Three things to watch for on Christmas in Cleveland vs. Golden State

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This is the marquee game on Christmas day.

Forget just Christmas, this is the NBA’s marquee matchup and rivalry period — the two best teams in the NBA three years running. While Houston and Boston want to try to crash the party this year, there’s at least a 50/50 chance Golden State and Cleveland will be back in the NBA Finals for a fourth straight season.

There’s a little firepower missing in this meeting: Stephen Curry is out for the Warriors (sprained ankle) and Isaiah Thomas (hip) will suit up for Cleveland for the first time in the coming days, but not on Christmas. And both of these teams have coasted to good but not great records to start the season, knowing their real season begins in mid-April. Still, these teams are loaded with All-Stars and recognizable names, and more importantly they know each other very well — unlike almost all NBA regular season games, these two teams are very familiar with the deep scouting report on the other. Coaches can go deeper into their bag of tricks with certain plays or try to force specific matchups more than they would in most NBA regular season matchups.

Here are three things to keep an eye out for when the Warriors and Cavaliers tip-off.

1) LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. These are the two best basketball players walking the face of the earth right now, and the debate of who is better flared up in the Finals last season when Durant hit a dagger three over LeBron in Game 3, a shot that put the Warriors up 3-0 and all but sealed the series.

Durant went on to be the Finals MVP, but he wouldn’t even have been in Golden State if LeBron hadn’t been the Finals MVP the season before sparking Cleveland to come from 3-1 down to win the series. That loss opened the door to KD in Golden State. These two men’s careers have been intertwined because of it.

They will be intertwined — and at times matched up — on Christmas.

LeBron is having an MVP-level season, averaging 28.4 points, 9.2 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game, is shooting 41.1 percent from three and has a ridiculous true shooting percentage of 65.7. He also put it upon himself to lift up the Cavaliers defense up after a sloppy start to the season on that end, and that sparked a 14-game win streak.

Durant says he is on the level of LeBron. If anyone is, it’s him. KD is averaging 26.3 points per game, 7.2 rebounds, and 5.2 assists per night, and with Curry out he has taken over the Warriors offense, becoming the focal point of its scoring (much of it during an 11-game win streak that ended Saturday). Durant is also having his best defensive season ever, an All-Defensive Team level season.

This game is going to be decided more by which superstar gets more help than their head-to-head matchup, but when you get to see two future Hall of Famers at the top of their craft going at each other, it is must-watch television.

2) The Warriors’ secret weapon: Andre Iguodala. It wasn’t Curry, and Durant wasn’t around yet, but when the Warriors won the first title of this run in was Iguodala who was the 2015 Finals MVP. He has been the Golden State’s secret weapon in these matchups. As Kevin Pelton of ESPN noted, since the start of 2014-15 (the first season these teams met in the Finals) the Warriors are +208 when Iguodala is on the court against the Cavaliers, and -54 when he is not.

With Stephen Curry out, coach Steve Kerr is leaning more heavily on Iguodala in recent games. Kerr regularly talks about how much he trusts Iguodala and can lean on his steadying veteran influence as the second unit as a playmaker and leader. More than just that, he’s a strong defender who back in 2015 was the guy Kerr turned to when he needed someone to make LeBron really work for his points.

Iguodala has not quite been himself this season, he looks a step slower to the eye and his numbers are down (his PER is just 10.4, his true shooting percentage is below the league average and stands at 51). Is that just part of not taking the regular season seriously enough, or is Father Time starting to win the race he eventually wins with all of us? We will see on Christmas because Kerr will lean heavily upon Iguodala in this one.

3) Warriors small ball looks different, but will the Cavaliers have an answer? Golden State’s most notorious small ball lineup — “Hamptons five” with Curry, Klay Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and Draymond Green — has only played 58 minutes total this season and been unimpressive when it has been out there (-8.6 per 100 possessions). Injuries have limited how much Steve Kerr can go to it what has been his best lineup in the past, but even when all five are healthy he seems to keep it in his back pocket this season. Without Curry playing, we will not see this lineup on Christmas.

However, the Warriors still have a couple dangerous small ball lineups. The lineup of Shaun Livingston, Thompson, Iguodala, Durant, and David West is outscoring opponents by 10.8 points per 100 possessions, and West has been the Warriors best small-ball center all season. Another small-ball lineup using bench players — Patrick McCaw, Thompson, Durant, Green, and rookie Jordan Bell — is outscoring teams by 16.4 points per 100 possessions.

Cleveland’s Tyron Lue can counter because he starts the game smaller now, with Jose Calderon, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder, LeBron, and Kevin Love — and that lineup has outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions.

Kerr will go to his small ball lineups against the Cavaliers, possibly early, and then tell his team to get out and run — Cleveland has been one of the worst transition defenses in the NBA this season. Only two teams (and not good ones, the Clippers and Kings) allow opponents to get a higher percentage of their offense in transition, and teams are scoring 125.6 points per 100 transition opportunities against the Cavaliers (26th in the league).

If the Warriors are racking up easy buckets in transition on Christmas, this game will be over early. Cleveland has to be efficient on offense and get back on defense to have a shot for the upset on the road.

Houston acquires 2025 2nd-round pick in eight-player trade with Thunder

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ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski described this as a “cap-centric deal”, since it helped the Thunder get around $10 million below the luxury tax, while Houston added a 2nd-round pick by taking on $1 million in cap space.

The Rockets acquired Derrick Favors, Ty Jerome, Moe Harkless, Theo Maledon and a protected 2025 2nd-round pick from the Hawks and sent David Nwaba, Sterling Brown, Trey Burke and Marquese Chriss to Oklahoma City.

The 2nd-rounder from Atlanta is protected 31-40, and it will become the second best 2026 2nd-round pick between the Mavericks, Thunder, and 76ers if it doesn’t convey in 2025.

