Getty Images

Five things to watch in NBA on Christmas Day

Leave a comment

For many fans, Christmas Day is the unofficial start of the NBA season. Forget the fact that things are kind of already decided — last year 13 of the 16 NBA teams that made the playoffs were already in that position, the season before it was 14 out of 16 — this is the day many fans start really paying attention to the NBA because football is winding down. So what should you be watching for on Christmas Day? We’re going to help you out with five things to keep an eye on.

1) Joel Embiid vs. Kristaps Porzingis: Battle of the modern big men. First, a plea to the basketball gods: Please let them play. Both played in their team’s most recent games, but in both cases the teams are understandably thinking about the long term and being cautious rather than just throwing them out there injured to win a December game. Whether or not Embiid plays for the Sixers may determine just how entertaining this game is: When Embiid is on the court the Sixers play at the level of a 56 win team, but when he is off the court they play at the level of a 24 win team (by net rating). He matters that much to them.

Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis are must watch because they epitomize how the modern NBA big man is evolving — when teams talk about “going small” it doesn’t have to be literally smaller. It’s about the style of play. If you’ve got a 7-footer who can step out and stretch the floor on offense, who is athletic enough to switch on defense and cover a guard on the pick-and-roll, plus get back and defend the rim, then you are playing “small.” Embiid and Porzingis can both do those things. Both have become the face of the franchise and cornerstone building blocks in the “small ball era” because of the versatility of their skills. And both are incredibly hard to defend.

Embiid is ahead on the growth curve right now because he is a bigger force defensively, plus he is more able to punish smaller defenders in the post. Porzingis is better as a threat from three, he and Frank Ntilikina have developed a good pick-and-pop chemistry that will be hard for the Sixers to defend.

Rarely will they be matched up on each other (keep an eye on Kyle O'Quinn, who should get a lot of run for New York) but watch them play and see the future of the big man in the NBA.

2) The Cavaliers vs. Warriors rivalry continues. LeBron James is among those who have said Cavs/Warriors isn’t a rivalry. Um, yes it is — you meet three straight seasons in the NBA Finals and it’s a rivalry. End of discussion.

Both of these teams are once again near the top of their respective conferences while not playing terribly focused basketball so far this season — both understand their season really starts mid-April. Also, both teams will be without a star guard: Stephen Curry is still out for the Warriors (right ankle sprain), and Isaiah Thomas (hip) will make his debut in the Cavaliers uniform later in the week but not on Christmas day.

Not that this game is lacking star power. LeBron James, playing at an MVP level this season while carrying a ridiculous workload, will be looking to measure where his team stacks up against the bar every team in the NBA is trying to clear. Kevin Durant has been the focal point since Curry went down, averaging 32.3 points per game, 9.6 rebounds, and 6.6 assists per game (all while playing the best defense of his career). Then there is Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Kevin Love, and Dwyane Wade all suiting up in this one.

What makes this matchup an especially tantalizing mid-season game is these teams know each other and the scouting reports so well. Most NBA games teams might tweak their defense — “go under the pick vs. this point guard” — or try to massage their rotation a little for matchups, but basically, in the regular season they play their game. Teams are who they are. Come the playoffs there can be significant adjustments to take advantage of weaknesses or matchups — because the Warriors and Cavaliers know each other so well we will see far more of the chess match. They know the scouting reports and can fall back on them in a way they cannot against most teams during the season.

Plus, both these teams know this could well be a Finals preview again. It’s not a statement game, but winning can be a confidence boost (especially for the Cavaliers).

3) Houston’s offense vs. Oklahoma City’s defense. The Houston Rockets don’t just have the best offense in the NBA this season — 113.7 points per 100 possessions, via NBA.com — but they are on pace to have the best offense in NBA history. They have been insanely good.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have the third-best defense in the NBA this season, it is the reason that while their “you take a turn, then I take a turn” offense has stumbled to start the season, the Thunder are now three games over .500 and the five seed in the West.

In a matchup of strengths, who comes out on top? The Thunder can throw Paul George and Andre Roberson at James Harden as defenders, with Steven Adams patrolling the paint behind them. The ball will be in Harden’s hands a lot, without Chris Paul the Rockets have become the Harden show again (he had two 51-point games in a row). The Rockets are jacking up a historic-pace of 43.1 threes per game (hitting 37.1 percent as a team) and the Thunder are not particularly good at chasing opposing teams off the arc — if Houston gets clean looks they will win this game.

