What we learned from NBA Christmas Day

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NBA Christmas Day
Dan Hamilton - USA Today Sports

The NBA Christmas Day slate came with a mixed bag of emotions. Before the season began each match-up looked like a worthy match-up on a day we finally didn’t have to inexplicably watch the New York Knicks. Injuries came along and took away from the allure of the Rockets/Warriors and Pelicans/Nuggets match-up which interestingly enough resulted in two upsets and among the best games of the day.

The dust has settled and now begins the race to the all-star break where teams will jostle for position and decide what direction they will go as the race for the playoffs starts. Much of the league’s elite teams play on Christmas and it is a good chance to get a progress report on each team’s status. Here are some thoughts from a surprisingly entertaining holiday hoops marathon. 

Jaylen Brown is a $115 Million Man

NBA Christmas
Jaylen Brown was a standout performer on NBA Christmas (Photo: Maddie Meyer Getty Images)

When the Boston Celtics first inked Brown to a four year, $115 million contract extension there were plenty of questions about if he would make the type of impact to be worthy of such a number. The Celtics were dealing with the departures of Kyrie Irving, Al Horford, and Terry Rozier and needed to make sure they spent wisely to avoid a crash and rebuild.

Brown and Jayson Tatum impressed during their 2018 playoff run and then had up-and-down sophomore campaigns amidst the drama of Kyrie Irving’s return. The team that had made the Eastern Conference finals and pushed LeBron James to the seventh game had a lukewarm second act that left people wondering what would happen this year with Kemba Walker (different personality but similar talent) in place.

Fast forward to the day after Christmas and Brown is averaging 20.2 points on 51.4% from the field and 39% from deep. Those numbers are in all-star range and worth every penny of his new deal. Last night, he let the world know it too by becoming the youngest Celtic ever with 30 points on Christmas day at only 23 years old.

Brown took advantage of an injury-plagued Raptors team with a 10-13 performance that included a sizzling 16-point third quarter where he was perfect from the field. He has clearly worked hard on his game and looks sharp all over the floor in addition to a sharp ball-handling arsenal that gets him the separation he needs.

More people were buying stock in Jayson Tatum and a more familiar-looking Gordon Hayward early on in the year. At this point, it is safe to say Jaylen Brown irreplaceable for these Celtics and may actually end up being a discount.

The Sixers Can Win a Championship With Defense

NBA Christmas
Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo battle for possession on NBA Christmas (Photo: Heather Khalifa – The Inquirer)

I have been at the front of the line criticizing the Philadelphia 76ers for their up and down performances and the head-scratching offensive indifference of Ben Simmons. This team’s ceiling is based on how they can get their turnover-heavy awkward offense to gel. Milwaukee brought out Philly’s best on that end of the floor and fell victim to the best offensive performance that the team has had all season.

After averaging 10.8 threes per game coming into yesterday’s possible Eastern Finals preview the Sixers hit a franchise-record 21 threes with Joel Embiid leading the way with a monstrous 31 point performance. The Bucks looked nowhere near like the team with the league’s best record and never had control in an impressive 121-109 win against the reigning MVP on Christmas.

As impressive as their offensive performance was it was their defense that kept the game in hand. Giannis Antetokounmpo was 8-27 from the field en route to 18 points and 14 rebounds during on a difficult night. Previous Milwaukee playoff runs have ended when Giannis runs into good defensive teams with stout centers (Celtics and Al Horford, Raptors with Marc Gasol). Philadelphia has 6’10 Ben Simmons in addition to Horford and Embiid to put serious roadblocks in front of the rim all game long. Antetokounmpo was 0-7 from three and might be regressing to the mean after a hot-shooting December. His consistency when teams sag off of him may be the difference from Milwaukee in the playoffs.

With Philadelphia’s athleticism and height, there is no reason that they should not be similarly punishing teams on the defensive end on a nightly basis. Last night we saw the team that many people thought were the favorites to come out of the East and challenge one of the LA teams for the title. If they play like this, they can.

The Warriors Are Not Dead

Marcio Jose Sanchez – Associated Press

This season may be a wash but if you squint hard enough you can still see the formula for a successful Golden State Warriors franchise once their all-star backcourt returns to action.