A tweet from Jackson Gatlin of Locked On Rockets indicates that Houston will also receive $6.3 million in cash from the Thunder.

Previous reports indicated that Derrick Favors was unlikely to remain with the Thunder this season, while Ty Jerome wasn’t participating in training camp as his representatives worked with the team to find an exit strategy for him. Kelly Iko of The Athletic reported that Houston plans to waive Jerome. Harkless was traded for the third time this summer. He was dealt from Sacramento to Atlanta in July as part of the Kevin Huerter deal, and then was shipped to OKC for Vit Krejci earlier this week. Hopefully he’ll be able to settle in with Houston this season.

As he enters his seventh season, this will be the sixth team that Nwaba has suited up for. The journeyman has had a few solid seasons, including averaging 9.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.0 steals for Houston during the 2020-21 season. Among the players in the deal, he’s the most likely candidate to carve out a role on his new team next season.

Brown, Burke, and Chriss were already traded once this summer as part of the deal that said Christian Wood to Dallas. Now, they’ll be depth pieces in Oklahoma City if the team decides to keep them around.

Daily Thunder’s beat writer Brandon Rahbar pointed out that the trade wouldn’t have been possible without the Disabled Player Exception that the Thunder received because of Chet Holmgren’s injury.

Spurs’ Josh Primo out for preseason with left knee MCL sprain

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Josh Primo is going to get his chance this season. The Spurs are rebuilding — even Gregg Popovich says not to bet on them to win the title — and Primo, entering his second season (and still 19), is one of the most promising young players on their roster, someone with the chance to be part of whatever will be built in San Antonio the future. He just needs more experience.

Unfortunately, he’s going to start this season half a step behind after missing most of training camp due to a sprained left MCL, the team announced Thursday. He is expected to return in time for the season opener, according to the team.

Promo, the No. 12 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, got into 50 games for the Spurs last season and averaged 5.8 points a game but wasn’t very efficient with his shot yet. He also spent a lot of time in the G-League (but then had to miss this past Summer League due to COVID).

With Dejounte Murray now in Atlanta, there is not only a starting spot open but also opportunities to run the offense — Primo is going to get a chance to show what he can do with that. It’s just not going to be for a little while due to his knee sprain.

Anthony Davis ‘excited’ to be Lakers’ No.1 offensive option, LeBron pushing him to do it

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Is Anthony Davis a No.1 offensive option on a championship team?

The Lakers made a massive bet in trading for Davis — both in good young players and picks — that he could help them win a title now and be the bridge to the future post-LeBron James. Davis was everything the Lakers hoped in the bubble and did win them banner No. 17. However, he has not stayed healthy or consistently played up to that standard.

New Lakers coach Darvin Ham is betting on Davis again and is going to run more of the offense through him this season. LeBron James reportedly backs Ham up. Can Davis stay healthy, find that form again and look like that bridge to the future? If he can’t, the Lakers have to reconsider their post-LeBron plans. That’s why there is pressure on Davis this season.

Davis is excited to prove he is ready for the role, he told Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. He added LeBron is pushing him to do it.

“I’m so excited that I’ve got goosebumps just thinking about this year,” Davis told Yahoo Sports this week. “I’m looking forward to a healthy year and doing what I know we can do.”…

Davis said James, 37, has been in his ear about taking over the reins of the team, while the rest of the roster would follow his lead.

The first step in Davis being that No.1 option: Staying healthy. He played 40 games last season and 36 the season before that. While some of that was due to fluke injuries, the history of Davis missing time is long.

When healthy, Davis is an unquestionably elite player — to use the bubble example, Davis was a defensive force in Orlando who knocked down midrange jumpers after facing up, averaging 27.7 points on a 66.5 true shooting percentage, plus grabbed 9.7 rebounds a game. That is the AD the Lakers need this season.

Which can be a lot of pressure, but Davis said he doesn’t feel that.

“But for me, I’m not putting any pressure on myself at all,” Davis said at media day. “I’m gonna go out there and play basketball, work hard, defend and do what the team needs to win basketball games. I’m not going to overthink and, you know, listen to what everybody else is saying and try to be this ‘whatever’ player they want me to be.”

“Whatever” the Lakers want Davis to be is the Top 10 player in the world he has shown for stretches in Los Angeles. If he can be consistent, that Davis helps the Lakers be more of a threat in the West. If Davis can’t be that guy, it could be another long season for Lakers nation.

 

Proud to be an American: 76ers’ Embiid officially becomes U.S. citizen

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CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Joel Embiid is an American citizen.

A native of Cameroon, Embiid said he was sworn in as a citizen two weeks ago in Philadelphia. The NBA scoring champion and Philadelphia 76ers All-Star center said his family – Embiid and his Brazilian girlfriend Anne de Paula have a young son – played a pivotal role in his decision.

“I’ve been here for a long time,” Embiid told The Associated Press Thursday at training camp at The Citadel. “My son is American. I felt like, I’m living here and it’s a blessing to be an American. So I said, why not?”

Embiid, who played college basketball for one season at Kansas, also has citizenship in France. He said it is way too early to think about which country he could potentially represent in international basketball.

The 28-year-old Embiid averaged a career-best 30.6 points in 68 games last season. The 7-footer also averaged 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists in helping Philadelphia reach the Eastern Conference semifinals for the second straight year. Embiid averaged 23.6 points and 10.7 rebounds in the postseason despite playing with hand and facial injuries.

Embiid had been announced as playing out of Kansas during pregame introductions at 76ers’ home games but switched around midseason last year as being introduced from Cameroon. He might try for a mouthful this season.

“We’re going to say Cameroon, American and French,” he said, laughing.