In reality, this game may be won by which is better between the Rockets defense (which has been top 10 in the NBA this season but terrible in two recent losses) or the Thunder offense (which has been better lately, with more Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony accepting an off-the-ball role). The improving Thunder — winners of four in a row — may also come in with a chip on their shoulder, seeing this as a chance to make a “we are who you thought we were before the season” statement.

But the fun part watching is how the Thunder defense lines up when Harden has the ball.

4) The symphony of Boston’s team play (not just Kyrie Irving). This is just another game for Kyrie Irving, because Christmas is not really a holiday to him, it’s just another day for a televised game. Whatevs.

Irving is getting all the hype — and early MVP talk in some quarters — but Boston is the ultimate team this season. The Celtics are no one-man show, they are a unit with Brad Stevens pulling all the right strings. Their defensive switching is sublimely smooth and beautiful, and Al Horford is having his best defensive season, serving as a backstop in the paint and a guy who can contest a little on the perimeter. Jaylen Brown has been fantastic defensively, as has Marcus Smart, and the Celtics switch just about everything. Washington will force them to do just that with lots of picks, but Boston’s defense is deep with smart players.

On offense, Irving is playing within the system (most of the time), and Horford’s jack-of-all-trades game plays brilliantly in this offense. Jayson Tatum is getting open looks, and to his credit, the rookie is not hesitating to pull the trigger — he has a ridiculously good 49.5 percent three-point shooting percentage, and his true shooting percentage is 64.6. That’s incredible for a perimeter player (or even a guy who gets his shots at the bucket). Boston moves the ball, moves off the ball, and gets clean looks.  Watch Boston and enjoy the NBA’s best team this season.

5) Will Lakers show Timberwolves what grit looks like? Minnesota is 19-13 on the season, they are loaded with young talent led by Karl-Anthony Towns, they have the fifth best offense in the NBA, and they are on pace to break a playoff draught that dates back to when “Hollaback Girl” was just released (the longest in the NBA).

Still, Minnesota feels like a mirage, a team not as good as their talent or record (they have played the second easiest schedule in the league so far). They have the 25th ranked defense in the NBA and Towns — despite his world of talent and potential — is disinterested on that end of the court. The Timberwolves are getting wins because coach Tom Thibodeau is running his stars into the ground — Andrew Wiggins is third in the NBA in minutes played, Towns seventh, and Jimmy Butler is 14th. There are rumors all over the league of friction between Thibodeau and his young stars.

Christmas Day the Timberwolves take on a Lakers team that is also is young, not quite as talented, but plays hard every night for coach Luke Walton, defends, and shows grit. The Lakers have shown the heart Minnesota lacks. The Lakers have been playing better lately as Lonzo Ball’s decision making and shooting are showing more confidence, as Brandon Ingram is developing into a dangerous scoring threat, and as Kyle Kuzma keeps scoring like a guy who belongs in the Rookie of the Year conversation. Los Angels gets a lot out of guys like Josh Hart and Julius Randle, and Larry Nance Jr. is a keeper and a draft steal by the Lakers. Walton trusts his young players, goes deep into his bench every game, and has the Lakers with the seventh best defense in the NBA this season (although it has had a couple stumbles of late).

Who wins out, the more talented team with the franchise player, or the team playing more as a unit and with more grit? It makes an interesting desert to a strong NBA lineup on Christmas Day.

LeBron James says Daryl Morey was “not educated on the situation” with China Tweet

Zhizhao Wu/Getty Images
12 Comments

When Stephen Curry was asked about how the NBA moves forward in its relationship with China, he gave an answer backing Commissioner Adam Silver’s second position and playing it straight down the middle.

LeBron James was a little more aggressive, saying he didn’t have the necessary information to comment, and suggesting Rockets GM Daryl Morey had no idea what he was getting into. Via Marc Spears of ESPN and Ben Golliver of the Washington Post.

LeBron’s comments quickly blew up on Twitter, and soon after he clarified what he meant, saying he was referring to the backlash from the Tweet.

This issue will not die.

Both the NBA and China would like it to, and both are working on relaxing tensions, including NBA preseason games being shown in China again. Both sides want to move on. It’s not good for the NBA’s bottom line, and in China the NBA is incredibly popular with younger generations.

But the questions about relations between the NBA and China are not going away, and issues are going to flare up again.

 

 

Rookie Tyler Herro scored 14 straight points for Heat Monday night (VIDEO)

Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images
1 Comment

Tyler Herro is having himself an impressive preseason.

He already dropped 18 points in a preseason game last week and throughout the preseason has shown he’s ready to knock down shots at the NBA level.

Monday night he went 5-of-5 — 4-of-4 from three — to score 14 straight points for the Heat.

