The NBA Christmas Day games were as interesting as the league could possibly have hoped. The prime-time games, especially, were more close than I think most would have expected. Bucks/Knicks was exactly as much of a non-factor as I figured it would be, which was why it got the bad slot. It was close, for like, a quarter? Which doesn’t mean much. Regardless, the good games were good.
Lakers/Warriors, and a King’s Exit
Beginning with the Lakers/Warriors game, the Lakers got off to a quicker start than I think was probably warranted. They led at the end of every quarter, and the Lakers’ role players showed up, with 6 players not named LeBron James in double-digits for points on the night. Notably, Lance Stephenson did so in only 11 minutes of play.
Speaking of LeBron James, he left the game early with a sort of dumb-luck groin injury, which was very akin to Chris Paul’s hamstring injury recently. Nothing gross, nothing severe, just the wrong motion at the wrong time and he was out to the locker room. The Lakers survived the patented Warriors 3rd Quarter comeback, and blew them out in the remaining time. With that said, LeBron missing any amount of time could set this team off of the track that they had found themselves on. Smooth sailing is a luxury in the Western Conference, and losing LeBron for even a week could spell stormy waters for LA.
The King will undergo an MRI soon, and more information on his condition will be available soon. He has beaten the odds avoiding any sort of major or recurring injury considering the amount of miles he’s taken on in his career, and while the injury didn’t appear to be anything severe, it could put a dent in his ability to play so many minutes for so many games from here on out.
Sixers/Celtics, and an OT Thriller
Pivoting to the Eastern Conference showdown, the Sixers/Celtics game was probably the best one on the docket for Christmas, both in terms of storylines and in terms of quality of the game itself. Embiid exploded against a team that historically has shut him down, but some of the bench players went absolutely cold, preventing the Sixers from properly capitalizing on the gravity that JoJo created.
My one reason for optimism as a Sixers fan (other than this being a close loss in hostile territory and Kyrie putting up the best Celtic performance in more than a decade) is that the Sixers brought themselves back into a game that looked like a shutout. After the first quarter, it looked like this game would go the way of the playoffs and opening night game in which the Sixers make a lot of errors, both forced and unforced, and generally struggle to gain footing. This was not the case, however.
Generally, the Sixers are much better at taking a lead and holding on to it than they are overcoming a deficit, especially against teams at a similar level to them in terms of talent. Usually, when they start cold they need to take risks to get back into it such as unnecessary 3-pointers, Embiid dribbling into double-teams hoping for a foul, and other things that are just unpredictable. However, in the Christmas game, they fought their way back into it in the second half through big defensive plays up and down the roster and fluid scoring. For a team with depth issues, especially against a team that’s among the deepest in the league, I was pleased to see them keep their head on straight and just play.
For a while, the Celtics did what they’re good at, and held the Sixers to arms length, surviving any surges to make the game closer, but eventually the Sixers built a near double-digit lead, despite being down as much a quarter or so earlier. At the risk of reading too much into one game, this was a big time game against a team that they have struggled against in the past, and they almost one even with a historic performance on the other team. They’re too good to feel good about moral victories, but I think from a mentality perspective, the team did the damn thing yesterday.
Rockets/Thunder, and James Harden’s Heroics
The final game I’m going to touch on is Rockets/Thunder, in which the Rockets survived a Chris Paul absence against a defensive powerhouse in OKC. Harden continued to put the ball in the hole at the most elite level the league has seen in a long time with 41 points, and backup PG Austin Rivers had double-digits in his debut. Safe to say Chris Paul would have scored more than 10 points, but for a guy Houston signed just days before, you can’t really complain.
The most important thing, in this game, was not Harden delivering a much needed win against a contender for the Rockets. To me, the most important thing is that Paul George is looking like the best player on this team, even in his role as a second option. Russ is supposed to be the engine of this offense, and Paul George is consistently scoring more, getting more rebounds, and guarding the perimeter at the highest level in the league.
It doesn’t quite matter who the “best” player on the team is, but I think it’s time Russ stops playing as if he’s Jordan. For all of the Thunder’s strengths, offensive selfishness could be their downfall. Everyone on this team is playing selfless around Russ, which during his MVP season was just plain logical. But if Russ can recognize his own shortcomings, especially in shooting 3-balls, he could do more to enable the people who help him out like Paul George, the quiet killer, or Steven Adams, who is possibly the most selfless player in the league with a killer hook-shot.
The moral of the story is, this team has found something special in the role they’ve developed for Paul George, but it could go south easily if the Thunder don’t play to their strengths, none of which are Russell Wilson taking almost five 3-pointers a game at less than 25%.
The Christmas day games are pretty special, and while I think some teams get in off name and name alone (looking at you, Knicks) the roster of contending teams put teams in a place of high regard by the league, both in terms of strength and entertainment value.