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.

Bam Adebayo: “I played like s***… I’ll put that game on me.”

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The Miami Heat were one half of basketball away from the NBA Finals when a desperate Boston team cranked up its defensive intensity, started attacking the rim, and started playing at a level Miami didn’t match. The Celtics dominated the final 24 minutes of Game 5, forcing a Game 6 and keeping the Heat out of the Finals for now.

Bam Adebayo took the blame for the Heat loss. Via Manny Navarro of The Athletic.

“I played like s***. Bottom line: I can’t. I’ll put that game on me. It’s not my teammates’ fault. It’s not my coaches’ fault. It’s me. I missed too many shots I should have made… I wasn’t being the defensive anchor I should’ve been. I don’t think I was communicating fast enough. I feel like I was a step behind today. I wasn’t a difference-maker today. I didn’t get us into fast enough triggers. That’s on me.”

Game 5 was not Adebayo’s best outing: 13 points, eight rebounds, and Boston did a better job with its scheme pulling him away from the basket to defend smaller players on the perimeter, opening up the paint. Adebayo and the Heat as a whole struggled to slow the Celtics’ pick-and-roll actions, and Boston has figured out how to play against Miami’s zone (so the Heat have gone away from it).

“It’s not (Adebayo’s fault). It’s on everybody,” Jimmy Butler said after the game. “He does so much for us that it can feel like that at times but it’s definitely not on him. It’s on us as a whole. We all understand that because nobody was playing the way that we are supposed to play; the way that we have to play in order for us to win, nobody. And for him to say that, I respect it. I love him for it. But he can’t do it by himself. We’ve got to be there with him.”

Bam Adebayo was wearing a sleeve over his left arm, where he aggravated a wrist injury at the end of Game 4. Both Adebayo and coach Erik Spoelstra said that was nothing and not what led to his off night.

Miami needs a lot of things to go differently in Game 6: It needs to start hitting its threes again (19.4% from beyond the arc in Game 5, and below 30% from deep in each of the last three games). Miami has to take care of the ball and it has to get back in transition defense — Boston ran right past the Heat in the second half and got a lot of easy transition buckets. Mostly, however, it comes back to Miami shooters hitting more of their threes — the Heat halfcourt offense needs that.

The Game 5 loss was not on Adebayo. But he can be part of the solution.

Backs against the wall, Celtics play dominant half to beat Heat, force Game 6

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For Boston, it was the worst of halves, it was the best of halves. It was a half of foolishness, it was a half of wisdom. It was a half of tight play, it was a half of free-flowing offense. It was a half of despair, it was a half of renewed hope.

With its season on the line down 3-1, Boston came out tight in the first half of Game 5, with guys trying to do everything themselves, showing no patience, no ball movement, players gunning from three, and nobody in green was defending well. Boston shot 5-of-20 in the first quarter, and while things settled down Boston was lucky to be only down seven at the half.

Then a different Boston team came out in the second half — a team that was defending with intent, pushing the pace, and watching their best player, Jayson Tatum, attack to the tune of 17 third quarter points. At the end of the third, Brad Stevens told his team, “with all sincerity, that’s the first time I’ve seen Celtics basketball in the past few games” (via the ESPN mic’d up segment of the broadcast).

The Celtics pulled away in the fourth to win 121-108. The Heat still lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 coming on Sunday.

“We did not compete hard enough defensively and we paid the price for that,” Erik Spoelstra said of his Heat team.

“I thought we played with great tenacity defensively, and I think our offense followed suit,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the second-half turnaround.

That defense included much more ball pressure out high on Miami and it worked. The Heat shot 19.4% from three, that’s the third straight game under 30% from three for the Heat, but Tyler Herro wasn’t able to bail them out this time around.

For Boston, Tatum finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds, and his third quarter helped save the Boston season.

Boston needs that Tatum from the opening tip on Sunday, not after 24 minutes (as we have seen the last couple of games). Boston is a good team but it needs Tatum to play at an All-NBA level to look like a contender.

Jaylen Brown added 28 points for the Celtics, while Daniel Theis proved an important role with 15 points and 13 rebounds plus some critical defensive plays down the stretch.

Miami may have led at the half, but when Boston started playing better out of desperation the Heat had no answers.

“No one was playing the way we’re supposed to play, the way we have to play for us to win,” Butler said.

Miami got 23 points from Goran Dragic and 20 from Duncan Robinson, who was a big part of Miami’s strong first half.

Miami was up 3-1, and they have seen how little that lead has meant in the bubble.

“I don’t think those series have anything to do with this. Our guys are well aware,” Spoelstra said. “We have great respect for Boston. We’re not expecting it to be easy. You have to earn it.”

Kings keeping Luke Walton, plan to play faster next season

Kings coach Luke Walton
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Kings coach Luke Walton works for a general manager who didn’t hire him and an owner who has shown frustration with him.

But Walton will keep his job.

New Sacramento general Monte McNair, via James Ham of NBC Sports California:

“Luke is going to be our coach next year, I’m really excited to work with him and I think we’re aligned in our vision and we’re going to start implementing it,” McNair said.

“This team showed some flashes last year,” McNair said. “I think De’Aaron is certainly a great young talent and I think his speed ability offensively to create really is going to be a huge catalyst for how coach Walton and I envision this team being up-tempo, creating the space to shoot threes and attack the rim.”

Walton has had four losing seasons in four years as a head coach between the Lakers and Kings. But this is how it works out for him.

A distressing aspect of Walton’s first season in Sacramento: The Kings played far slower than they did the previous season under Dave Joerger, who successfully implemented a fastbreak-heavy attack that particularly suited De'Aaron Fox.

Walton can coach that way. His Lakers teams typically played quickly. But Sacramento too often stagnated last season.

The Kings are still building around Fox. It’s on Walton to figure out how to maximize the point guard. For now.

Anthony Davis listed as questionable for Game 5 with sprained ankle

Anthony Davis
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When Anthony Davis has been on the court in the Western Conference Finals, the Lakers have outscored the Nuggets by 9.4 points per 100 possessions. When he sits, the Lakers are -21.3 (stats via NBA.com).

Why that stat matters: Anthony Davis is officially questionable for Game 5 after spraining his ankle in the fourth quarter of Game 4.

“[My] Ankle feels fine. Got tonight, tomorrow before the game to get it back to, I don’t want to say back to where it was, but good enough to play,” Davis said postgame Thursday. “Rolled it pretty bad but not too bad. I’ll be fine.”

Players also are the worst judges of their returns from injuries. This is the playoffs, the Lakers need him on the court, and Davis wants to play. However, ankles are very easy to re-injure once the ligament is stretched, and the issue can become chronic. If Davis missing one game helps the ankle heal to the point it doesn’t linger into the NBA Finals the Lakers have to consider that option.

That said, expect Davis to play.

Davis has been the best Laker throughout the Western Conference Finals. He is averaging 32.3 points a game while shooting 55.3% from the floor, and as noted above the Lakers are dramatically better with him on the court.

The Los Angeles Lakers are up 3-1 on the Denver Nuggets and can advance to the NBA Finals with a win Saturday night in Game 5.