ESPN will once again roll out five games on Christmas Day, and though all of them are big-market, big-name showdowns, it’s likely that ESPN’s producers are a little disappointed by some of the teams’ performances so far. Knicks-Lakers would normally be awesome – if the Lakers weren’t a sub-.500 club right now. And I’m pretty sure ESPN was banking on Celtics-Nets to feature two teams whose combined record is better than 27-25.
Anyway, the crown jewel matchup is still awesome – there’s no way you’re not watching Thunder-Heat – and just because some of the other squads are down right now doesn’t mean things will be the same when the playoffs begin in April. Here’s what to watch for in each holiday matchup (all times Eastern Standard Time).
Celtics at Nets (12:00 EST, ESPN)
Brooklyn (14-12) is 2-0 against the Celtics (13-13) so far this season, with the most recent contest a 95-83 Nets win at TD Garden on November 28. Tuesday’s game is a great occasion for the league – the first Christmas Day game in Brooklyn – and the home team won’t want to disappoint. Things have been uneven for the Nets so far, with three separate streaks of either five wins or five losses. Brooklyn isn’t a great team – if the season ended today, they’d be the seven seed – but considering that the franchise hasn’t finished above .500 since 2005-06, the first season in the Barclays Center is actually going pretty well.
Brook Lopez has recovered well from his foot injuries, leading the team with 18 ppg even if the one knock on the seven-footer is the same – he’s not a great rebounder (just 7 rpg this season). Though Reggie Evans scores under 3 ppg in 21 minutes per game, he does a lot of the little things well, like setting picks and hustling on defense, in addition to offsetting Lopez’s lack of production on the boards (Evans grabs 8 per game even though he stands just 6-foot-8). If Kris Humphries can get out of his tailspin (7 ppg, 7 rpg, 44% FG after 14 ppg, 11 rpg, 48% FG last season), Brooklyn could make a push for a top-four seed in the New Year.
Things aren’t as rosy in Boston, as a team that came within a game of the Finals last spring has stumbled to a .500 start that includes three losses to the Bucks and an embarrassing 20-point beatdown at the hands of the Pistons. Christmas Day marks the beginning of a crucial eight-game stretch for the Celtics, as they face the Nets before taking on the Clippers, Warriors and Kings in a California road trip.
Boston returns home for two against the Grizzlies and Pacers before facing the Hawks and Knicks on the road. I still don’t see a way that the Celtics miss the playoffs, but it’s entirely conceivable that a bad stretch could drop Boston out of the top eight in the East (10th-place Orlando is just 1.5 games behind the Boston). It’s not like we haven’t seen this before – the Celtics famously went 27-27 to close out the 2009-10 season before taking the Lakers to seven games in the Finals. That year’s team started 23-5 and showed the ability to play good basketball for several games at a time, unlike the current version, which only has one quality win (over Oklahoma City), which came in a bad stretch (prior two games were double-digit losses to Detroit and San Antonio, next two were an OT win vs. the Orlando and a double-digit loss to Brooklyn).
The product in Boston has looked ugly so far this season, with Rajon Rondo forcing too many passes in order to up his league-leading assist total (currently 12 per game), Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett playing less consistently (though Pierce has been brilliant of late, scoring 75 points over his last two contests on 26-for-39 shooting, including 9-for-14 on threes) and the new additions (no one else on the roster apart from Brandon Bass and Chris Wilcox played a game for Boston last season) failing to fit into their roles.
There is cause for hope, however. Boston’s much-maligned defense (103.9 Defensive Rating) is nearly identical to what it was in 2009-10 (103.8), while Pierce, Garnett and Rondo’s combined offensive production is very similar to three years ago (even if now, as then, Rondo desperately needs to up his 2.7 free throw attempts per game). Ideally, the return of Avery Bradley provides the same boost that his insertion to the starting lineup did last season (Boston went 16-6 in its final 22 contests in 2011-12), setting the stage for another deep playoff run. Still, the Celtics would like to see some improvement between now and Bradley’s return (currently projected to be January 2 vs. Memphis).
