Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.
1) Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on a late drive? Twice? Probably, but that’s not why Cleveland lost. First things first: This was no NBA Finals preview on Christmas Day when Cleveland traveled to Golden State. Not because these two teams will not meet again in the Finals — I would put the odds at a little better than 50/50 they do — but because both will be different teams come June. The Cavaliers will have Isaiah Thomas starting at the point, and Stephen Curry will be opposite him, that alone changes a lot of dynamics and we’re not even getting into trades, players’ shifting roles, and more.
What we did get on Christmas Day was a great show — a 99-92 Warriors win that ended in controversy that consumed Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy on the broadcast, not to mention NBA Twitter.
Did Kevin Durant foul LeBron James on his drives to the rim late? On this play he did if you ask me.
Shockingly, LeBron said he was fouled after the game, Kevin Durant said no.
I have a long-running belief about controversial calls at the end of games: If a team puts itself in that position, it has to live with referee mistakes. Don’t want that play to matter? Then be better before and take it out of the officials’ hands. Cleveland’s bench cost them this game shooting a collective 6-of-26 and getting outplayed all afternoon (the bench has been improved this season, not this day). The Cavaliers starting backcourt (Jose Calderon and J.R. Smith) were a combined 1-of-9 from the floor. The Cavs lack of depth and the fact they have guys on this roster who can be exploited in a playoff series was evident. Frankly, Cleveland lost because right now the Warriors are the better team. LeBron almost changed that, because he’s LeBron, but it wasn’t enough.
There were interesting takeaways from this game, especially looking ahead to a potential NBA Finals rematch (for a fourth straight year). First, Jae Crowder did a respectable job guarding Durant for much of the game. Yes, KD had 25 points on 19 shots, but he’s one of the great scorers the game has ever seen, he’s going to get his. This was manageable for Cleveland. Crowder made him work for his buckets. Crowder has been a disappointment to start the season, but in recent weeks has looked healthier and rounded into form (not so coincidentally when the Cavs went on a winning streak). Having Crowder on Durant opens up a lot of other defensive options for the Cavs.
Also interesting was Steve Kerr going small from the opening tip, starting rookie Jordan Bell opposite Kevin Love and sitting Zaza Pachulia. We will see more variations of this as things heat up for Golden State.
If this is the NBA Finals matchup again, we are going to have an entertaining series. One with controversy.
2) Thunder make a statement in beating Rockets, but the bigger question is what has happened to Houston’s defense? How long have we been saying “once Oklahoma City gets it together…”
Looks like they have. Five straight wins now, the latest came over the Rockets on Christmas Day, 112-107 against Houston. Russell Westbrook had 31 points and 11 assists, and it felt like a coming out party as the big three (Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony) combined for 75 points. As a team, OKC shot 54.4 percent overall and 44.4 percent from three. Andre Roberson was crucial down the stretch making big plays. The Thunder earned this win with their play late.
Houston has lost three in a row, and while Chris Paul being out certainly has set the offense back a little, that’s not the problem — it’s the defense. In those three losses, the Rockets have allowed a league-worst 119.6 points per 100 possession. What has fueled the Rockets rise to look like a legit threat to the Warriors is not just an elite offense — on pace to be the best in NBA history in points scored per possession — but the fact the defense was top 10 in the league (currently eighth). They have done a good job on the glass, not fouling, and putting weaker defenders (Ryan Anderson, James Harden) in positions to mitigate the damage. But the last three games the Rockets have been a mess defensively, and that’s what they have to clean up to turn this thing around.
3) Sixers show they are all about Joel Embiid, get win over Knicks. This was a quality win for a Sixers team that had been stumbling. Going into Madison Square Garden on Christmas and beating the Knicks is no simple task, and this showed the team can win (even when Ben Simmons is just okay, 8 points on 8 shots).
What this game really showed is now much Philadelphia relies on Joel Embiid. When Embiid was on the court Christmas Day, Philadelphia outscored New York 90-65. They won 105-98 in a close game. Embiid was a force at both ends: he defended well and protected the paint with three blocks, hit a couple of threes, and was the one Sixer consistently attacking and getting to the free throw line. Embiid finished the game with 25 points and 16 rebounds.
Philly shoots itself in the foot with turnovers every game (they lead the league in turnovers by a wide margin) and did it again late on Christmas, with three straight turnovers at one point when they should have put the game away. They let the Knicks hang around.
All that played out Monday, too. The game also was close because of a big night from Enes Kanter, who was a beast inside with 31 points and 22 rebounds — 11 offensive.
The Knicks are currently the eighth seed in the East (tied with Miami for that spot), but they need to now start winning on the road to keep it. New York has had 21 home games and is 15-6 there, but just 12 road games where they are 2-10. Stan Van Gundy conspiracies aside, this is a team that needs to start winning on the road, or they will be home for the playoffs. Again.