Kurt Helin

PBT Extra: Looking ahead to Warriors at Cavaliers headlining Christmas games

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Christmas day the NBA brings out its best and brightest — and biggest television draws — and the lined up and interesting set on ABC and ESPN this Sunday.

This game everyone wants to see the NBA Finals rematch/preview as Golden State visits Cleveland — now withKevin Durant. But there are other exciting games: Boston at New York to start the day may be the most competitive game of the day. The Spurs vs. the Bulls is a game filled with intriguing matchups. Can Minnesota even slow down Russell Westbrook? Who wins the battle of Los Angeles?

I talk about all of them in this latest PBT Extra.

DeAndre Jordan with vicious poster dunk over Pau Gasol (VIDEO)

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No Blake Griffin in the Clippers lineup just means more Chris Paul/DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll — and that’s not a bad thing. That play can be nearly impossible to stop.

Just ask Pau Gasol. Thursday night CP3 came off a double high screen from Jordan and Paul Pierce, which had freed Paul from his man and forced Gasol to slide over and cut off the lane. CP3 was patient, waited for Jordan to roll down the key, hit him with the perfect pass, then Gasol tried to rotate over, but it was too late. All that happened was him being in the poster.

The Clippers went on to win 106-101, but Paul missed the fourth quarter after tweaking a hamstring.

Three things we learned Thursday: No Blake Griffin, no problem for Clippers. Yet.

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We know you were out finishing — okay, who are we kidding, you were starting — your holiday shopping, so you may not have been watching the NBA. Here are the big takeaways from Thursday night around the league.

1) Clippers beat Spurs without Blake Griffin, but if Chris Paul is out a while things will change. It’s an annual tradition with the Clippers — no, not Blake Griffin getting injured, but the “how much trouble are the Clippers in without him” discussion. There’s a sense the Clippers will slide, but they adjust their game to run a lot more DeAndre Jordan/Chris Paul pick-and-roll — a dangerous combination — and it works. (Which leads to the stupid “are the Clippers better off without Griffin?” columns, but we’re a few weeks away from that.)

It worked against the Spurs Thursday night — 54.3 percent of Los Angeles’ possessions involved the pick-and-roll, and the Clippers used their athletic advantages to roll the Spurs early then hold on for a 106-101 win. By athletic advantages, I mean plays like this.

Los Angeles also got a monster night from the bench. Their all-bench lineup of Raymond Felton, Jamal Crawford, Austin Rivers, Wesley Johnson, and Marreese Speights were on the court for 18 minutes together, including much of the fourth quarter, they moved the ball brilliantly, hit their shots, scored 41 points and were a +4. Considering how devastating the Clippers starting five is (when healthy) if the Clippers get this kind of bench play they become difficult to beat.

It’s games like this, snapping a five-game Spurs winning streak, that make you think the Clippers could use that athleticism to beat the Spurs in a seven-game, second-round playoff series this year.

If healthy. Which became an issue in the fourth quarter Thursday when Chris Paul was chasing Tony Parker around a pick and pulled up with a tweaked hamstring, but it doesn’t appear too serious.

The Clippers can hold their ground for 4-6 weeks without Griffin, but without Paul that dynamic would change quickly. Raymond Felton had his best game as a Clipper Friday and they held off the Spurs, but that is not a sustainable trend. I’d be shocked if CP3 played Friday night against Dallas (that’s a game the Clippers can still win without him). After that it’s the Lakers on Christmas Day. Hamstrings can be tricky, they linger sometimes (and if guys come back to fast they re-aggravate them), no doubt the Clippers need to be cautious. But if Paul misses more than a couple of games, well, no Paul or Griffin would lead to a rough stretch in Los Angeles.

2) Celtics win fourth straight (three on road), may be coming together. In the latest PBT Podcast (previewing the Christmas Day games), Dan Feldman and I had the same reaction to the Boston season: They haven’t been bad, but I thought they’d be a little better than this.

