Chicago Bulls-Brooklyn Nets is NBA’s worst Christmas Day matchup since…

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The NBA has built a Christmas Day empire by featuring the league’s top teams and players on Dec. 25. It’s become an honor to play this day, and those in the league recognize the accomplishment of getting on the schedule. Fans see it too, annually expecting to see the NBA at its regular-season best.

That’s why matchups like today’s noon contest between Chicago Bulls (10-16) and Brooklyn Nets (9-18) – teams with a combined .358 winning percentage – stand out.

Of course, the NBA couldn’t have known these teams would struggle so much when creating the Christmas schedule.

The Bulls endured Derrick Rose’s growing pains as he returned from injury, only to see him hurt again. Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler have missed significant time, too (although both will be in the lineup on Christmas, as is Kirk Hinrich).

The Nets have also lost their top player, Brook Lopez, for the season. Even before that point, the team floundered under first-year Jason Kidd. Deron Williams, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have all looked old and have also dealt with injury.

These teams were supposed to be good, playoff squads for certain. Instead, they’re outside the playoff picture looking in.

So, that leads to the question, when was the last time teams entered a Christmas Day matchup with such a bad combined record?

Orlando Magic (7-22) and Cleveland Cavaliers (9-19), a combined .281 winning percentage, in 2003

The Cavaliers were a team on the rise. They’d won 17 games the year before and would go onto win 35 this season, 42 the next year and 50 the following year. They just hadn’t climbed far enough by December to be competitive in the playoff standings.

The Magic were also supposed to be climbing the NBA ladder. The season before, they made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and led the top-seeded Detroit Pistons 3-1 before blowing their advantage. Instead of building off its strong playoff series – in terms of overall play, not how it ended – Orlando won its season-opener then lost 19 straight to begin this season. After firing Doc Rivers, they’d come around slightly, but they remained a bad team.

Though the NBA probably expected – or at least hoped for – better teams, this game was never really about the teams.

It was about the individual matchup: LeBron James vs. Tracy McGrady.

LeBron was a rookie, already a national star, and McGrady had made the last two All-NBA first teams. If Kobe Bryant had staked claim as the NBA’s top wing player, it was only a matter of time until these two were duking it out for No. 2. So, why not begin the discussion just 29 games into LeBron’s professional career?

In that regard, the matchup more than lived up to its billing.

LeBron had 34 points and six assists, but McGrady had 41 points and 11 assists to lead the Magic to a 113-101 overtime victory.

So, perhaps it’s not fair to judge this game on the team’s records, because it was about the individual stars. In that case, omitting this one, the Bulls and Nets are the worst teams in a Christmas Day matchups since…

Cleveland Cavaliers (5-20) and Atlanta Hawks (11-17), a combined .302 winning percentage, in 1984

I can’t figure why this game was ever placed on the Christmas Day.

Neither had much hype entering the season – for good reason.

I guess the Hawks had won 40, 43 and 42 games in the three seasons prior, but they’d lost in the first round each year. Perhaps, the NBA saw a team ready to take the next step, but Atlanta didn’t do that until the following two years, winning 50 and 57 games. In 1984-85, the Hawks were just a run-of-the-mill bad team, going 34-48.

The Cavaliers were a team on the rise – 15 wins to 23 wins to 28 wins entering the season. And even though they kept climbing, finishing the year 36-46, they were digging themselves from too deep a hole to be relevant.

And if it was about the individual matchup – Dominique Wilkins vs. World B. Free – that disappointed, too. Wilkins scored 19 points on 9-of-22 shooting, and Free had 16 on 5-of-17.

Still, everything else going wrong, this was a competitive game, Cleveland winning, 109-106.

And maybe that offers some hope for Bulls-Nets. No matter how bad the teams are, Christmas Day has a way of bringing out their best.

Whether that’s the case today or night, at least know you’re seeing history. Christmas Day matchups this bad come around only once a generation of player.

Pacers erase 17-point deficit to take 2-1 lead over Cavs

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 points, leading the Indiana Pacers back from a 17-point halftime deficit for a 92-90 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Friday night for a 2-1 lead in their first-round series.

Cleveland was 39-0 during the regular season when leading after three quarters and kept that perfect mark intact with a Game 2 win.

The incredible second-half charge came exactly one year after Indiana blew a 26-point halftime lead in a historic playoff collapse against the Cavs.

This time, the Pacers delivered a devastating blow to the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs – on a night LeBron Jones joined Michael Jordan as the only players in playoff history to record 100 double-doubles. James finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to prevent Cleveland from losing its first game this season after leading following the third quarter.

The biggest reason for the collapse: Bogdanovic.

After charging back with striking distance, he completed a four-point play to finally give the Pacers an 81-77 lead with 6:10 left. Bogdanovic followed that with another to make it as seven-point game.

Then James answered with the next seven to tie it.

Bogdanovic came right back with a layup and another 3 before Thaddeus Young scored to give the Pacers a 91-84 cushion with 53 seconds left.

James knocked down a 3 to cut the deficit to four, and the Cavs got another 3 from Kevin Love with 7 seconds left to make it 91-90.

