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.