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?
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.
PBT Extra Christmas Day preview: Can Cavaliers match Warriors small ball?
It’s an NBA Finals rematch — but the way we wanted to see it the first time. The Cavaliers are finally healthy and will have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in the lineup for the Christmas Day showdown with Golden State. It is also a potential Finals preview — that’s why it’s the marquee matchup of the day.
In this PBT Extra, I take a quick look at the game. You want to be careful reading much from a December game and try to see implications for June, but there is one thing I wish to see:
When the Warriors go small, can the Cavaliers match up now? That small ball lineup killed the Cavaliers in the Finals, and it has been a struggle for them this season as well (Washington beat them going very small earlier in the season). However, now that they can roll out a lineup of Irving, Iman Shumpert, LeBron James, Love, and Tristan Thompson, maybe they will be able to hang with the Warriors.
LeBron has had this game circled on the calendar for a while, but can anybody match a focused Golden State right now? This should be fun.
Five Takeaways from NBA Wednesday: Kobe, Durant put on a show (for a half)
LOS ANGELES —Tonight’s Five Takeaways comes live from Staples Center, where the Thunder got in a tune up for their Christmas Day showdown with the Bulls. There were a lot better games — and things got interesting on the Phoenix bench — but you’d be hard-pressed to find two players who had more fun Wednesday than Kobe and Durant. Here’s what you need to know from a Wednesday around the Association.
1) Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant put on a show. For a half. At one point in the second quarter, Kevin Durant crossed Kobe Bryant up badly. After that, he took two long strides through the lane and hit a leaning layup. Then as they ran back down the court, the two shared a laugh about it.
Earlier in the game, when Durant blocked a Kobe shot, Bryant said he told KD, “You long son-of-a-•••••.”
“Competition is a beautiful thing,” Bryant said with a smile on his face after a game where Kobe and Durant dueled in the first half and put on a show for the Lakers fans at Staples Center desperate for just a few minutes of vintage Kobe. They got it. Kobe got Durant a few times over the course of a night, and Durant returned the favor a few more times. The two stars were matched up against each other for most of the night and you could tell both savored it.
“It was fun, I take on those challenges,” Durant said after the game. “Me and him are great friends, but he’s the same way I am between those lines — you’re going to go at each other. No matter what. We can laugh and joke throughout the game, and talk to each other, but when the whistle sounds we’re gonna go at each other…
“He got it going a little in the second quarter, but I think for the most part I made him shoot tough shots all night, and he was able to hit some.”
It only lasted for most of a half. Starting at the 4:05 mark in the second quarter OKC went on a 40-4 run — that blew the game open by the early stages of the third quarter. Most of the second half was garbage time. Kobe and Durant sat out the fourth. In the understatement of the year, the Lakers are not on the Thunder’s level right now.
This is what we can reasonably hope for from Kobe and the Lakers this season — glimpses of his vintage self, fun duels, stretches of games (or a series of games) where he can take us back to a time gone by and let us savor the memories. It’s not going to last, not at 37 and with this team around him, but the halves like Wednesday are a lot of fun for everyone.
2) Suns’ Markeiff Morris throws a towel at coach Jeff Hornacek, who throws it back then benched Morris. The Suns are 6-14 in their last 20 games, and things seem to be devolving. On Wednesday night coach Hornacek benched Morris, unhappy with his play (he was -13 on the night), and Morris responded by throwing his towel at his coach and barking at him. Hornacek answered by throwing the towel back and using some choice words of his own. Needless to say, Morris was done for the night and likely will be suspended by the team for a while. The Suns have been looking to move Morris, but this isn’t going to help his cause. Meanwhile, Hornacek’s seat seems to be getting warmer by the day. And the Suns are a mess.
3) Dirk Nowitzki passes Shaq, moves into sixth on the All-Time NBA scoring list. It seems appropriate. Shaquille O’Neal is decidedly from the old-school, back-to-the-basket world of big men. Dirk Nowitzki revolutionized what we expect out of a big — he’s a seven-footer with three-point range, and an impossible-to-block signature fade away. Dirk was a stretch four before anyone knew what a stretch four was, and he’s the best shooting big man the game has ever seen. Wednesday night he moved past Shaq and is now sixth all-time on the NBA scoring list.
4) LeBron James does in Knicks with a dunk. Shorthanded New York was feisty — without Carmelo Anthony the Knicks had an 82-80 lead on the Cavaliers. But then LeBron happened. With the game tied 82-82 he hit a layup off a Knicks turnover, next trip down hit a couple of free throws, then stuck the dagger in the Knicks with a dunk that had the Cavaliers up 88-82. From there Cleveland hung on for a 91-84 win.
5) Dallas hangs on to beat Brooklyn because… too much J.J. Barea? Yup. Barea has not been good this season, shooting 38.6 percent with a PER of 11.9, he has taken a step back. He is overdribbling and stalling out the Maverick offense. But not Wednesday night. Barea was decisive and had his jumper working — he hit 13-of-20 overall, 5-of-7 from three — on his way to 32 points. The Mavericks needed all of them — including the three in overtime — to get past a stubborn Nets team.
The Mavericks thought they were going to get this win in regulation, but then Thaddeus Young happened. First with the shot.