Knicks at Lakers (3:00 EST, ABC)
At the start of the season, these teams’ records would have been fairly predictable. 13-14 seemed about right for a Knicks club that looked lost without Jeremy Lin last season, while 20-7 was fitting for a Lakers team boasting four future Hall of Famers (depending on how you feel about Pau Gasol). That those records are reversed (including a 116-107 NY victory over LA at Madison Square Garden on December 13) is a credit to Mike Woodson, who has his team taking efficient shots (either three-pointers, which NY shoots 40% on or easy shots near the rim by Tyson Chandler, who is shooting 70%), resulting in an offense that ranks second in the league (112 points per 100 possessions).
Carmelo Anthony has also been outstanding (28 ppg on 47% FG, 44% 3FG) and while MVP talk is a bit much (the award is LeBron James’ to lose for the foreseeable future), he has been one of the main reasons for New York’s offensive success. Amar’e Stoudemire still has the potential to screw things up, but if he comes off the bench as expected, the damage should be limited.
On the other hand, pretty much everyone in the Lakers organization has been blamed for the team’s poor start, which would be even worse without the current four-game win streak, which features victories over Washington, Charlotte (by one point at home) and an OT win against much-improved Golden State. The reality is, no one person is to blame. LA’s defense has been mediocre (105.6 DRating, 17th in the league), and that’s the main reason for the Lakers’ failings. Dwight Howard is not playing at the elite defensive level we’re accustomed to, and Mike D’Antoni is not a great defensive coach. Most of the roster is below average defensively, something that won’t change even now that Steve Nash is back. Missing Pau Gasol has hurt too, and the hope for LA now is that a good offense (sixth in Offensive Rating) and strong rebounding (1st in the league at 46 per game) will allow the Lakers to thrive even without a top-10 defense.
Kobe Bryant is playing efficient ball (league-leading 30 ppg on 47% FG, which would be his highest FG percentage ever), including shooting (and making) more threes (37% on 5.7 attempts per game vs. career numbers of 34% and 3.9). Los Angeles could still be a formidable playoff opponent in the West, a potential matchup nightmare for everyone but the Grizzlies, but until that defense improves, the Lakers will continue to struggle.
Thunder at Heat (5:30 EST, ABC)
This is the matchup where both teams have played pretty much according to form, as OKC (21-5) and Miami (18-6) both lead their respective conferences after meeting in the Finals last season. Two 20-point losses to the Knicks may be a bit disconcerting for Heat fans, but that is going to happen when NY shoots 37-for-80 on threes (46%). After last season, the Heat have the confidence to know that they can turn it on when it matters, and even though they won’t win 70 this season, that doesn’t really matter in the long haul. James continues to be a freak, scoring at least 20 in all 24 contests so far this season while continuing on his quest to become the most complete basketball player in history (his newest tool this season: the three-point shot, where he’s shooting 44%, 11th in the league).
OKC’s start is more impressive considering their record (tops in the NBA) and the loss of James Harden. Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka somehow all continue to get better, with Durant currently in line for the rare 50% FG – 40% 3FG – 90% FT shooting line and Ibaka demonstrating more offensive moves, resulting in 14 ppg on 57% shooting. Freed from the burden of lead playmaker, Kevin Martin has excelled, scoring 16 per game on 47% shooting, including 46% from deep (sixth in the league). Add in a top-10 defense to that league-leading offense (113 Orating) and it’s no surprise the Thunder have been so good.
