Five things to watch when NBA takes over Christmas Day

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Christmas Day: The unofficial start of the NBA season.

It’s not really, we are about 40 percent of the way through the NBA season already. In the marathon of the NBA season, we’ve already run more than 10 miles. The teams have already started to sort themselves out and we have a pretty good idea who is making the postseason — 13 of the 16 teams we saw in last year’s postseason were already in playoff position last Christmas Day (and that follows the pattern we see most years).

Still, for many fans, Christmas Day is the day they start to really pay attention to the NBA. The league office knows that, so the NBA puts its best foot forward, scheduling in its biggest names — Stephen Curry, LeBron James, James Harden — and its best teams. Plus the Knicks.

No matter how closely you’ve been following along so far, are five things to watch for in Christmas Day spectacular.

1. Watch Giannis Antetokounmpo dunk all of the New York Knicks. Giannis Antetokounmpo is an unstoppable force this season when he puts the ball on the floor and drives, getting 59.6 percent of his shots at the rim. He is on pace to shatter the NBA record for dunks in a season: Antetokounmpo has 130 dunks in 30 games (4.3 dunks per game average), and the record is held by Dwight Howard at 266. Antetokounmpo is on pace for 347.

The Knicks have the second worst defense in the NBA and no good rim protection.

You see where this is going, right?

If the vote were held today, Antetokounmpo would be the MVP. He’s the leader of a Bucks team forcing its way into contention, averaging 26.2 points (on 58.3 percent shooting), 12.8 rebounds, and 6 assists a game — the only other player to average 26/12/6 for a season was Oscar Robertson in 1962. That’s the definition of elite company. Antetokounmpo’s critics will point to his lack of a consistent jumper, but that doesn’t matter when you can get to the rim at will.

One other thing to watch in this Christmas Day opener: What Bucks’ coach Mike Budenholzer is doing that has made him the early Coach of the Year frontrunner. Under Jason Kidd, the Bucks played an isolation-heavy, throwback 1990s style offense. Budenholzer modernized Milwaukee’s attack — five out, plenty of shooting, open the floor up and create driving lanes for the Greek Freak. It has given the Bucks the second best offense in the NBA so far this season. On the other end of the court, Budenholzer put in a system that has the big man dropping back and protecting the rim, has the wings playing smart and more conservative, and Milwaukee has the fourth best defense in the NBA this season. Budenholzer has radically changed how the Bucks do things, shaped it to the personnel on hand, and made the team a contender.

2. The NBA’s best rivalry: LeBron James vs. the Golden State Warriors (hint: this is the best game of the day). Traditionally the prime spot on Christmas Day is reserved for a rematch of the previous NBA Finals… which this essentially is. Golden State and Cleveland have faced off in the last four NBA Finals, but with all due respect to Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving, and everyone else in wine and gold, this rivalry has really been LeBron James vs. Golden State. Which is what the Lakers vs. Warriors continues.

This is a game of interesting matchups. Usually, the Warriors throw a combination of Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson to matchup on LeBron James, but will that change against the Lakers. Can Lonzo Ball be a pest when guarding Stephen Curry? Will the deep Laker bench be able to exploit the thin Warriors? And then there’s the biggest question of all: How focused will the Warriors be? When the Warriors are dialed in, when they are running a Curry/Durant pick-and-roll they are almost unstoppable, but they can coast for long stretches. You would think on Christmas Day against their rival that would not happen but…

3. James Harden vs. the NBA’s best defense (Oklahoma City). After an at-times ugly 11-14 start to the season, the Houston Rockets have won 6-of-7, pushed a couple games above .500 and moved into a playoff spot. They have done that on the back of James Harden getting back to an MVP-level play — he’s averaged 37.6 points per game shooting 41.3 percent from three, with 9.2 assists and 6.2 rebounds a game in his last five games. Even if he does travel sometimes to get those numbers.

Harden will go up against the best defense in the NBA. Look for Paul George, who has been the Thunder’s best player this season (and is asserting himself in a way he did not a season ago), to be matched up on Harden for key stretches of the game. Drive past PG13 and the human brick wall of Steven Adams is waiting. The Rockets have played better of late, but this is a big test to see if this recent run is for real.

4. Watch Kyrie Irving and the Celtics take a test. After a run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season without their two biggest stars, expectations were sky high for Boston this season. Add Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, Marcus Smart and the rest and the Celtics were supposed to run away with the East. It hasn’t worked out that way. Guys have struggled to accept their roles, Hayward has not been himself, and the Celtics are good at 19-13 (with the second-best point differential in the league) but not dominant, not living up to expectations. Fair or not.

