Kurt Helin

Players try to balance family, basketball on Christmas

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LOS ANGELES — Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan played in a Christmas Day game in 1987, his one season in the NBA. He was a Knick, and they were taking on the Pistons at Madison Square Garden. What does Donovan remember about the experience?

“I remember catching the Long Island Railroad back out of Penn Station and going to my aunt’s house, where my whole family was for Christmas. I think we played an afternoon game that day,” Donovan said Wednesday, before the team he now coaches dismantled the Lakers.

Notice the memory is what we always associate with Christmas — family. Not the hoops. Donovan played seven minutes and had a bucket.

“I don’t even remember making a field goal,” Donovan laughed. “I, obviously, didn’t play a whole lot. I think playing on Christmas Day is always an exciting time. It’s also tough, too. A lot of guys have family, kids, and sometimes Christmas morning is a little bit different for families now when you are coaching and playing in the NBA. But also as I think it relates to playing on Christmas Day, it is an honor as well.”

For the players, that is the dichotomy of the NBA owning the sports calendar on Christmas Day.

On one hand, they would like to chill with their family, open gifts, eat too much, and joke around like the rest of us. But it doesn’t work that way. LeBron James will be quick to tell you that he and his family don’t have any real, set Christmas traditions because he is always working and often on the road (including this year, when the Cavaliers are in the Bay Area to take on the Warriors).

On the other hand, they know that they and their team are being put on one of the biggest stages the NBA has — it’s a privilege not to be taken lightly.

“I do like playing on Christmas,” Russell Westbrook said. “We’re playing early (2:30 ET vs. Chicago) so we can do gifts, go play some basketball, and then have the rest of the day…

“I think it’s a blessing (to play on Christmas). I think me, growing up, on Christmas I had the opportunity to watch other people play and now I’m the one people get the chance to watch. I think that’s a blessing in itself.”

That blessing comes with a sacrifice, but just playing in the NBA and being on the road comes with sacrifices for anyone who has a family. The players know that, they know they are well compensated for it. Still, if you’re facetiming with your young children on Christmas morning, it’s not the same.

The players don’t look at it that way — they know they are fortunate to be on the stage they occupy.

“It’s a privilege man,” Kevin Durant said of playing on Christmas. “It’s a blessing to play and inspire so many people. We’re just blessed we get to be at home for one. But to get to play the game on Christmas, you don’t ever want to take that for granted.”

LeBron, Cavaliers await Christmas rematch against Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — When LeBron James walks into Oracle Arena for the first time since Game 5 of last season’s NBA Finals, he knows it will trigger unpleasant thoughts about how his Cleveland Cavaliers lost the title to the Golden State Warriors.

James also knows that winning the rematch on Christmas Day will do little to ease the sting of the finals loss.

“The memories will come back as soon as we walk into the building, but also understand it’s one of 82 and I’m not going to put everything into this game,” James said.

This meeting is one of the more anticipated Christmas Day games in recent years. The seventh Christmas rematch of the previous season’s NBA Finals features a full-strength Cleveland squad against a Warriors team that has captured the attention of the basketball world.

Golden State won a record 24 straight games to start the season and brings a 27-1 mark into this game that is the best for a team at Christmas. The Warriors also have won 31 in a row at home in the regular season but none of those games has been as big as this one.

So what does it mean?

“We either finish that game 28-1 or 27-2,” Golden State forward Draymond Green said. “That’s about it.”

Not everyone is downplaying the rematch. Cavs guard Iman Shumpert said he was still “salty” about losing the finals to the Warriors. Golden State center Andrew Bogut also acknowledged that this would be a big game.

“We know it’s huge for them to come here,” Bogut said. “We’re undefeated at home, and with our record, they want to make a statement to us and we want to do the same. I anticipate it being one of the classics that we can all watch in 10 to 15 years.”

This game will be very different from the series in June for reasons besides the lower stakes.

The Cavaliers, who were without power forward Kevin Love for the entire finals and point guard Kyrie Irving for the last five games, are completely healthy for the first time this season.

Despite those key absences last spring, James almost single-handedly helped the Cavaliers win Games 2 and 3 to take a 2-1 series lead. Then came a lineup switch by coach Steve Kerr that sent center Andrew Bogut to the bench in place of small forward Andre Iguodala – the Warriors won the final three games by an average of 14 points.

“They’re a different team, we’re a different team,” Green said. “We’ve grown. I’m sure they’ve grown. We’re not going back to the Finals like, `Look at this, this is what they did.’ They’ve got 26 games that we can look at from this year.”

The Warriors will be the team that is short-handed this time. Starting forward Harrison Barnes is unlikely to play because of a sprained ankle and Kerr remains sidelined from complications from offseason back surgery.

Even with those absences there will be plenty of star power led by James and MVP Stephen Curry.

“Our guys love these type of games,” Warriors interim coach Luke Walton said. “It’s not an epic game. It’s a regular-season game. It should be entertaining. Obviously, a finals rematch with two of the best teams in the NBA going at it at prime time on Christmas Day. That’s enough to make it a very exciting game. But win or lose, it’s just another game on the column.”

Associated Press freelancers Steve Herrick and Michael Wagaman contributed to this report.

PBT Podcast: Breaking down Cavs vs. Warriors, Christmas Day slate

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When the NBA set up the 2015 slate of Christmas Day games, it looked great on paper.

