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Three things to watch for on Christmas in Cleveland vs. Golden State

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This is the marquee game on Christmas day.

Forget just Christmas, this is the NBA’s marquee matchup and rivalry period — the two best teams in the NBA three years running. While Houston and Boston want to try to crash the party this year, there’s at least a 50/50 chance Golden State and Cleveland will be back in the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season.

There’s a little firepower missing in this meeting: Stephen Curry is out for the Warriors (sprained ankle) and Isaiah Thomas (hip) will suit up for Cleveland for the first time in the coming days, but not on Christmas. And both of these teams have coasted to good but not great records to start the season, knowing their real season begins in mid-April. Still, these teams are loaded with All-Stars and recognizable names, and more importantly they know each other very well — unlike almost all NBA regular season games, these two teams are very familiar with the deep scouting report on the other. Coaches can go deeper into their bag of tricks with certain plays or try to force specific matchups more than they would in most NBA regular season matchups.

Here are three things to keep an eye out for when the Warriors and Cavaliers tip-off.

1) LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. These are the two best basketball players walking the face of the earth right now, and the debate of who is better flared up in the Finals last season when Durant hit a dagger three over LeBron in Game 3, a shot that put the Warriors up 3-0 and all but sealed the series.

Durant went on to be the Finals MVP, but he wouldn’t even have been in Golden State if LeBron hadn’t been the Finals MVP the season before sparking Cleveland to come from 3-1 down to win the series. That loss opened the door to KD in Golden State. These two men’s careers have been intertwined because of it.

They will be intertwined — and at times matched up — on Christmas.

LeBron is having an MVP-level season, averaging 28.4 points, 9.2 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game, is shooting 41.1 percent from three and has a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 65.7. He also put it upon himself to lift up the Cavaliers defense up after a sloppy start to the season on that end, and that sparked a 14-game win streak.

Durant says he is on the level of LeBron. If anyone is, it’s him. KD is averaging 26.3 points per game, 7.2 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per night, and with Curry out he has taken over the Warriors offense, becoming the focal point of its scoring (much of it during an 11-game win streak that ended Saturday). Durant is also having his best defensive season ever, an All-Defensive Team level season.

This game is going to be decided more by which superstar gets more help than their head-to-head matchup, but when you get to see two future Hall of Famers at the top of their craft going at each other, it is must-watch television.

2) The Warriors’ secret weapon: Andre Iguodala. It wasn’t Curry, and Durant wasn’t around yet, but when the Warriors won the first title of this run in was Iguodala who was the 2015 Finals MVP. He has been the Golden State’s secret weapon in these matchups. As Kevin Pelton of ESPN noted, since the start of 2014-15 (the first season these teams met in the Finals) the Warriors are +208 when Iguodala is on the court against the Cavaliers, and -54 when he is not.

With Stephen Curry out, coach Steve Kerr is leaning more heavily on Iguodala in recent games. Kerr regularly talks about how much he trusts Iguodala and can lean on his steadying veteran influence as the second unit as a playmaker and leader. More than just that, he’s a strong defender who back in 2015 was the guy Kerr turned to when he needed someone to make LeBron really work for his points.

Iguodala has not quite been himself this season, he looks a step slower to the eye and his numbers are down (his PER is just 10.4, his true shooting percentage is below the league average and stands at 51). Is that just part of not taking the regular season seriously enough, or is Father Time starting to win the race he eventually wins with all of us? We will see on Christmas because Kerr will lean heavily upon Iguodala in this one.

3) Warriors small ball looks different, but will the Cavaliers have an answer? Golden State’s most notorious small ball lineup — “Hamptons five” with Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond Green — has only played 58 minutes total this season and been unimpressive when it has been out there (-8.6 per 100 possessions). Injuries have limited how much Steve Kerr can go to it what has been his best lineup in the past, but even when all five are healthy he seems to keep it in his back pocket this season. Without Curry playing, we will not see this lineup on Christmas.

However, the Warriors still have a couple dangerous small ball lineups. The lineup of Shaun Livingston, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and David West is outscoring opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions, and West has been the Warriors best small-ball center all season. Another small-ball lineup using bench players — Patrick McCaw, Thompson, Durant, Green, and rookie Jordan Bell — is outscoring teams by 16.4 points per 100 possessions.

Cleveland’s Tyron Lue can counter because he starts the game smaller now, with Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, LeBron, and Kevin Love — and that lineup has outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions.

Kerr will go to his small ball lineups against the Cavaliers, possibly early, and then tell his team to get out and run — Cleveland has been one of the worst transition defenses in the NBA this season. Only two teams (and not good ones, the Clippers and Kings) allow opponents to get a higher percentage of their offense in transition, and teams are scoring 125.6 points per 100 transition opportunities against the Cavaliers (26th in the league).

If the Warriors are racking up easy buckets in transition on Christmas, this game will be over early. Cleveland has to be efficient on offense and get back on defense to have a shot for the upset on the road.

Lakers make 14% of their free throws, win

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Jordan Clarkson‘s free throw rattled around the rim before falling out late in the first quarter. The Los Angeles crowd groaned. The Lakers missed their first five free throws, and the visiting Pacers led by seven.

It appeared to be one of those nights.

And it was. The Lakers shot just 2-for-14 (14%) on free throws Friday. But they still won, 99-86.

That’s the worst free-throw percentage with at least eight attempts by any team and the worst free-throw percentage regardless of attempts by a winning team in the Basketball-Reference database, which dates back to 1963-64.