Maybe they are, maybe it’s just coming together a little slower than we expected. The Celtics beat the Pacers 109-102 on the road Thursday night, giving Boston a sweep on a three-game road trip, and Boston has now won four in a row. They have done it with defense — in those four games, they have allowed just 94.7 points per 100 possessions, second best in the NBA in that stretch (for the season Boston has allowed 103.7 per 100, which is middle of the pack).

Boston has shown versatility in lineups (which we thought would be a strength entering the season), and Brad Stevens seems to be finding some combinations he likes. Ones that defend, ones that can be scrappy, just not score. Who plays well with Isaiah Thomas (28 points the win over Indiana)? Who can play well with Al Horford? How do all the puzzle pieces fit together? Stevens is still playing mad scientist, trying different combinations rather than just locking into a set nine-man rotation. It may have meant fewer wins in November and December, but the Celtics want the wins to come in late April and May, and Stevens is learning who he can trust there.

Boston is, to me, the clear third best team in the East, and one that could make things very interesting in the second round against Toronto in the postseason. If we get that far. Still a lot of basketball between now and then. But the Celtics seem to be thinking big picture, and that picture starting to come into focus.

3) Shaq got his jersey retired by the Heat, and it was a very Shaq event. Miami gave the man a diesel truck. It was a larger than life event for a larger than life man and personality. Who cares if Shaq only spent a couple of years in South Beach, he was key to that 2006 NBA title, he remains loved in South Beach, and if they want to honor the man they should do it. And they did, in the most Shaq of ways.

Chris Paul leaves game with strained hamstring, now day-to-day

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Midway through the third quarter Thursday night against the Spurs, Chris Paul was chasing Tony Parker around a pick, when he pulled up and started to grab his hamstring.

CP3 instantly came out of the game, not to return. The Clippers went on to get the win 106-101, and after the game the questions were first about how long Chris Paul could be out. From Dan Woike of the Orange County Register:

The Clippers host Dallas Friday night, it would be a surprise if Paul plays in that game. Next after that is the Christmas Day game against the Lakers.

The Clippers are already without Blake Griffin, out at least a month following knee surgery. The Clippers can hold their own without Griffin, running a lot of Paul/DeAndre Jordan pick-and-roll, but if CP3 is out any length of time (and hamstrings can be tricky) the team will stumble. Which could impact seedings down the line in a crowded Western Conference

Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel want to play together; Brett Brown says not yet

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Philadephia coach Brett Brown has said he plans to stick with the Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor front line a little longer, he wants to see how they fit together over a stretch of time. So far, they are a defensive disaster together — allowing 111.7 points per 100 possessions, 6.2 worse than the Sixers season defense — but Brown wants a longer look.

Meanwhile, Embiid and Noel want to play together and see what that looks like. Embiid lobbied for it the other day, speaking to Jessica Camerato of CSNPhilly.com.

“I also want to get on the court and see what we can look like together because I like him and I want to play with everybody,” Embiid said after the Sixers’ 108-93 loss to the Pelicans. “I feel like if we’re trying something, I feel like we should try the other thing too. Hopefully in the future they do that.”

“I loved (the fan support Noel got entering the game). He’s my best friend on the team and I was really happy for him,” Embiid said, also noting, “I thought he should have played more.”

Thursday Noel made the same pitch, suggesting it would be a good defensive front line.

“I think it will be very interesting,” Noel said. “I think it will have some positives and we’ll work through the negatives. But I think defensively, we’ll be something to reckon with.”

The Sixers start a four-game road trip Thursday, and here is what Brown said about his front line rotation for now:

“We’re now at four games starting Jahlil and Joel, and my intention is we’ll see this road trip out and begin the new year and reassess,” Brown said. “I think with eight games as a body of work, we can judge it more accurately and feel what’s best for the team and the players. Ultimately, the whole program needs to be based on defense. Whatever that equals in relation to who’s on the floor is the direction I’m going to take the program.”

Noel wants to play, he’s also clearly been open to the idea of being moved from the Sixers’ crowded frontcourt. But to get moved, he needs to be showcased a little.

Brown can be patient, there are no expectations of racking up wins to reach the playoffs in Philly. Brown can take his time to see what the pairings look like. But the Noel and Embiid one can’t really be worse than the Okafor/Embiid one, can it?