How the NBA came to own Christmas Day

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How big is Christmas Day to the NBA?

Look at it this way: Last year’s Christmas Day game between the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder drew more viewers (9.6 million people) than all but one playoff game prior to the NBA Finals (that was Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals between Miami and Indiana).

On the whole in 2012, 33 million people tuned in to watch the NBA on Christmas Day.

For a lot of casual sports fans Christmas Day is the day the NBA tips off — they have followed their fantasy football team closely all fall, and while the NBA started playing a couple of months ago they have only been watching out of the corner of their eye.

That changes on Christmas Day because the NBA has worked over the years to own that day of the sports calendar — once you get your new 70-inch flat screen installed you turn on some hoop because the NBA has put forward showcase games.

“The NBA on Christmas is a tradition dating back almost 70 years,” said Michael Bass, the NBA’s Senior Vice President, Marketing Communications. “Each year, our goal is to provide fans with the most compelling contests based on storylines, rivalries, player matchups, and the history and tradition of the teams and the players. Christmas Day is always one of the most watched days on the NBA calendar.”

Yes, 70 years.

The NBA had its first NBA Christmas games in 1947. Three games were played that day and it worked so well there were four the next year. Then six in 1949. Since then the number of games has fluctuated but the NBA has been consistent in making its presence felt on that day. While the NFL and college football have had some games, the NBA makes sure on showcase matchups.

It is the day that ABC starts its broadcast of NBA games, taking advantage of those matchups.

For the past six years the NBA has settled on five games — a full late that tips off at noon Eastern and features the biggest names in the sport. This year you get to see LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony (if healthy after tweaking his ankle Monday), Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard, Tim Duncan, Chris Paul, Stephen Curry and more. (The games are Bulls at the Nets, Thunder at Knicks, Heat at Lakers, Rockets at Spurs, and Clippers at Warriors.)

“The players love it,” said former NBA coach and current NBC analyst Stan Van Gundy. “The are big games with big audiences and they want to be in those games.

“I never liked the Christmas Day games and wish the NBA would stop playing them. I got fined for my opposition to the games. Christmas should be a day for family. For the players and coaches, even though I don’t like it, at least we benefit financially from the NBA TV contracts. But for the ushers, security people, ticket takers, concession workers etc. they are paid low wages, but have to work on Christmas because the NBA cares about little other than how much money they can make.”

Like Christmas itself, the NBA on Christmas Day can come off as all about the marketing and commercialism. For example you have the shoe brands breaking out special Christmas Day editions of players’ signature shoes.

In addition, this year for Christmas Adidas has designed and the players will wear a special edition sleeved NBA jerseys with an oversized logo — which are available for purchase online, not so coincidentally. LeBron has already said the Heat’s shooters don’t like them, but the reality remains the league thinks it can sell more jerseys with sleeves so you are going to see a lot of those.

Still, just like all things Christmas, if you look past the commercialism you see something good. Something pure.

In this case great basketball played by the best in the world.

Like the time more than 50 years ago Jerry West dropped 47 on the Knicks in Madison Square Garden to lead the Lakers to a win. Or in 1984 when Bernard King had 60 points (but the Knicks still lost). Or LeBron’s first Christmas Day game when he had 34 points but was outdone by Tracy McGrady who had 41 points and 11 assists.

“As a player, you know the whole world is watching,” said former player an NBA coach Byron Scott, while working for NBA TV. “The Christmas and New Year’s Eve [games] have the spirit of happiness. You just opened a bunch of gifts, the kids are running around, maybe they’ve gotten a jersey or two from their favorite player and everyone is watching. So [all the players] try and put on their best performance.”

And those performances are how the NBA really came to own Christmas.

‘Tired’ Jimmy Butler sits out All-Star Game at his own request

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LOS ANGELES — Jimmy Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game at 37.3. He’s ninth in the league in total minutes played and played 77:35 minutes in the two games leading up to All-Star Weekend.

Butler was tired and asked Mike D’Antoni to give him some rest, according to both parties (despite speculation this was really a win for the Los Angeles nightlife). Butler did not play in Sunday’s All-Star Game.

“Rest,” Butler said when asked why he didn’t play. “I have to rest. I have to rest my body up. This Timberwolves season is very, very important to me. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to roll when I get back there.”

“He was tired and he just felt like his legs weren’t there,” Team Stephen head coach Mike D’Antoni. “He didn’t practice yesterday or play today. You have to respect that. He plays hard. Sometimes your body just needs a rest.”

Butler is having the kind of season that has him in the discussion for a place on the MVP ballot. He’s averaging 22.4 points per game with a very efficient true shooting percentage of 59.3, plus he’s playing strong defense. He and Karl-Anthony Towns have led the Timberwolves to a 36-25 record that has them as the current four seed in the West, poised to break an 11-year playoff drought for the franchise.