Here’s the “leaderboard,” winners in purple and losers in gold:

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The Lakers are shooting an NBA-worst 69% on free throws, but last night took the cake. The offenders:

Knicks’ Jeff Hornacek brushes off concerns about job security

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We saw this pattern earlier this season with the Lakers. Young team gets off to a better-than-expected start, shows real promise, but as things move toward the middle of the season they take a step back. As happens with young, developing teams, they are up and down. However, major market media and an impatient fan base wants to blame someone, so the coach is suddenly discussed as having “lost the locker room” and that his job was in jeopardy (a coach not hired by the current GM). Even though in Luke Walton’s case, it wasn’t (and isn’t).

Now that same pattern has come to New York and the Knicks with Jeff Hornacek. The Knicks started 17-14 and had fans prematurely thinking playoffs thanks to a home-heavy schedule. Reality has hit them the past month.

Hornacek tried to brush off questions about his job security in New York, speaking to Stefan Bondy of the New York Post.

Hornacek also believes he has the backing of GM Scott Perry and president Steve Mills, despite being inherited by them as Phil Jackson’s hire.

“We were talking about rebuilding and we got off to a good start because we had a lot of home games,” Hornacek said. “Scott and Steve, everybody’s still on the same page of trying to get our young guys opportunities. We’re still trying to win games. We still want to establish an identity where defensively we’re going to get after it all the time and we’re building toward that. It’s great to have their support…

“I think the expectations come from the players where all of a sudden you hear them talking about, ‘Oh we can make the playoffs.’ We never said that,” Hornacek said. “We said we want to get better and we want to grow. Part of our talk was you can’t worry about the results. You just got to go out there and if you do your best and try to improve the results will come. When you start thinking about win or lose all of a sudden your mentality becomes different. We got to get back to that.”

Is Hornacek the long-term answer in New York? I don’t know. However, finally unchained from the pseudo-triangle disaster Phil Jackson imposed, he has done a solid job this season, putting Kristaps Porzingis in better spots to lead this roster. The Knicks are projected to win around 38 games at this point (according to Cleaning the Glass), and they have about a 14 percent chance of making the playoffs still (according to fivethiryeight.com). Heading into the season, that would have been about anyone’s best-case scenario for this team.

Not that it matters when you’re coach of the Knicks — job security speculation comes with every paycheck. It just isn’t deserved in this case.

Steve Kerr has “regrets” over time as Suns GM with Mike D’Antoni as coach

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Saturday night, Steve Kerr and Mike D’Antoni will square off as the coaches of the two best teams in the NBA this season (the Warriors and Rockets), teams loaded with offensive talent that play fast — Kerr and D’Antoni have some of the same basic philosophies about the game. Right now they have a mutual admiration society going.

But remember when Kerr took over as the general manager of the “seven seconds or less” Suns? Then traded for Shaq, which was the first step in D’Antono going out the door to New York.

Kerr opened up about his regrets from that era to Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I have some regrets,” Kerr said. “I think we had a few differences that I probably didn’t handle very well as a GM that I could’ve probably handled better, especially given that we really like each other and have a lot of similar viewpoints on the game.”

The Suns were a contender, but not one that could get over the hump of the peak San Antonio Spurs of the mid-2000s (it was more than just the year Robert Horry hip-checked Steve Nash into the boards and A’mare Stoudemire got nailed for leaving the bench). Kerr felt the need to do something, so he traded Shawn Marion for an over-the-hill Shaquille O’Neal who did not at all fit the Suns’ style. That move ended an era, and the next summer D’Antoni signed in New York (with a front office that never gave him the pieces for his style of play).

“I should have let Mike know, ‘It’s okay, keep kicking [butt] and keep going, and we’ll make some moves that aren’t so radical that fit more with who we are as an organization,” Kerr said. “We swung for the fences, and it was not the right move to make as an organization. I didn’t envision that as GM. I didn’t have the macro view of what we needed to do….

“I needed to tell Mike, ‘It’s okay if we don’t win the championship,’” Kerr said. “We were so desperate to win. But not everybody can win. But what you can do is keep putting yourself in a position to get there. Then maybe the breaks fall your way.”

Kerr said he’s matured in the way he views the game and team building since then. That is evident in the way the Warriors have been built, with a big-picture view of everything that gets done — they win not only because they are loaded with talent but how that talent fits together. However, they are really an extension of the changes D’Antoni brought to the NBA in Phoenix, just with better defense and some ridiculous shooters.

After stints in New York and Los Angeles with rosters that were ill-suited for his style, D’Antoni is winning big again in Houston because James Harden was really a point guard and GM Daryl Morey has put the right pieces around him to play D’Antoni’s style.

But once again D’Antoni seems just short of a ring because a legendary team — and Steve Kerr — is in the way.

Reports: Jazz might trade Rodney Hood before deadline

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Rodney Hood has been a solid shooter for the Jazz this season, averaging 16.7 points per game and shooting 41.3 percent from three. Of course, you remember him better for this.

Hood is in the final year of his rookie contract, and with the rise of Donovan Mitchell it’s not exactly clear what Hood’s role would be for the Jazz going forward.

Which means Utah might trade Hood, according to multiple reports.

Hood isn’t going to net much in return because he’s in the final year of a contract and because he misses time with nagging injuries (he was out the end of Friday’s game against the Knicks with a lower leg contusion), but considering the number of teams who could use another shooter in the mix there will be interest. More than the big name deals — Kemba Walker, DeAndre Jordan — this is the kind of trade likely to get done at the deadline.