Five things to watch during NBA Christmas Day slate

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It was almost “The Year Without a Santa Claus the NBA on Christmas Day.”

After the bubble ran into October, the players and teams were focused on a January start to this season, if not later. That’s when the NBA’s television partners stepped in like Heat Miser and Snow Miser and changed everything — they wanted games on Christmas Day (and for the season to end before the Olympics started in July). When the owners and players saw how much money would be left on the table with a January start, suddenly they were on board with games on Christmas.

Things may have come together fast, but it’s still a strong slate of games. Here are five things to watch on Christmas Day around the NBA.

1) LeBron James vs. Luka Doncic

The present vs. the future of the NBA.

LeBron James is the present. He is the best basketball player walking the face of the earth today (even at age 35). Giannis Antetokounmpo wants the crown but hasn’t proven himself deep in the playoffs. Kevin Durant had the title but lost it when he tore his Achilles, then watched LeBron rebound and lead the Lakers to a ring while picking up another Finals MVP.

Luka Doncic believes he has next — and LeBron is a big fan. The third-year Mavericks point forward is the favorite to win NBA MVP this season according to NBC Sports betting partner PointsBet (he’s +400), and he has talked about leading the Mavericks deep into the playoffs this season. (They will need a healthy Kristaps Porzingis for that, he is still out to start the season recovering from his latest knee surgery.)

Luka isn’t knocking LeBron off the mountaintop just yet, but it’s showcase moments like this where his legend can grow. The Laker defense will focus on Doncic, but will Los Angeles play with more energy and focus on the defensive end than against the Clippers in the opener.

2) Can Boston slow Kevin Durant and Brooklyn’s offense?

Kevin Durant would like to remind you what the smoothest scorer in the game looks like.

Damn, Brooklyn has looked good. It may be just one blowout win against a questionable Warriors defense, plus a couple of meaningless preseason games, but the Nets are eye-popping when they have the ball.
Durant looks like his vintage self and is shooting over the top of defenders or hitting fadeaways, while Kyrie Irving’s handles are the best in the league, allowing him to get to the rim or step back for a three — Durant and Irving combined for 48 points on 32 shots in the opener. Caris LeVert would start for nearly every other team. New coach Steve Nash got the Nets to buy into ball movement — the ball is flying all over the court, players are moving, and Brooklyn looks like it has the best offense in the NBA.

Boston has had an elite defense since Brad Stevens got to town (the Celtics were fourth last season in defensive rating, once garbage time is removed), and they enter this game with two of the better wing defenders in the league: Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. Behind them, the Celtics have done a good job protecting the rim, but can they do it against an impressive Brooklyn attack?

The difference in this game may be the bench — Brooklyn has an elite one with LeVert and Jarrett Allen, while Boston lost depth during the offseason.

3) Clippers visited by the ghost of Christmas past blown-leads past.

The NBA schedule makers trolled the Clippers with the start of the season. First, they had to watch their cross-town rivals pick up their rings; then they had to face the source of their latest humiliation — blowing a 3-1 lead in the playoffs.

The Clippers looked good in their opener, behind a big night from Paul George, and knocked off the Lakers. Kawhi Leonard looked strong in that game as well, and it was evident how much Serge Ibaka brings as a floor spacer in certain matchups. The Christmas matchup, against Nikola Jokic, was why the Clippers got Ibaka — Montrezl Harrell got played off the floor by Jokic in the playoffs (and Doc Rivers stuck with him too long). Nobody is playing Ibaka off the floor. We will see if Patrick Beverley and Leonard can contain Jamal Murray, who struggled in the opener.

Denver may want to exorcise their own ghosts of blown leads after opening night against Sacramento.

4) Has Stan Van Gundy really got the Pelicans playing defense?

Stan Van Gundy has a well-earned reputation as a good defensive coach — his teams drill the fundamentals and practice it constantly. J.J. Redick half-jokingly said he was dreading it.

In the season opener, the Pelicans held a good Toronto team to under a point per possession. Was that a one-off game, or are the Pelicans really a good defensive team now? Miami will provide a real test — Jimmy Butler will muscle his way to the rim, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson will drain threes, and Bam Adebayo was the best Heat player in their opener.

That is the other thing worth watching in this one: Adebayo vs. Zion Williamson. Two of the best young big men in the game. You can be sure Adebayo will get time guarding Williamson, but if that pulls Bam away from his rim-protecting duties Brandon Ingram or Eric Bledsoe will make them pay. Miami also needs to track Redick, who was 6-of-11 from three in the opener.

