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.

Jrue Holiday hits game winner, Anthony Davis has 45, Pelicans beat Heat in OT, 124-123

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis had 45 points, 17 rebounds, five blocked shots and five steals, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Miami Heat 124-123 in overtime Friday night for their fourth consecutive victory.

Goran Dragic scored 30 points and Dwyane Wade hit two runners to give the Heat the lead twice in the last 36 seconds of overtime, but Davis responded to the first with a layup as he was fouled, and Jrue Holiday answered the second with a runner in the lane with 7 seconds left.

Wade had one last shot for the win with Holiday defending him closely. It bounced off the rim to Josh Richardson, whose rushed put-back missed the basket as time expired in Miami’s third straight loss.

Davis, who has scored no fewer than 38 points in a game during New Orleans’ winning streak – and 42 or more three times – raised both arms in triumph as he looked up at the jubilant crowd, and then exchanged high fives with fans along the court.

Holiday finished with 29 points and nine assists, connecting with Davis on a couple of alley-oop dunks. Ian Clark scored a season-high 21 points and Nikola Mirotic capped his 10-point, nine-rebound performance with a crucial 3 in overtime.

Hassan Whiteside had 19 points and 16 rebounds before fouling out in overtime when he hacked Davis on a put-back attempt. Davis hit both free throws to tie it at 117, and then gave New Orleans a brief lead with his fifth alley-oop dunk of the game on a fast-break lob from Holiday with 1:10 to go. Wade had 16 points, while Richardson and Tyler Johnson each scored 15 points.

Neither team was able to build a double-digit lead during game which riveted a boisterous crowd with its fast pace and array of highlights on both ends of the floor. There were 13 ties and nine lead changes.

New Orleans scored 37 fast-break points. Davis threw down seven dunks. He converted one alley-oop while being fouled and also turned a steal into a fast-break layup as he was fouled. And the All-Star wasn’t the only one blocking shots for New Orleans. Emeka Okafor, now in his second 10-day contract after being out of the league for four-plus seasons, had five blocks.

After trailing much of the second half, the Pelicans appeared to be seizing control with a 10-0 run during which Holiday scored eight points, giving New Orleans a 104-99 lead with 2:51 to go.

But the Heat rallied to tie it at 106 on Wade’s free throws.

Davis hit a jumper with 23 seconds left and Wade missed on the other end, but a rebound contested by several players fell to Dragic in the paint, and he hit an uncontested layup to tie it again.

The Pelicans had 14 seconds to set up a winning shot, but Davis’ drive was cut off along the baseline and his awkward layup attempted missed and the game went to overtime after Miami was unable to get a shot from an inbounds play with .8 seconds left.

 

Jimmy Butler leaves game with apparently serious right knee injury

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The Basketball Gods have not been appeased, and apparently have dealt the NBA another serious injury to a star player.

Jimmy Butler — Minnesota’s leader, an All-Star, and a guy having a fringe of the MVP ballot NBA season — went down grabbing his knee on this play against the Rockets Friday night.

Butler reportedly said “it’s torn” while being helped off the court.

After the game, Tom Thibodeau said it was a right knee injury that would be re-evaluated with an MRI tomorrow.

This is a non-contact injury that has the appearance of an ACL tear (hope that is not the case). Butler had ripped an offensive rebound away from Nene and was making a move to go back up when he went to the ground grabbing his knee.

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game. He was selected an All-Star but chose to sit out that game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, has a reputation for running players into exhaustion with heavy use (ask Joakim Noah) and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other elite programs trying to keep players fresh.

This is troubling for a Timberwolves team looking to end an 11-year playoff drought — Minnesota is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. While tied for the three seed going into Friday night, Minnesota is just four games from falling out of the playoffs in a competitive West.

Jimmy Butler to Lou Williams on All-Star snub: put up $100K for 1-on-1 game

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Jimmy Butler earned his spot on the All-Star team — he’s had an All-NBA, bottom of the MVP ballot level season. He deserved the trip to Los Angeles.

But when he got there, Butler didn’t play in the All-Star Game itself, saying he needed to rest. That frustrated a few All-Star snubs, and Lou Williams called him out on it.

Butler fired back before the Timberwolves took on the Houston Rockets.

“My thing is this, to Lou or anyone else who thinks they’re an All-Star, with all due respect, LeBron and them got $100,000 for winning, so if you got $100k to put up, you guard me I guard you, I’ gonna show you why. All this talk, put $100,000 up and I’ll show you why and where I’m at.” (That may have been paraphrased)

Butler earned his spot, he deserved to be there. He can do as he sees fit.

But if you’re not going to roll out there for even five minutes (LaMarcus Aldridge played four and nobody is saying anything to him), then give the spot up to someone else. You don’t need the $100K that badly.

Kevin Durant no fan of one-and-done, says he would have come straight to NBA

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With the money funneled to future NBA players through agents in the spotlight thanks to a FBI investigation (one that doesn’t even get into the money from boosters and shoe companies), the one-and-done rule the NBA has for players sending them to college for a semester of cakewalk classes one year has come back in the spotlight.

The league and players’ union are discussing changing the rule — with some input from the NCAA. If they want Kevin Durant‘s advice, scrap the whole thing — he would have come straight to the NBA if he could have.

“You want these players to go out there and play on the biggest stage. The Final Four is one of the biggest sporting events in the world, in sports, and they don’t get a dime for it. I don’t think it’s right

“If they want to come out of high school, it should be on them. You know what I mean? You can’t control everything. So if they feel as though they’re ready, that’s on them. They want to make a decision on their life, that’s on them. If they don’t get drafted, it’s on them. You can try to control it, but you’re still not really doing anything.”

Would Durant have come out from high school rather than spend a season at Texas?

“Yeah, probably. I needed the money.”

The NBA is discussing changes, and they want to see the recommendations from Condoleezza Rice’s NCAA commission. But the league’s owners are not all on the same page.

“In terms of the NBA, we’re conflicted, to be honest…” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said All-Star weekend. “And from a league standpoint, on one hand, we think we have a better draft when we’ve had an opportunity to see these young players play an elite level before they come into the NBA.

“On the other hand, I think the question for the league is, in terms of their ultimate success, are we better off intersecting with them a little bit younger? Are we better off bringing them into the league when they’re 18 using our G League as it was designed to be as a Development League and getting them minutes on the court there? And there is also recognition that for some of these elite players, there is no question that they can perform in the NBA at 18 years old.”

There seems to be some momentum toward a “baseball rule” compromise — players can come to the NBA straight out of high school, but if they go to college they have to stay for at least two years. Unlike the last time high schoolers were rushing into the NBA, most teams are far better prepared to develop young players and be patient with them. There will still be busts — there are even with guys who spent years in college — but teams are in better positions to make it work.

The other thing I would want to see: If a player signs with an agent out of high school, does not get drafted, give him the chance to go to college still. Some young men are going to get terrible advice (from family, AAU coaches, friends, a whole lot of people) and they deserve a chance to choose a better path.