Now that Santa is about to be flying around the globe delivering presents the lineup is… a little heavy on the naughty list. Or at least, the “this doesn’t look like a great game” list.

Still, PBT’s Dan Feldman and Kurt Helin break down all five games. We spend a lot of time on the much-anticipated Cavaliers vs. Warriors matchup. But we also talk:

Pelicans at Heat
Bulls at Thunder
Spurs at Rockets
Clippers at Lakers

As always, you can listen to the podcast below, or you can listen and subscribe via iTunes.

Five NBA games, five things to look for on Christmas Day

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Christmas Day belongs to the NBA. Well, on the sports calendar. Hopefully, you have higher priorities for the day. There will be 13 hours of NBA games starting at noon Eastern — you’ll be trying to stream them all on your phone while sitting bored on your Aunt Lilly’s couch. To help out a little, here are five things to look for, one from each game on the Holiday slate. Enjoy, and happy holidays.

1) New Orleans vs. Miami Heat (noon ET on ESPN). This game looked a lot better on paper before the season started (which is a theme for this Christmas Day slate). In this case, it was because we expected the Pelicans to continue climbing the ladder in the West, not taking a big step back due to injury and a roster that can’t do what new coach Alvin Gentry would like to do (namely, run and shoot well). The Pelicans also remain defensive mess (their biggest issue last season), and the Heat will expose that.

However, this game still gives us one of the best one-on-one match-ups of the day — Hassan Whiteside vs. Anthony Davis. Two athletic, young, up-and-coming big men who will both run the court and spend time matched up. Can Whiteside slow Davis? Will the Pelican’s guards be able to get Davis the ball in a dangerous position? There are a lot of questions, but that matchup should be fun.

2) Chicago Bulls at Oklahoma City Thunder (2:30 pm ET on ABC). It’s a battle of rookie coaches out of the college ranks brought in to take their teams to the next level. Billy Donovan came into Oklahoma City and tried to ease that transition, still running some Scott Brooks sets and gently guiding the team away from isolation ball (last season 14 percent of Thunder possessions ended with isolations, this season it is 8.4 percent). It has worked, the Thunder are finding their identity. On the other hand, Fred Holberg came into Chicago and tried to install an entirely new package and found pushback from players who asked to slow it down and use some Thibodeau sets. The Bulls haven’t found their identity yet on offense.

The Bulls are winning thanks to a Top 5 defense, but they are without Joakim Noah for this game. Can they slow down the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook machine? The Bulls play better on bigger stages, but this is a tall order.

3) Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors (5 pm ET on ABC). This is the game everyone wants to see — a Finals rematch and very possibly a Finals preview. This is the marquee game with the league’s two biggest stars — LeBron James and Stephen Curry — going head-to-head in a much-anticipated matchup. The Cavaliers will have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love this time around, unlike the NBA Finals.

The thing to watch: Can the Cavaliers hang with the Golden State small-ball lineup? It was small ball that beat Cleveland in the Finals last June, and good small-ball lineups have given them trouble this season. Now that they are healthy the Cavaliers can try lineups — such as Irving, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, LeBron, and Love; or sub Tristan Thompson in for Smith to go a little bigger — and see how that matches up with the Warriors. It may not decide this game, but how those lineups fare against each other is something the coaches will file away looking ahead to the Finals.

4) San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets (8 pm ET on ESPN). The San Antonio Spurs have been the best team in the NBA in the month of December — they have the top ranked offense and the top ranked defense for the month, and they are outscoring teams by 22 points per 100 possessions. After a slow start, the Houston Rockets have fought their way up to .500 and have looked better of late, although that has come against a very soft schedule, something that is changing over the next couple weeks.

The matchup to watch? Kawhi Leonard guarding James Harden. The league’s best perimeter defender against the guy the players voted the MVP last season. The Spurs will win the game, and if Leonard smothers Harden it could be by a lot.

5) L.A. Clippers at L.A. Lakers (10:30 pm ET on ESPN). There are only three reasons to watch this game.

A) You can’t take your eyes off the new 60-inch Ultra HD 4K TV Santa brought you.
B) You love watching Chris Paul throw lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (and Griffin throwing to Jordan, which is becoming commonplace).
C) You believe in Christmas Kobe Bryant, and he is going to fly in with an entertaining game for the ages that makes this more interesting than it otherwise should be.

PBT Extra Christmas Day preview: Can struggling Bulls slow Thunder?

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The Chicago Bulls are a team in search of an identity. And a leader. And a rotation that fits their new coach’s style. They have dropped three straight and have won just four of their last 10.

Now on Christmas Day, they travel to face an Oklahoma City team that has found it’s identity lately — a whole lot of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It’s the game I break down in this PBT Extra.

Billy Donovan didn’t come into the Thunder and try to try to establish his standing with force; there was no “here is the new system we are going to run and it’s nothing like what we had before.” He tried to ease the transition — while the Thunder still run isolation sets they run less, and they pick their spots (ends of games). It’s the opposite of Bulls head coach Billy Donovan, who tried to put in his new system and had the players walk it back some on him, because it’s not a fit with the roster.

The Bulls have played better against better teams, but they are winning with defense and are without Joakim Noah for this game. That doesn’t bode well for them.