5) With Draymond Green out, who guards Giannis Antetokounmpo for Warriors?

At least we get to see Stephen Curry.

There may not be much else to see in this one. Golden State’s two best perimeter defenders are Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and both are sidelined by injuries, which just means more space for Antetokounmpo to do his thing. In the opener, Jrue Holiday made a few plays that remind everyone how difficult he can be to guard, and Khris Middleton was the guy with the ball in his hands initiating the offense late. It’s difficult to see how the Warriors slow that trio down.

On top of that, the Bucks come in motivated after having lost a heartbreaker in the opener. They need a win.

Curry looked like Curry in the Warriors opener, but everyone around him missed shots (Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre were a combined 7-of-30). More importantly, the current crop of Warriors had no idea how to take advantage of the spacing Curry provides on offense with his gravity (they missed Shaun Livingston style players. As ugly as the Warriors’ offense was that game, the defense was worse.

It could be a long day for the Warriors, unless Wiggins or someone else surprises and has a monster game to help Curry.

Watch Victor Wembanyama drop 30-point double-double in France

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Maybe you spent your Saturday afternoon watching Lionel Messi doing Lionel Messi things. Or intense college football rivalries.

In France, they spent part of the day watching Kylian Mbappe be brilliant but then flipped over and watched future No.1 pick Victor Wembanyama drop a 30-point double-double.

That’s two straight 30-point double-doubles for Wembanyama.

He will be the No.1 pick next June (barring something catastrophic), and teams are already thinking about the lottery next June.

Expect some other teams to jump in that mix at the bottom because the depth of this class goes well beyond just Wembanyama with Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson and others. The tanking is coming people.

 

Boogie Cousins called Warriors GM Myers and got reality check on why he’s not in NBA

2022 NBA Playoffs - Denver Nuggets v Golden State Warriors
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DeMarcus Cousins didn’t understand why he didn’t have an NBA contract this season.

He thought he had proven he could help teams in need of front-line depth last season, first in Milwaukee when Brook Lopez was out following back surgery and gave them 9.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game of solid play. The Bucks ultimately let Cousins go for financial reasons, so the Nuggets picked him up to backup Nikola Jokic. He was again solid, averaging 8.9 points and 5.5 rebounds a game (and he had a 31-point night against the Rockets).

Confused, he called one of the former GMs who brought him in, Bob Myers of the Golden State Warriors. Myers relayed their conversation on the All That Smoke podcast (via NBC Sports Bay Area).

“DeMarcus called me a month ago and he said, ‘Why am I not in the NBA?’ ” Myers told Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the “All The Smoke” podcast earlier this week. “And I said, ‘You want that answer? … Because people are afraid of how you’re going to act.’ And he’s like ‘Why?’ And I said, ‘Well whatever the reason is, it’s here now.’

“And I like DeMarcus. You guys may know him. He’s just, I can’t blame him for him because of all he’s been through.”

Not long after that conversation, Cousins spoke with Chris Haynes and said he learned from his past mistakes.

“Have I made mistakes? Absolutely. Have I done things the wrong way? Absolutely. For that, I’m very apologetic. But I’ve done even more things the correct way and I’ve done even more positive things compared to my negatives. I just don’t want those positives to be overlooked. And obviously, whenever it gets to the point where the negatives outweigh the positives, you should probably move away from him. That’s just how life goes. But I don’t believe I’m in that boat. I’m just asking for a chance to show my growth as a man and a player.”

Cousins also had physical issues, including a torn ACL that cost him a season with the Lakers in 2019-20. He also had domestic abuse allegations at the time (those charges were dropped a few months later).

Cousins just wants the chance to prove he is past all that and can help a team like he did last season. There have been rumors out of Taiwan that Cousins could join Dwight Howard in that league, but Cousins has not confirmed that. He still wants his shot in the NBA. So he waits, and hopes he can change the narrative around him.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says of Evan Mobley, ‘He can be better than me’

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
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Evan Mobley hasn’t taken the leap forward in his second season many expected, partly because he has to adjust to playing with a new, dominant backcourt in Cleveland of Donovan Mitchell and Darius Garland. Mobley is getting nearly five fewer touches a game and is not getting the same chances to use his off-the-bounce skills (73% of his shots this season come off zero or one-dribble) as he did when he was a rookie.