Aside from Draymond Green, the usual suspects were not present. The league’s oldest roster is now the third-youngest in the blink of an eye. Yet here were the Warriors ambushing James Harden and yet again disappointing the Rockets on a big stage.

Harden only took 18 shots (he averages 24.5 per game this season) and had 24 points and 11 assists in a pretty good night on paper. The problem is these numbers do not show how Golden State doubled Harden early on nearly every possession and turned the other Rockets into decision-makers.

Steve Kerr is one of the best coaches in the league and knew the other decision-maker would be the unpredictable Russell Westbrook. Russ averaged 32.5 points per game in the previous four Rocket wins and looked like he was turning a corner after being up and down with his efficiency to start the year. The result was an 11-of-32 shooting night on 0-for-8 from three. More impressively, James Harden only took one foul shot for the first time since March.

These players will be the depth of the Warriors next season and it is encouraging to see these team defensive principles coming together even if they only happen a few times throughout the season. Draymond Green had a season-high 20 points and looked like shades of his old self prancing around the court during various Golden State runs. This time period is only making Steve Kerr a better coach with a more complete team. Stay tuned.

The Lakers Need to Participate in the Trade Market

Ringo H.W. Chiu – AP

Prior to last Thursday’s showdown with the Milwaukee Bucks, the Lakers were 24-3 and looking every bit the Juggernaut you would expect a LeBron James and Anthony Davis pairing to look like. One week later they are on a four-game losing streak and have a 5-6 record against teams .500 or better.

The question is about depth. The Lakers need a third scorer/playmaker and haven’t consistently had that thus far. Kyle Kuzma showed some life with 25 points last night but has been underwhelming this season offensively while struggling with injuries. Los Angeles is 21st in the league in bench scoring and should consider probing the market for a solution for relieving James and Davis of a fraction of their current workload.

Rajon Rondo and Dwight Howard are good to have in spurts but their minutes bog the Lakers down too much offensively. We still have not seen Frank Vogel deploy Anthony Davis at the center position for extended minutes. It is no secret that their best lineups in the playoffs will include Davis as a match-up nightmare against opposing centers. Will we see this move made if they continue to struggle to put the ball in the basket?

There are still 51 games left for the Lakers and they will need to focus on keeping both of their stars healthy. James appeared to injure his groin last night and may miss time to begin the new year. Davis has been hampered by shoulder and knee issues all season long. The Lakers will still win their fair share of games but a third offensive initiator should be a priority if they are going to be fresh enough and deep enough to challenge for a championship.

Are You Still on the Denver Nugget Bandwagon?

Garrett Ellwood – Getty Images

I’m out. It is not about overreacting over one game. The Nuggets are 21-9 and will be in the playoffs. The difference is that this team views itself through a championship microscope and has yet to display that type of grit and polish through the first third of the season.

Denver was pummeled on Halloween by these same Zion-less Pelicans to the tune of 122-107 in a loss that coach Michael Malone coined as an “embarrassing” effort. Last night didn’t look all that different for a team that should have been motivated to avenge that nationally televised loss on in the Christmas game most people went to sleep on because of Zion’s absence.

Instead, the Nuggets were out-rebounded 52-40 and had no answers for Brandon Ingram who poured in 31 points on 11-18 shooting.

Ingram’s length and scoring ability were too much for Jerami Grand and Paul Millsap to contend with defensively. Ingram and the Pelicans forced the Nuggets to switch all night which lead to an offensive buffet for the 6-7 scorer against smaller perimeter players or slower bigs. Ingram annihilated the Nuggets defense and made it especially difficult for them to string together shots in the second half.

Denver is going to need major contributions from $170 million dollar man Jamal Murray (eight points on 2-10 shooting) who will continue to have the burden of needing to play up to that max contract and reward the front office that showed so much faith in him. Both he and Nikola Jokic have been puzzlingly inconsistent thus far and will need to tighten up if the Nuggets will be taken seriously in the postseason.

Denver is good enough to cover up for the mediocre play of their stars in the regular season but will need Jokic and Murray to play better to avoid becoming an annual doormat to the NBA championship in the West.

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