The most underrated subplot to this matchup, however, is the rise of the three-pointer in the NBA. Miami and OKC rank 1-2 in the league 3FG percentage and lead their respective conferences. The Knicks and Spurs have the fourth- and fifth-best records in the NBA and rank 3-4 in the league in 3FG percentage. Part of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy – teams that hit a high percentage of threes will score more points and will therefore have a better chance of winning – but making threes is not always an indicator of success. The Spurs led the league last season at 39% and finished with the best record in the league, but #2 in the three chart was Golden State, who finished 23-43. More and more though, three-point shooting has become a weapon in the top teams’ arsenals, and it has done a lot to explain why the Knicks and Warriors (sixth in 3FG % this season) have exceeded expectations.
Rockets at Bulls (8:00 EST, ESPN)
Houston (14-12) won the first encounter against Chicago (15-11), 93-89 at the Toyota Center on November 21. This one has a little more meaning, as Omer Asik will return to Chicago for the first time as a thriving member of the Rockets. Asik’s emergence after seeing extended playing time isn’t a huge shock (Houston signed him to a three-year, $25 million deal largely due to his stellar defense and sterling per-minute numbers, but the play of the Rockets – currently sixth in the West – has been relatively surprising. Even with James Harden, it was unclear exactly how good the Rockets would be, as most of the supporting cast (Asik, Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, Jeremy Lin) was young, unproven over long stretches or both. But Parsons and Patterson have continued to play well, and coupled with Asik and Harden, have led the Rockets to a winning season. Houston enters the Christmas Day showdown with Chicago coming off an extremely impressive week in which they beat the Knicks by 13 in New York, trounced Philadelphia by 22 and beat Memphis by 25. They’ll look to extend that streak against a Bulls team that just lost by 17 to Atlanta on Saturday.
Chicago sits fourth in the East on the strength of a great all-around season from Joakim Noah. We knew he could rebound, play defense and score a bit, but so far he’s done all of those better than usual (14 ppg, 11 rpg, 2.2 blocks per game) in addition to dishing out 4.5 assists per game (almost double his career high and second on the Bulls). That total ranks him first among centers, even ahead of renowned passing big Marc Gasol (who averages 3.9 apg). Noah and Taj Gibson have combined to anchor another stout Chicago defense (4th in the league), and there’s no doubt that the Bulls with bring it every night with the fiery Tom Thibodeau at the helm (who should get more credit than he does). These may not be two of the league’s best teams, but both squads play hard-nosed basketball, so it’s unlikely you’ll see a blowout.
Nuggets at Clippers (10:30 EST, ESPN)
The Clippers (21-6) enter Tuesday’s game as the league’s hottest team, winners of 13 in a row following a 103-77 blowout of the Suns on Sunday. They’ve won each of their last five by double-digits and rank top-four in the league in both ORating (4th) and DRating (3rd). Obviously, Chris Paul is the main reason for LA’s success, as usual, but they’ve also received help from a deep backcourt and a rejuvenated Matt Barnes (averaging 10 ppg on 50% shooting). Blake Griffin still has work to do to become a complete player, must notably on the defensive end, where he has all the tools but needs to play smarter. Still, he’s been great on the pick and roll with Paul and remains a devastating finisher at the rim. DeAndre Jordan has slipped a little, which isn’t a concern right now but will be as soon as the Clips stop winning. Look for LA to deal for another big once Chauncey Billups comes back from his foot injury.
Denver has disappointed those who jumped on them as a trendy Finals pick, but a tough schedule (22 of their first 32 games are on the road), an underperforming offense (just 8th in the league after ranking top-three in each of the last three seasons) and a defense that’s as porous as ever (20th in the league despite full seasons from Andre Iguodala and JaVale McGee) has led to a middling 15-13 record. Poor three-point shooting has plagued the Nuggets, (they rank 27th in the NBA), especially from Danilo Gallinari, who continues to decline as a shooter (31% 3FG) even as he keeps jacking up threes (5.1 attempts per game). Inside the arc, Denver is actually a very good shooting team, hitting 50% of their two-pointers. That figure should only continue to rise as the Nuggets use the high altitude of the Pepsi Center to break out the running game against tired teams. This game is in LA, though, so Denver will have to look to other means to shut down the NBA’s hottest squad.