Five things we learned watching the NBA on Christmas

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The NBA gave five Christmas day presents to the fans… which were really more like belated birthday gifts disguised as Christmas gifts because we should have opened the NBA season on Nov. 1. But we’ll forgive and move on, like we do with family around the holidays. We’re just glad to have the NBA back.

There were no real moments of enlightenment among the day of sloppy play. But we did learn a few things. Five things.

1. When the Miami Heat runs they are beasts, and they are running a lot more. Sunday Miami had 100 possessions (via Basketball-Reference) — nearly nine more per game than they averaged last year. The result was Showtime in Miami (and a blowout win).

This is what Erik Spoelstra wants to do all season, it’s why he studied the Oregon offense with Chip Kelly this summer. Despite having all those amazing open-floor finishers — LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are as good as there are in the league — the Heat played at the 20th fastest pace in the league last season. If they bump that to top-10 pace this season they become a lot better. Which is scary.

2. The Oklahoma City Thunder are comfortable as contenders. The Thunder dealt with the weight of expectations smoothly on Christmas. They looked polished and like they were having fun.

By the way, that is why OKC got Kendrick Perkins — he threw Dwight Howard off his game and when you can single-cover Howard you can shut down the Magic (even if you are the Hawks). Perkins is going to matter against the Grizzlies and Lakers. He makes them better.

3. The Knicks have the potential to be a reasonable defensive team. The Knicks only played defense in spurts, and I think we can expect that all season. They were good early; the third quarter was a disaster. But on the second to last play they did a good job of taking away the Celtics’ preferred shots and leaving it to Marquis Daniels with the three (he missed). Then again, on the last play the Knicks got lucky because Bill Walker picked off his own man (Tyson Chandler) and left Kevin Garnett with a good look. Simply put, the better their defense the farther they go this season.

4. The Clippers are Chris Paul’s team now. This is not Blake Griffin’s team, this is Chris Paul’s team. Paul has the ball in his hands, he took over late. He was 4-of-4 shooting for eight points and four assists in the final six minutes of the game. There is a lot of work for the Clippers to do: Paul and Griffin have to develop more chemistry, Chauncey Billups has to clean up his shot selection, DeAndre Jordan has to not give up so many offensive rebounds chasing blocks. But when you have a guy like Paul who can take over games you win a lot. And the Clippers are going to win a lot this season.

5. The Lakers have some real grit. There were good signs out of a Lakers loss. Well, not if you watched the last four minutes there wasn’t. But in that game we didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know about the Bulls (they play great defense and that Derrick Rose guy is impressive).

But the Lakers, minus Andrew Bynum, played good defense and fought back from being down. Josh McRoberts will do the dirty work and their rookie Devin Ebanks shows promise. Thing is, you don’t win an NBA title without some grit and while we don’t expect it out of the Lakers they showed it. That will serve them well.

The question is can they beat the elite teams? That has yet to be proven.

The time Shaq peed in Suns teammate Lou Amundson’s shoes – and worse!

Suns players Lou Amundson and Shaquille O'Neal (Shaq)
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Gilbert Arenas has earned a reputation as the NBA player who relieved himself in a teammate’s shoe (Wizards forward Andray Blatche’s).

But Arenas’ tactic wasn’t unique.

Shaquille O’Neal got into a prank war with Suns teammate Lou Amundson during the 2008-09 season. It got intense as Phoenix, coached by Alvin Gentry, reached the final game of its season.

ESPN’s Amin Elhassan on “The Dan Le Batard Show With Stugotz” local hour, hosted by Mike Ryan:

Shaq is the big prankster, the big joker. But if you do something against him, there’s no tit for tat. There’s tit for nuclear war.

He goes to Lou’s locker, grabs his sneakers, pees in them.

That’s the start, right? He then goes and let’s just say “messes with” some of Lou’s haircare devices, like his brush and his comb and stuff. Messes with them. Let me put it this way: Messes with them in a way that – I was comfortable telling you he peed in the shoes. I’m not comfortable telling you what he did to the hair stuff. And then this part, I will tell you: He tampers with Lou’s mouth guard.

He tampers with it.

He tampers with it.

Lou shows up at like 8 or whenever he usually shows up. And he’s skittish and nervous. And Suns.com is there like, “What do you think Shaq is going to do?” “I don’t know. I think he’s going to do something, though.”

So, I’ll never forget this. He’s sitting at the locker, and he opens – he starts to reach for the sneakers and then looks at them and says, “Nah, something doesn’t feel right.” Opens the door up, pulls out a fresh pair of sneakers for the last game of the year, right? Again, this is irregular behavior. Usually, you have a couple of sneakers. You break them in for the year, and you switch between two or three or three or four, whatever. So to break out a whole brand new pair … was weird.

Most of the time when you’re an NBA player, you don’t put on the mouth guard immediately. You have it in a case, and you give the case to the trainer. Then, you go out to the bench. Then, when you’re about to come into the game, that’s when you grab your mouthpiece.

There’s no funnier image than Alvin drawing up a play, kneeling down, coaches standing around him. Lou is sitting there, because now he’s in the game. The guys who are in the game are usually seated. Sitting there just staring at the clipboard, like, “OK, coach. I got you.” And everyone else is just staring at Lou. No one’s paying attention.

Puts the mouth guard in. One, two [sounds of disgust], takes the mouth guard out and flings it with tremendous accuracy at the bench. Everyone starts dying. I remember going back and watching the broadcast, “Oh, Suns bench seems to be getting a lot of fun.” They had no idea what’s happening.

What did Shaq do to Amundson’s mouth guard? My imagination is running WILD.