That doesn’t mean his superstar potential has gone away. Just ask Giannis Antetokounmpo, as Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer did.

“He can be better than me,” Antetokounmpo told cleveland.com in an exclusive interview while walking out of Fiserv Forum… “I don’t see why he can’t. It’s up to him. I will always try to improve. Every day. But he has the skill set to be a very, very good player. He’s 7-feet tall. He can move really well. He can shoot. He is very smart. As you said, he watches tapes of other players, which is very, very good for a young player. If he takes this seriously, he is going to be great.”

Better than Giannis? What could possibly make him say that?

“I didn’t average what he is in my second season, so he’s already ahead of me,” Antetokounmpo told cleveland.com. “It’s in his hands. If he stays humble, continues to work hard, focuses on the game and shows love to the game of basketball, he is going to be really good.”

One of the players Mobley is known to study on tape is Antetokounmpo. Of course, mirroring the force and athleticism Antetokounmpo plays with is next to impossible, but Mobley has the skill set that could see him become a shot-creator and scorer on the wing with the ball.

The Cavaliers don’t need him to be that with Garland improving and Michell being better than advertised. Cleveland has a top-five offense and hasn’t had to turn to Mobley for more scoring and shot creation. But that can change, especially come the playoffs against the strong defenses of teams such as the Bucks and Celtics. Ultimately, how far these Cavaliers can go in the postseason over the next few years could come down to the growth of Mobley on the offensive end.

Antetokounmpo believes Mobley could be special in that role, which should give fans in Cleveland even more hope.

 

Watch Giannis throw down career-high nine dunks, score 38 in comeback win over Cavaliers

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks taught the Cleveland Cavaliers a lesson in playoff-type intensity well before the start of December.

Antetokounmpo scored 38 points and the Bucks capitalized on a 23-2 run in the first eight-plus minutes of the third quarter to rally past Cleveland 117-102 on Friday night to snap the Cavaliers’ four-game winning streak.

Milwaukee came back from a 16-point deficit by outscoring the Cavaliers 35-10 in the third period. The Bucks hadn’t outscored a team by such a wide margin in a single quarter since Jan. 4, 2019, when they outscored the Atlanta Hawks 43-14 in the opening period of a 144-112 victory.

“We had a little bit of luck on our side and were able to knock down some shots and get downhill and were able to get that momentum and keep it going,” said Antetokounmpo, who also had nine rebounds and six assists. “I think it started from our guards defending the pick-and-roll and Brook (Lopez) just contesting every shot on the defensive end.”

The Cavaliers hadn’t scored less than 15 points in any quarter this season before Friday.

“They turned it up to a level that we haven’t seen, that we haven’t experienced,” said Donovan Mitchell, who led he Cavaliers with 29 points. “That’s playoff basketball, and understanding that they’re going to turn up the physicality (and) everything has to be sharper, everything has to be more precise.”

Darius Garland added 20 for Cleveland. After combining to shoot 14 of 26 and score 38 points in the first half, Mitchell and Garland went 4 of 16 for 11 points over the final two periods.

Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen played only 12 minutes and scored one point before leaving with a hip injury.

The Cavaliers lost for the first time since their last visit to Milwaukee, a 113-98 Bucks victory on Nov. 16.

“We were trying so hard, and we were like running in quicksand,” Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of the second-half struggles.

Jevon Carter scored 18 points and Bobby Portis had 14 for the Bucks.

After trailing 63-52 at halftime, the Bucks turned the game around in the third quarter.

“It felt like us again,” Portis said. “I feel like for the last couple of games, we haven’t felt like ourselves, for real, missing a lot of shots and just not playing how we play.”

Jrue Holiday, who committed three fouls in the first 1 1/2 quarters, scored his first points of the game in the opening minute of the third. He followed that up with a 3-pointer.

Carter then found Antetokounmpo for a dunk, though Antetokounmpo missed a free throw that would have given him a three-point play. Mitchell scored to extend Cleveland’s lead to 65-59, but a Brook Lopez 3-pointer and an Antetokounmpo dunk cut the lead to one.

Lopez then recorded one of his six blocks to set up an Antetokounmpo 3-pointer that gave the Bucks their first lead of the night with 7:19 left in the third. The Bucks eventually led by as many as 22.

“This is a great lesson for us,” Bickerstaff said. “We played against an established team who knows where they need to go when they need to take it to another level. That’s what we’re learning. They took the game to playoff-level physicality, and those are things we have to learn how to compete against.”