A recent eight-game winning streak seemed to change that, except they followed it up with a couple ugly losses (including to lowly Phoenix). Then they got their first test of how far they’ve come and lost to the Bucks.

Now comes the 76ers, a team Boston knocked out of the playoffs last season, but one that has added Jimmy Butler (although that hasn’t gone perfectly smoothly either) and has Joel Embiid playing at MVP discussion level. These are the kinds of games we expect the Celtics to win, but can they? Has Boston finally started to find itself, or are the problems a little deeper? (After this the test continues with a difficult three-game road trip to Houston, Memphis, and San Antonio.)

Historical note: The last time these franchises met on Christmas Day it was 1961, and Tom Heinsohn scored 45 points in a Celtics’ victory.

5. Enjoy the unpredictable Damian Lillard, Jusuf Nurkic pick-and-roll. Portland just remains a fun team to watch, with the backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum able to light any team up on any given night. They are just fun. But of late, Lillard and big man Jusuf Nurkic have shown real chemistry, both on the pick-and-roll, and some other actions.

The pick-and-roll is their bread and butter.

“It’s not predictable as, I guess, just a straight up pick-and-roll because I can hit him and get the ball back. He can roll,” Lillard recently told NBC Sports Northwest. “I can flip to CJ. There’s so many other options. I can hit him, cut backdoor, he can throw it to me, not throw it to me, go into something else. There’s so many different actions that we can get into out of it, so that’s why I think it’s going really good.”

However, on Christmas the Blazers go up against a Jazz defense that may not be living up to the standards of last season but is still very good when Rudy Gobert is on the court. These teams played on Friday night and Utah held Lillard and McCollum in check on their way to an easy 120-90 win. Don’t expect Lillard to be held down again, but this is not going to be some easy Christmas dessert for the Blazers if they want a win.

James Harden scores 37 but Joel Embiid’s 32 leads 76ers to 121-93 rout of Rockets

Associated Press
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid relished the chance to face James Harden, and wasn’t going to let a little back tightness stop him.

Embiid had 32 points and 14 rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past fellow MVP contender Harden and the Houston Rockets 121-93 on Monday night.

“I love playing against guys you guys say are better than me,” Embiid said.

Harden, selected Western Conference player of the week earlier in the day, finished with 37 points – giving him 20 straight games with at least 30.

Philadelphia played without four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler (sore right wrist), and Embiid more than made up for his absence.

“It was really fun for us,” Embiid said. “Don’t think it was fun for them.”

Embiid was questionable before the game with lower back soreness and coach Brett Brown hinted during pregame it might be best for the Philadelphia big man to sit this one out. Embiid clearly had other intentions.

“I want to fight with my teammates,” he said. “Whatever I have to do, I’ll do for my team.”

His 24 first-half points helped Philadelphia to a 65-50 halftime lead, and he punctuated an entertaining opening 24 minutes by pinning Harden’s layup attempt with 7.5 seconds left for a crowd-pleasing block. The duo had to be separated with 38.7 seconds left in the half, with each being issued a technical, after Harden took exception to Embiid’s foul on him.

The 76ers broke the game open in a dominant third quarter as they outscored Houston 29-13 to take a 94-63 advantage into the fourth. Ben Simmons stole Harden’s pass, made a layup and finished a three-point play after being fouled by Harden to make it 73-52. The lead kept growing, getting as large as 31.

“We were due for a game like this,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden had 10 points in the third but missed four of six field goal tries as the 76ers hounded him defensively with double-teams and different looks. A tired-looking Harden’s air ball with 12.3 seconds left in the third showed the effects of the Philadelphia defense – and, perhaps, Harden’s offensive workload.

With the game out of range, Harden sat in the fourth.

“This is not a great way to rest him, but we rested him today,” D’Antoni said.

 

Doc Rivers seemingly blames Steve Ballmer for Clippers losing Joe Ingles

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Entering the 2014-15 season, the Clippers had to waive someone to meet the regular-season roster maximum. Their choice came down to Joe Ingles and Jared Cunningham, neither of whom had guaranteed salaries.

L.A. kept Cunningham and waived Ingles. Cunningham never made a significant NBA impact. The Jazz claimed Ingles on waivers, and he became a quality starter in Utah.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers was also team president at that time.