Elhassan also explains why Grant Hill took 25 shots – his most in four years – in that game. Hill needed to score 26 points to average 12 points per game for the season, which would trigger a large bonus in his shoe contract. Hill’s gunning got him 27 points.

It’s a good podcast with other fun anecdotes and worth a listen.

Magic: Mo Bamba out for playoffs, undergoing post-coronavirus evaluation

Magic center Mo Bamba
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Mo Bamba contracted coronavirus, fell out of shape, recovered, joined the Magic in the bubble then struggled to contribute on the court.

Now, he’s departing the bubble for good.

Magic:

The Magic are huge underdogs in their first-round series against the Bucks. This doesn’t really change the equation. Bamba had already fallen from the rotation, which is now comprised of Nikola Vucevic and Khem Birch at center.

But it raises thorny long-term questions.

Bamba was the No. 6 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. Though he has underwhelmed so far, the Magic were still hoping he’d grow into a quality NBA player. Bamba at least improved from his rookie season.

His progress has obviously been halted. For how long? Will he face lasting effects?

Everyone is trying to get to the bottom of these difficult questions.

Reported Bulls coaching candidates: Kenny Atkinson, Stephen Silas, Darvin Ham, more

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The Bulls fired Jim Boylen. 76ers assistant Ime Udoka was reportedly frontrunner for the job, but Chicago will conduct a full search.

Who else is in the mix?

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The broad search is expected to include former Nets coach Kenny Atkinson, Nuggets assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Mavericks assistant Stephen Silas, Bucks assistant Darvin Ham and 76ers assistant Ime Udoka, among others, sources said.

Atkinson is the only former head coach on that list. Like Tyronn Lue for win-now teams, Atkinson is the top available coach for rebuilding teams. (If fired by the 76ers, Brett Brown could supplant Atkinson.) Atkinson had a strong record of player development before Brooklyn shifted priorities.

The Bulls – with Zach LaVine, Coby White, Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr. and a high first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft – could use someone like him.

But Atkinson could have options, and Chicago might not be the most desirable opening.

Udoka, Silas, Ham and Unseld are all rising assistants who have earned head-coaching consideration. Interviews should help determine whether they’re ready for that step.

PBT NBA All-Bubble Awards

Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard and Rockets star James Harden
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The NBA will announce seeding-game awards tomorrow.

But the play-in is already set. Other playoff matchups are already set. The final seeding games today are just glorified scrimmages.

So, why wait to name the top performers in the bubble?

Here are our picks using the same format as the league – a Most Valuable Player, two five-player teams (no positions) and a coach:

Bubble MVP

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

Kurt Helin: It isn’t simply that Damian Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game. It wasn’t how he got those points, with ridiculously deep threes and driving layups. It was when he did it that makes him bubble MVP: When the Trail Blazers had a rough outing (as did Lillard) and looked like they might fade from postseason contention, he came back next game and dropped 61. Then 51 the game after that. Then 42 in the final bubble game with the playoffs on the line. Lillard was the ultimate leader and willed his team to the play-in series, and that’s what makes him MVP of the seeding games.
Dan Feldman: James Harden was more consistently good and even sometimes great. But nobody hit higher levels than Lillard, who stepped up in the biggest moments to lead Portland into the play-in with the eighth-place advantage. Lillard set an emotional tone for a team constantly vulnerable of falling from the playoff race, and he delivered on the court with brilliant offense. He wasn’t perfect, but he went to great lengths to ensure the Trail Blazers met their goal. That’s the bubble MVP.

All-Bubble teams

First team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)
Devin Booker (Suns) James Harden (Rockets)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Devin Booker (Suns)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) T.J. Warren (Pacers)
James Harden (Rockets) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Second team

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Jayson Tatum (Celtics) Luka Doncic (Mavericks)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
Kawhi Leonard (Clippers) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
DeMar DeRozan (Spurs) Paul George (Clippers)
Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)

Kurt Helin: It was difficult leaving Antetokounmpo off the first team, he played brilliantly but his team was in cruise control (plus he took himself out of the last game by headbutting Moe Wagner). A few players such as Fred VanVleet and Michael Porter Jr. also almost made the cut.

Dan Feldman: Lillard, Harden, Booker and Warren were first-team locks. Antetokounmpo was absolutely dominant when he wanted to be, which was limited with the Bucks locking up the No. 1 seed early. Derrick White, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Paul, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred VanVleet were among the contenders for the final second-team spots.

Coach of the Bubble

Kurt Helin Dan Feldman
Monty William (Suns) Monty William (Suns)

Kurt Helin: Every young team talked about it heading into the restart (and developing teams not invited to the restart begged for the same opportunity): Using the bubble games as a chance for a young core to grow and take a step forward. Except teams like Sacramento and New Orleans didn’t do that. Phoenix, behind Monty Williams did — they became the story of the bubble at 8-0. Devin Booker exploded and got himself in MVP talk, Deandre Ayton played brilliantly, and the Suns came from six-games back of Memphis to almost make the playoffs. Williams set the Suns up to be a playoff team in the West next season.

Dan Feldman: Phoenix went 8-0! That alone is pretty darned impressive, and the context reflects even more favorably on Williams. The Suns entered the bubble with the lowest playoff odds among the continuing 22 teams. Needing to make up 2.5 games and – more significantly – jump four (!) teams, Phoenix could have easily arrived unmotivated and ripe for distraction. Instead, Williams had the Suns playing fearlessly, cohesively and joyously. Williams even leaned heavily on his young players rather than his veterans, taking excellent advantage of a player-development opportunity and positioning Phoenix to ascend next season.