Santa puts five games under your tree (or on your new flat screen) for Christmas

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Phil Jackson and LeBron James may not like having to work — you don’t hear police and emergency room doctors complaining — but Christmas is a bounty for NBA fans. Presents, turkey AND ham, family and five basketball games. Perfect.

Let’s break the games down.

Bulls vs. Knicks (Noon ET, ESPN): This may well be the most entertaining game of the day. The Knicks don’t play much defense do Carlos Boozer and Derrick Rose are going to get theirs. With Joakim Noah out, the Bulls have nobody who can slow Amar’e Stoudemire and he is probably going to go off with feeds from Raymond Felton. Both teams are going to score over 100, the tempo will be up and it’s always fun when Madison Square Garden is rocking.

Prediction: Spike Lee gets interviewed and the Bulls win 116-107.

Celtics vs. Magic (2:30 pm ET, ABC): Which Magic team shows up? If it is the one that pushed the tempo and handled the Spurs on Thursday night, this is going to be interesting. That said, the Magic are still feeling their way with the new lineup including Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson – the offensive sets are pretty rudimentary — and that could be trouble against the best defense in the league. However, no Rajon Rondo for the Celtics which means a lot of Nate Robinson, who tends to shoot first and ask questions later, whether he is not or not. Shaq against Dwight Howard could decide this one.

Prediction: Boston extends the winning streak to 15 but it isn’t pretty, 95-90.

Heat vs. Lakers (5 pm ET, ABC): This is going to be fun, the Shaq vs. Kobe showdown… wait, this is not those Heat and Lakers on Christmas? I was so used to that for so many years.

First things first, you can bet Dwyane Wade will be ready to go for this one (he did not play Thursday night). This game will have some spectacular talents — LeBron James, Wade, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Ron Artest, Lamar Odom — but it will really be about team defense. Good defensive teams have taken the Lakers out of the triangle and then Kobe tends to run pick-and-rolls, which the Heat defend very well. The Lakers with Andrew Bynum back protect the paint better and can force teams to take a lot of long jump shots, which is a trap the Heat often fall into (and often get away with because they have shooters). Whichever team establishes its game — the Lakers moving off the ball and going through Gasol more, the Heat penetrating and running — will win.

Prediction: Jack Nicholson will go home happy because Kobe closes on the big stage like nobody else, Lakers 93-91.

Nuggets vs. Thunder (8 pm ET, ESPN): No Carmelo Anthony in this one for the Nuggets. The bigger problem for Denver is that Kevin Durant has gotten his groove back in recent weeks and is combining forces with Russell Westbrook in a way that should make the rest of the league a little worried. More than a little, really.

Prediction: Maybe the least entertaining game of the day, Thunder 101-88.

Trail Blazers vs. Warriors (10:30 pm ET, ESPN): Brandon Roy will not play for Portland, which means a lot of Andre Miller. Stephen Curry is a game time decision for Golden State, but less of him is more Monta Ellis. This should be a fun way to close out Christmas Day — look for LaMarcus Aldridge to explode on what passes for interior defense in the Bay Area. Ellis will answer with amazing shot after amazing shot.

Prediction: Just like you at this point in the night the game will be a little sloppy, but the Warriors control the pace and pull it out 108-99.

James Harden helped recruit Lou Williams to Houston

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The Lakers had been shopping Lou Williams around in the run-up to the trade deadline, the only question was would they get a first-round pick for him. Rumors around the league say that Houston had offered them one weeks before, it was on the table, but the Jim Buss/Mitch Kupchak front office held their cards close and hoped a better deal would come through.

While all that was going on James Harden decided to ease the process and did a little recruiting calling up Williams, the sixth-man guard told Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“When James called, he asked me if I was interested in playing with them,” Williams told The Vertical. “I told him that I loved the Lakers, but James and them have a group that fit my personality, fit how I play. He said he was going to make it happen.”

Williams then laughed, sitting on the edge of a visiting court following a recent practice. “I’ve heard that before, so I didn’t really put stock into it,” Williams told The Vertical. “I guess James did put the word in, and the team made it happen.”

We all know what happened, Jeanie Buss removed her brother and Kupchak a few days before the trade deadline, Magic Johnston stepped in, called around, and quickly pulled the trigger on a trade that sent Williams to Houston (the Lakers also got Corey Brewer). Williams has averaged 14.5 points per game and had some strong performances with the Rockets, although he’s still finding his groove with the team on the court. Still, he’s been an upgrade for the Rockets’ bench.

Harden knew he would be, so he did his part to make sure it happened.

Take a look back at just how great Shaq was with the Lakers (VIDEO)

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Shaquille O’Neal was as dominant a force as the NBA has ever seen.

His peak years came with the Lakers, when paired with Kobe Bryant one the court — and Phil Jackson manipulating both of them — they won three titles (and arguably would have had more if they stayed together). Those Lakers teams were one of the NBA’s great teams.

Friday night, the Lakers unveil Shaq’s statue at Staples Center. Take a look back at some of Shaq’s Lakers highlights.

 

Warriors’ Matt Barnes on facing Kings: ‘I’m trying to kill ’em’

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The Kings were very good to Matt Barnes.

They signed him to a two-year contract worth more than $12.5 million when it seemed he wouldn’t come close to that on the market. Then they waived him, allowing him to receive all his salary and escape basketball hell for the Warriors, who make him much happier.

Yet, he’s going into tonight’s Golden State-Sacramento game with an edge.

Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle (hat tip: CSN Bay Area):

Matt Barnes holding a grudge? Why, I never.

Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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MIAMI (AP) — They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA’s longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part – finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday’s games.

“These guys want this so bad,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra – a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf – said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. “They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.”

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami’s final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

“We’ve dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they’re not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn’t get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

“He’s a tough dude,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn’t been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh‘s on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it’s been at least three every game – and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He’s at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

“This is that time of the year,” Spoelstra said. “Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.”

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

“I want our guys to enjoy this,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t feel that we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.”