Still thankful, LeBron James breaks Michael Jordan’s record for years between All-Star MVPs

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Los Angeles – When LeBron James became the youngest-ever NBA All-Star MVP in 2006, he said during the trophy presentation: “I’d like to thank the fans for voting me in as a starter.”

Twelve years later, he sounds similar, maybe just a little more thoughtful: “It’s always been my fans who voted me in. For 14 straight years, my fans have voted me in as an All-Star starter, and it’s been up to me to go out and let them know and show them, listen, I appreciate that, and here’s what I’m going to give to you every time you vote me in.”

He plays similarly, too.

LeBron again won All-Star MVP, leading his team to a 148-145 victory Sunday. He finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“Every night I step on the floor, I have to lead my guys or prove to myself that I’m still able to play at a high level,” said LeBron, 33. “I feel great.”

The 12-year gap between LeBron’s first and last All-Star MVP – he also won in 2008 – is the longest in NBA history. It tops the 10 years between Michael Jordan’s first (1988) and last (1998).

Here’s the difference between the first and last All-Star MVP for every multi-time winner:

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Players’ effort in this exhibition game comes and goes, but LeBron appeared invigorated .

When LeBron’s team trailed by 15 in the second quarter, he checked in and quickly led it back into the lead. When his team fell behind by 13 midway through the fourth quarter, he again led a spirited comeback. He hit the go-ahead bucket.

Despite playing a game-high 31 minutes, his intensity lasted all the way through the final buzzer.

His coach, the Raptors’ Dwane Casey, said he asked LeBron whether to foul or defend on the final possession while up three. LeBron said defend.

“If he says that, or any great players say that, you want to go with them because it was their idea, their belief, and he had it,” Casey said. “…He got the guys jacked up and juiced up as far as wanting to get a stop.”

LeBron and Kevin Durant swarmed Stephen Curry, who couldn’t shoot and could barely pass. Curry’s team didn’t even get a shot off:

“As you can hear in my voice, that tells how competitive it was,” LeBron said scratchily.

Again, his message echoed 2006: “We’re competitors, and our competitive nature kicked in and said let’s get some defensive stops.”

A lot will get made about the format change, and it might have mattered.

But maybe LeBron is just uniquely capable of dominating and embracing of this stage all these years later.

Defense? Dramatic finish? Team LeBron wins All-Star Game that’s worth watching

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LOS ANGELES — The NBA gambled its new format — with captains picking teams playground style — would produce an All-Star Game where the players showed some pride, played hard, and the showcase again would become something that resembled basketball (unlike last season).

It worked.

For proof guys were invested this time around, check out how Team LeBron responded to winning with a defensive stop, taking away Team Stephen’s attempt to get a clean look at a game-tying three in the closing seconds.

The THRILL of #NBAAllStar VICTORY!

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“It had a real game feel to it,” LeBron James said.

Team LeBron beat Team Stephen 148-145. LeBron was named MVP with 29 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists. He also hit the game-tying and go-ahead shot that got the win.

“I played with (LeBron) a few times,” Kyrie Irving said of the play and pass that set up that LeBron game-winner. “I cut back door, (Russell Westbrook) was driving, I saw the opportunity. I saw, before even Russ even passed to me, LeBron was going to circle to the rim, and he’s one of the best finishers at the rim.”

Most importantly, this was an All-Star Game with some defense — it had 81 fewer points than the layup line game last year, and the fewest points in five years. It also proved to be the closest game in six years.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

There was more defense than last year from the start of the game — for example, LeBron blocked an alley-oop pass in the first quarter. Of course, “better than last year” was not a high bar to clear, but there was some effort to not just have a layup line. Most of the time.

Also to start the game, Anthony Davis came out wearing the “0” jersey of injured teammate DeMarcus Cousins (he switched back to his own #23 before the first half was over).

On the night, Team LeBron got 19 points out of Kevin Durant, 16 from Paul George, and 14 from Andre Drummond. Team Stephen was led by 21 from both DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard, and 19 points and eight rebounds from Joel Embiid in his first All-Star Game.

The fantastic ending made up for what was a laughable opening skit/national anthem before tip-off that did something very rare — it unified NBA Twitter. It was awful.

Now all anybody is talking about is the game itself. And that’s what the NBA wanted.

LeBron James hits go-ahead shot in All-Star win (video)

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LOS ANGELES – LeBron James‘ team trailed by 13 midway through the fourth quarter of the All-Star game, but he led a competitive comeback.

This shot put his team up 146-145 over Stephen Curry‘s team, and Team LeBron held on for a 148-145 win:

Great penetration by Russell Westbrook, and he and Kyrie Irving moved the ball well. LeBron made it count.