyn Nets also lost on Wednesday, which keeps Philly up by one game in the loss column for the East’s No. 1 seed. The Sixers do have the season head-to-head tiebreaker, so that is effectively a two-game lead. And that’s a big deal. If current seeds hold, the No. 1 seed would get either the Knicks or the Hawks in the second round, while the No. 2 seed would have to face the Bucks

Also, Embiid says there’s “no doubt” he’s the MVP this season. 

He’s wrong about that. There’s plenty of doubt. Nikola Jokic is going to win. Embiid has missed too many games, and frankly he hasn’t been quite as great as Jokic. But he has every right to believe he’s the MVP. Stephen Curry believes the same thing about himself. They have legit cases. Both of them. But they’re not going to win. 

Last week Russell Westbrook made the Star Power Index for the fact that he’s averaging a triple-double, again, with the caveat that most everyone, rightly or wrongly, has stopped caring about Westbrook’s traditional numbers as the perception that it doesn’t equate to winning has become too powerful to overcome. 

But we — or I — should at least acknowledge that the Wizards have won six straight and eight of their last nine. As of Thursday, April 22, they are in the second play-in series as the No. 10 seed (one game up on Chicago in the loss column). Westbrook has played 12 games in the month of April and recorded a triple-double in 10 of them, and in one of the two he didn’t, he missed it by one rebound. 

It is, on at least some level, a remarkable feat that Westbrook is averaging a triple-double yet again: 21.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10.9 assists. Note that he’s still a bad shooter who takes bad shots. His last three games he’s shot 17 for 52 from the field (32 percent). For the month of April, he’s 25 percent from 3. But he’s still a sports car in transition and he gets to the bucket in the half-court with occasional efficiency. You might not have realized he’s been stellar in the clutch this season. 

Most importantly, over this nine-game stretch the Wizards are more than seven points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor. This comes, however, with a major qualification in the form of Washington’s recent schedule: Of these last eight wins, only one of them has come against a winning team (Utah Jazz). The other seven wins came against the Golden State Warriors (twice), Oklahoma City Thunder, Detroit Pistons, New Orleans Pelicans, Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic

Make of that what you will. 

When Jamal Murray went down with a torn ACL and ruled out indefinitely, I predicted the Nuggets would keep winning on the back of  Nikola Jokic, who would would completely cement himself as the MVP in the absence of Denver’s second-best player. 

So far, so good. The Nuggets have won all four games since Murray’s injury. Over that span, Jokic is averaging 29.5, 12.5 rebounds and 7.8 assists on 60 percent shooting. 

On Monday night, when Curry went for 49 against Philly and dominated the headlines, there was Jokic in the background of the national conversation hanging 47 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists on the Grizzlies.

Denver’s big man continues to show why he’s the front-runner for the highly coveted award.

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