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.

Toronto police: Report of shooting at Raptors championship parade

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Update: Toronto police:

 

 

The Raptors’ championship parade was interrupted by a scary situation.

Toronto Police:

Bruce Arthur of the Toronto Star:

Especially in large crowds like this, chaos and confusion can spread quickly. Hopefully, everyone is OK.

The scene was quite strange, as speeches were interrupted while people in sections of the crowd fled:

The Raptors are continuing their speeches now.

Report: Nets not extending qualifying offer to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson

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The Nets appear to be on the verge of signing Kyrie Irving. They opened double-max cap space to pursue a second star like Kevin Durant, Tobias Harris or Jimmy Butler.

Brooklyn isn’t going to let Rondae Hollis-Jefferson foil that plan.

The Nets could make Hollis-Jefferson a restricted free agent, giving them the right to match any offer he receives. But do so, they must extend a $3,594,369 qualifying offer. That’s essentially a one-year contract offer he could accept at any time. If he did, he’d count against the cap at $3,594,369. Brooklyn doesn’t want to risk that.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

The Nets could still re-sign Hollis-Jefferson. This just prevents him from unilaterally accepting the qualifying offer and jamming up cap space.

But this signals Brooklyn is ready to move on. Hollis-Jefferson, who become an unrestricted free agent after spending his first four years with the Nets, might also be ready.

The 24-year-old Hollis-Jefferson has settled in as an undersized power forward. He’s a switchable defender and active offensively. Playing power forward somewhat covers for his lack of shooting and ball-handling ability, but that can still be exploited.

Why timing of Anthony Davis trade matters so much for Lakers

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The Lakers will get Anthony Davis.

That’s clearly the only thing that matters to them.

Not only will they send the Pelicans a massive haul of draft picks and young players, the Lakers could lose significant cap space with the trade’s structure.

Los Angeles and New Orleans can’t complete the reported deal until the league year turns over June 30. Then, the NBA immediately goes into a moratorium in which most transactions aren’t allowed. The moratorium ends July 6. That’s when two main options emerge.

Option 1: Trade July 6

Let’s start with Davis’ trade kicker, a bonus paid to him if traded. Davis’ base salary next season is $27,093,018. His 15% trade bonus could raise his salary $4,063,953 to $31,156,971. Davis could waive all or a portion of the bonus. The Pelicans would pay the bonus, but the Lakers can also include enough cash in the trade to cover the full bonus amount.

The Lakers will send Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart (combined salary: $17,918,965) and the No. 4 pick (which will count about $7 million against the cap) to New Orleans.

Davis’ salary will be between $27,093,018 and $31,156,971 next season, depending on his trade kicker.

Simply, the Lakers’ incoming salary in the trade will be about $2 million-$6 million higher than their outgoing salary in the trade.

That works just fine under the cap rules. The Lakers will have way more than $2 million-$6 million in cap space. As far as salary matching, teams can always trade when they end up under the cap.

So, after this deal, the Lakers would have about $24 million-$28 million in cap space.

But there’s another path that would give the Lakers even more flexibility.

Option 2: Trade July 30

On July 6, if they renounce all their free agents and waive Jemerrio Jones‘ unguaranteed salary, the Lakers project to have about $33 million cap space.

That’s about enough for a max salary for a free agent with fewer than 10 years experience – someone like Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard or Kyrie Irving. Or multiple helpful role players.

The Lakers could spend all that money then trade for Davis.

Here’s how they could get Davis after reaching the cap line:

They’d sign the No. 4 pick June 30. (Signing first-round picks is one of the few moves allowed during the moratorium.) He couldn’t be traded for 30 days after being signed. Hence, the July 30 date on this trade. But his actual salary would count toward the trade. Unsigned draft picks count $0 in trades.

In this salary range, the Lakers could acquire 125% of the outgoing salary in the trade plus $100,000. Aggregating Ball, Ingram, Hart and the signed No. 4 pick would allow the Lakers to acquire about $31 million of salary. That covers Davis’ full salary and most, if not all, of his trade bonus.

But why would the Pelicans wait?

That’d mean the No. 4 pick can’t play for them in summer league. There’d also be complications flipping the No. 4 pick to another team.

It’d also tie up a portion their cap space until the trade is completed, as they’re the ones holding the more-expensive Davis through July. Most good free agents will be off the market by July 30.

New Orleans could always reach an unofficial agreement with a free agent then make the deal official after the Lakers trade. But that requires trust, and some free agents might not go for that.

There’s no upside in waiting for the Pelicans. The only question is how much downside.

What’s at stake?

A quick recap:

If the Lakers trade for Davis sooner, they’d project to have $24 million-$28 million in cap space (depending on his trade bonus).

If the Lakers trade for Davis later, they’d project to have about $33 million in cap space.

That extra $5 million-$9 million could go a long way.

What now?

It doesn’t sound as if the Lakers pressed New Orleans to wait until July 30 before accepting the trade.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Tania Ganguli of the Los Angeles Times:

For now, the plan is to execute the trade on July 6, right after the moratorium ends on the start of free agency — and it’s unlikely that will change.

The Lakers could always negotiate with free agents June 30-July 5 then decide. If they want the additional cap space, the Lakers could try to entice the Pelicans with extra draft picks to delay. But that’d make the trade even more costly to Los Angeles.

The alternative might be even more grim – the Lakers not finding worthy players in the first week of free agency. Los Angeles could even view that as a face-saving move to justify the timing of this trade.

But if the Lakers make this trade July 6 then claim they didn’t have good use for an extra $5 million-$9 million in cap space, they’ll only be telling on themselves.

Report: Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has griped about Chris Paul’s contract in front of rival executives

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In 2017, Chris Paul opted in to facilitate a trade to the capped-out Rockets. By forgoing free agency and a max salary, Paul sacrificed $10,083,055 that season. With Paul and James Harden, the Rockets became a championship contender and pushed the Warriors in the 2018 Western Conference finals.

The bill came due last summer.

Houston re-signed the aging Paul to a four-year max contract worth $159,730,592. That deal always looked like it could age poorly, and Paul – now 34 – is already slowing.

Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta has noticed.

Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

Fertitta has grumbled about Paul’s contract, expressing regret to Rockets staffers and even in front of rival executives, according to league sources.

Fertitta bought the Rockets after they traded for Paul. Though the sale was completed before they re-signed Paul, it seems the contract terms were at least discussed as far back as the opt-in-and-trade.

So, Fertitta didn’t necessarily sign off on this arrangement.

But it was good for Houston! It made the Rockets the biggest threat to the Kevin Durant-supercharged Warriors to that point. Re-signing Paul helped keep Houston in title contention this year. The Rockets were limited in that pursuit by Fertitta’s spending limitations, not by locking Paul into this contract.

Yes, there’s downside to Paul’s deal. Houston is feeling it now. Paul will be difficult, though not impossible, to trade this summer.

But as much as Fertitta talks about winning, he yet again shows why that’s all bluster.