Darren Collison made 1 of 2 free throws with 5 seconds left, giving Cleveland one more chance. But J.R. Smith‘s long desperation heave came up short..

Shaq attacks verse in new TV series "Poetry in America"

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Shaquille O’Neal called himself “The Big Baryshnikov” and “The Big Socrates” in his days in the NBA. Now he can add “The Big Shakespeare.”

The basketball Hall-of-Famer, TNT TV analyst, commercial pitchman and onetime rapper is putting poetry on his lengthy resume as part of a new public television series.

He brings his best bard to a dramatic reading of a poem in his episode of the 12-part “Poetry in America ,” then discusses it with Elisa New, a Harvard English professor who hosts the show.

“I’ve always been into poetry,” O’Neal said in an interview with The Associated Press in a sunlit conference room overlooking the Los Angeles skyline. “I’ve been writing rhymes all my life.”

“Poetry in America,” distributed by American Public Television and presented by WGBH in Boston, is airing at various times on local public TV stations. Some episodes, including Shaq’s, are already available to stream.

On the show the 46-year-old former All-Star from the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat recites “Fast Break,” a poem by Edward Hirsch from his 1986 book “Wild Gratitude.” It describes some very imperfect players who manage to put together a perfect basketball play.

“A hook shot kisses the rim and hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,” the poem begins, “and for once our gangly starting center boxes out his man.”

O’Neal, whose 350-pound bulk would never be called “gangly,” still related to the center in the verse, but said he initially missed the poem’s point.

“The first mistake I made was thinking it was about basketball,” he said. “I read it real quick I said `fast break, shovel passes, sure, this is what I do.”‘

He said New, who sat next to O’Neal in the interview and like almost everyone is utterly dwarfed by him, gave him whole new insights that led to a fast friendship.

“When she broke it down intelligently for me, I was very astounded and very amazed,”

The poem is written for a close friend and playing partner of Hirsch’s who had just died. That’s easy to miss if you skip past the dedication at the top, as most readers do.

“It’s fun that only later as you’re reading, you look back at that dedication,” New said. “One line can change everything.”

Suddenly it becomes an examination of transcendent moments and human connections.

“It’s about friendship, it’s about caring, it’s about emotions,” O’Neal said. “I had missed that.”

His latest learning experience took O’Neal’s thoughts back to high school, where he had a 69 percent in English after blowing a test during the basketball playoffs, and needed a 70 to stay eligible for sports.

The teacher allowed him a retest, and suggested a tutor.

“This guy, his name was McDougal, he was a geek, he saved my academic life,” O’Neal said. “Everybody bullied him in school, except me.”

O’Neal said he took the work and “broke it down, made it seem so simple.”

“I retook the test, got an 80, and we won the state championship,” O’Neal said.

“Now,” he said, “I always tell kids I’m a geek.”

The professor had another name for him. “He’s a learner!”

O’Neal partly looked the poet during the interview in a polo shirt and jeans, having traded his basketball sneakers for a pair of slip-on Toms shoes, size 22.

When he wanted them, a company executive told him “it wouldn’t be worth it to make them in my size unless I bought 500 of them,” O’Neal said. “I told him to give me 2,000.”

 

Rumor: Grizzlies had to choose between Marc Gasol and David Fizdale

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David Fizdale has been linked to most of the NBA’s head-coaching vacancies.

He developed a legion of backers as lead a Heat assistant, and he did good things guiding the Grizzlies before they unexpectedly fired him. He deserves consideration.

But he also must explain his fractured relationship with Memphis star Marc Gasol. They weren’t speaking for a while.

And maybe the problem was even worse than that.

Marc Berman of the New York Post:

According to a source close to Fizdale briefed on the Grizzlies’ decision, it was ownership having to make a choice — trade their All-Star center Marc Gasol, who has fallen in love with its small-market city, or fire the coach. Their relationship had gotten that bad.

If Grizzlies ownership felt it had to choose between Gasol and Fizdale, it’s not clear why.

Fizdale benched Gasol down the stretch during the coach’s last game, and Gasol publicly expressed his frustration.

But Gasol denied issuing a me-or-Fizdale ultimatum. Fizdale said focus on his relationship with Gasol was “overblown,” adding he cared far more about whether he could win with a player than whether they got along personally.

Memphis obviously sided with Gasol – probably too strongly.

LeBron James bought Cavs teammates matching designer suits to wear to game tonight

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I’m still trying to decide if this is cool or a little too Stepford.

The Cavaliers rolled into the Bakers’ Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis tonight wearing matching designer suits, all paid for by LeBron James and custom fitted to each player.

If a college team rolled into a game in four-digit designer suits, the NCAA would have questions. And not about the vests.

The Cavaliers are LeBron’s team, and if he wants to buy his teammates suits and tell them to wear them it’s going to happen. Is it a bonding thing that helps bring them together? Sure. Is it in place to make sure LeBron remembers which ones are his new teammates? Probably not.

Do the suits help on the court? No. And the Cavaliers better bring it in Game 3 because if they go down 2-1 in this series — something that is a realistic possibility — the whispers of doubt are going to get a lot louder.