Mike Sorensen of the Deseret News:

When asked Wednesday if he regrets that decision, Rivers answered, “all the time.”

“I said it the day we released him that this was a bad decision and that we’re going to regret it,” he said. “Unfortunately I was working for someone who said we couldn’t eat a contract. We were begging to eat one contract and they said that will never happen and we had to let him go.”

Did Rivers confuse the timeline and think he was blaming Donald Sterling, the former Clippers owner who was notoriously cheap? Current owner Steve Ballmer bought the team and was announced as the owner before the start of the 2014-15 season, when Ingles was signed for camp and released. Ballmer has talked big about spending, and is Rivers’ boss right now. It’d be strange for Rivers to criticize Ballmer like this, but I also can’t figure out whom else he’d be referring to besides the owner. As team president, Rivers had no other oversight within basketball operations.

Maybe Rivers wanted to keep both Ingles and Cunningham and waive someone with a guaranteed salary – likely Hedo Turkoglu, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Ekpe Udoh or Glen Davis. But, in hindsight, the obviously right call would have been waiving whichever of those players was necessary to keep Ingles.

The frequent criticism of the Clippers about Ingles is somewhat unfair. They brought Ingles to training camp when other teams didn’t. The only reason they were positioned to waive him is because they were ahead of the curve on him.

But they also had the unique opportunity to evaluate him up close and still decided he wasn’t worth a roster spot.

How did that decision get made? Rivers passing the buck only adds confusion. It seemed as if it were his decision.

Luka Doncic becomes second NBA teenager to record triple-double, Bucks rout Mavs anyway

Associated Press
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Is Luka Doncic an All-Star?

He’s not a starter (in my vote, anyway) but in what is an exhibition designed to give the fans what they want, why not have Doncic in the game? He is what the fans want. I’m not convinced he’ll make the cut — at least in the ridiculously deep West, in the East he probably would — but it’s a legitimate conversation. The kid can flat-out ball.

Case in point, he dropped a triple-double on the Bucks on MLK Day, becoming only the second teenager to record an NBA triple-double. (The other was Markelle Fultz, who was 10-days younger when he got his, also against Milwaukee.) Doncic finished the game with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists.

Doncic’s play was not enough to keep the Bucks from racking up their fifth straight win, and doing it pretty easily (although Dallas made an 11-0 fourth-quarter run to make it a little interesting). Giannis Antetokounmpo had 31 points and 15 rebounds, while Eric Bledsoe had 21 points, and Brook Lopez finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and five blocks (that was Lopez’s first double-double with the Bucks).

Reports: Houston trades Carmelo Anthony to Chicago, who will waive him

Associated Press
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Carmelo Anthony‘s sabbatical is over. Sort of.

Anthony, who has been on the Houston roster but not with the team after that experiment crashed and burned 10 games into the season, will be traded to the Chicago Bulls. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story (and other reports have since confirmed it). However, he’s not going to be putting on a Bulls’ jersey.

He may not be waived until after the Feb. 7 deadline, in case the Bulls find a way to use his salary in a one-for-one trade (his salary cannot be combined with others in a deal because he was just traded). If/when he is waived, at that point there will be more roster shuffling around the league and a landing spot for ‘Melo may open up.

Houston’s trade is much like the trade from Oklahoma City to Atlanta last summer that moved Anthony off the Thunder roster. The Hawks waived him and Anthony signed with the Rockets. For the Rockets, this is about saving money.

The Bulls also make a little under a million in this deal. If another team signs Anthony, it would be a benefit for the Hawks.

It’s unclear where Anthony’s ultimate landing spot will be, although his agent has said there are options.

After his struggles in Houston — where the future Hall of Famer thought he deserved more than a bench role due to his stature, even though because of his declining offensive skills and defense that’s all he warranted — it’s hard to imagine another contender or even playoff team picking him up. Maybe a franchise going all in on the Zion Williamson chase but wants a bump at the gate from the name recognition Anthony brings him in? Although for teams trying to develop young talent why take the ball out of those young guys’ hands to let Anthony jack up contested twos? Most likely it will be a team battling injuries and looking for help.

In 10 games for the Rockets this season coming off the bench, Anthony averaged 13.4 points and 5.4 rebounds a game, shot just 40.5 percent overall and 32.8 percent from three. The Rockets’ defense was 10.4 points per 100 possessions better when Anthony sat.