He’s also showing he can do more than just shoot, crowd him at the arc and he can put the ball on the court and make a play.

Herro’s fellow rookies voted him the best shooter in this draft class and he’s looked every bit of that. The No. 13 pick out of Kentucky started to show that in the Las Vegas Summer League, where he scored on catch-and-shoot chances, pull-ups, step-backs, running off screens, and he could get out in transition as well. Doing that in Summer League is one thing, doing in the NBA preseason is a step up from that — but the real test, the NBA season, is a whole different level.

In Miami, they love the production but what fans really like is Herro plays with swagger.

We’ll see how his rookie season goes, but put that shooting and hustle next to Jimmy Butler for stretches and Miami becomes a lot more interesting.

CJ McCollum, others talk NBA sleep issue: “Lack of sleep… messes up how you play”

Getty Images
2 Comments

The NBA season is a too-long, marathon of a grind. It’s 82 regular games spread across six months — and that’s before things get intense in the playoffs. Players wear down physically, making injuries (and shorter careers) more likely. It’s also why we all know the phrase “load management.” Sixers coach Brett Brown was the first person I have heard put it this way, but it’s nearly a mantra around the NBA now:

“This is a recovery league.”

At the heart of that recovery is sleep — and players simply do not get enough of it.  Playing games that go into the night, followed by travel and strange hotel rooms, then a shootaround the next day, is not conducive to getting eight or more hours of sleep. Or seven. Or often six. That lack of sleep — particularly good, deep REM sleep — has a physical toll on players, and the league is just starting to understand the science of it all.

In a must-read article by Baxter Holmes at ESPN, he gets into the “dirty little secret” of NBA players’ lack of sleep, and the impact that has.

Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum began taking naps in high school and seeking nine hours of sleep a night. And in the NBA, he gets into bed as early as possible. “Lack of sleep messes up your recovery, messes up how you play, your cognitive function, your mindset, how you’re moving on the court,” McCollum says. “Sleep is everything.”…

So how much sleep do NBA players get per night during the season? Ballparking a figure is tricky, but Czeisler, who has worked with three NBA teams, says five hours per night is not an uncommon answer from players… That said, one former and four current NBA athletic training staff members all separately say that six hours of sleep per 24-hour cycle is common among players, an estimate that combines the nightly sleep and the pregame nap that is typical for many NBA players…

By January, just three months into the 2012-13 NBA season, the testosterone [which decreases with lack of sleep] of one player in his 20s had dropped to that of a 50-year-old man. (Those reductions in testosterone, it’s worth noting, are not permanent, but they do require multiple days of recovery to offset.) And as testosterone levels fell for more players, the injuries seemed to correspondingly accumulate.

It’s worth reading the entire article to see the science and impact. For example, multiple trainers suggest most players get five to six hours of sleep a day, and that includes afternoon naps (and science shows those naps are not as beneficial as sleep at night.

Fixing this sleep deficit issue is not simple, it taps into the scheduling issues — and the number of games — that is a topic around the league without a clean and easy solution. There’s a growing consensus there should be fewer games total and they should be spread out more to get players more recovery time, but doing so likely impacts revenue — through gate receipts, television deals, and more — and nobody wants to give up some cash.

Players recognizing the issue is a start, they can take charge of their own health. Just keep your eye on the sleep issue over the coming years, because the lack of sleep issue is going to move more front and center with teams and players.

Stephen Curry on how NBA goes forward in China: “Staying true to who we are a league”

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
1 Comment

With LeBron James and Kyrie Irving leading the way, the Nets’ and Lakers’ players in China for exhibition games didn’t want to be the face of the NBA’s suddenly-fraught relationship with China. The players rightfully wanted the league to speak first.

That doesn’t mean the questions are going away.

Stephen Curry — who is the face of Under Armor’s basketball shoe and clothing line, and who helps sell a lot of apparel in China — was asked on Monday how he and the league move forward in their relationship with China. Nick Friedell of ESPN had the answer.

This basically echos Adam Silver’s second statement, one where he talked about the league’s commitment to free speech, just phrased a to make it more of a “who we are as a league” comment.

For now, tensions between the NBA and China seem to be relaxing, including NBA preseason games being shown in China again. Both sides would like this story to fade from the headlines. It’s not good business for the NBA — who came off poorly from a PR perspective in the exchange — and in China the NBA is incredibly popular with youth and cutting that off starts could lead to a backlash.

However, the underlying issues, the trade concerns, the differences in cultures and how they view free speech, none of that is going away. It’s going to flare up again at some point.

Whenever that is, expect the league and the players to be better prepared with how to handle it.