The most anticipated day on the NBA calendar for many comes Sunday, when the some of the league’s best teams and best players get a showcase day for all the world to see.
The league’s five-game Christmas Day spectacular continues a tradition of the best going against the best on the biggest stage. And this year will provide exactly that, with reigning champion Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors squaring off in Cleveland (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC) in the marquee matchup of the day.
Three players on this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder -- LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry -- headline that game. Six players in the top 10 and eight of the top 15 will be in action on Christmas, including LA Clippers star Chris Paul, who moves into the top 10 this week.
“The greatest thing I remember about playing on Christmas Day was the spectacle,” said Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas. “You are on every TV set, you have a great opponent and you know you have a chance to prove your dominance to all of the sports fans in America.”
In America and beyond.
But for Paul and the Clippers, who will be without All-Star forward Blake Griffin for four to six weeks after knee surgery earlier this week, it’s a chance to remind everyone that it is the Clippers -- and not the Lakers -- who run the city now.
It’s also a chance for Paul to remind the masses that he’s still in that conversation about the best point guards in the game. He’s been at his best when the Clippers would appear to be vulnerable. When injuries and suspension limited Griffin to just 35 games last season, Paul turned in some of the finest work of his career.
Paul is dealing with an injury hiccup of his own as he suffered a strained left hamstring in the third quarter of the Clippers’ win over the San Antonio Spurs Thursday night. The team says he is day-to-day with the injury and Paul said that he’s “fine” and “glad I caught it when I did.”
The Clippers’ improved bench play this season carried them against the Spurs Thursday night and will be critical in the days and weeks ahead -- particularly if they have to play at times without both Paul and Griffin.
“We have a deep, talented team,” Paul told the Los Angeles Times after the win over the Spurs. “When a guy is down, like we’ve been saying, we have guys that are more than capable of stepping up and doing their job.”
That said, Clippers fans would prefer to see their star point guard and leader doing his job during the parade of superstars on Christmas Day.
Now, to this week's rankings ...
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets
Harden has already put together 16 games with 25 or more points and 10 or more assists, tops in the league. By comparison, last season's league-leader, Russell Westbrook, had a total of 17 such games. Harden's stint at point guard, which looked like a novelty act early on this season, suddenly looks like so much more (26.0 points, 12.2 assists, 9.2 rebounds in his last five games).
2. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
As entertaining as triple-double Russ has been this season, Westbrook’s back-to-back 40-point, 10-rebound, seven-assist games this week show off his whirlwind ability just as much. Tonight’s matchup against Boston Celtics All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas (7:30 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS) should be spectacular (32.2 points, 9.4 assists, 8.8 rebounds, 1.0 steals in his last five games).
3. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavaliers have won three straight games since resting LeBron, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in that Dec. 14 loss in Memphis. And LeBron has led the way, shooting a blistering 52.4 percent from 3-point range during that stretch (28.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.5 steals in his last five games).
4. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
Durant is back in a groove at just the right time, shooting 53 percent in the Warriors’ last five games. That Christmas Day showdown in Cleveland cannot get here fast enough for all involved, but especially Durant (24.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.2 blocks in his last five games).
5. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Leonard put in monster work in Thursday’s loss to the Clippers (27 points, nine rebounds five assists, two blocks and a steal), bouncing back from an uneven performance in Tuesday’s win over Houston. The Spurs will need more of the good tonight in Portland (21.0 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 2.2 steals in his last five games).
6. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Steph couldn’t find his range in Brooklyn Thursday night, going 6-for-19 overall and 3-for-13 on 3-pointers. But the Warriors will need better from the reigning two-time Kia MVP on Christmas in Cleveland (19.4 points, 6.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 steal in his last five games).
7. DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors
His 30-point game streak ended at four after a 15-point effort (on 6-for-20 shooting) in Tuesday’s win over Brooklyn. Look for a big bounce back effort when DeRozan matches up against Jazz star Gordon Hayward tonight in Utah (28.2 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists in his last five games).
8. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
"The Greek Freak" is in elite company this season with 10 games with at least 25 points, five rebounds and five assists. Only Russell Westbrook (25), James Harden (21) and LeBron James (14) have more. The Bucks couldn’t ask for more from their young star (27.0 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.4 rebounds, 2.6 steals, 1.2 blocks in his last five games).
9. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Gasol’s name doesn’t come up as quickly or as often as it should when the conversation turns to the best big men in the game. He was spectacular in a big win against Detroit, amassing 38 points (on 14-for-17 shooting overall and 2-for-3 on 3-pointers) on Wednesday (21.4 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals in his last five games).
10. Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Paul gave Clippers fans a scare when he left Thursday night’s win over the Spurs with a strained left hamstring. He insists he’s fine, which has to be a relief for coach Doc Rivers, who is already without Blake Griffin (knee surgery). The load will be heavy for Paul while Griffin recovers (16.2 points, 9.8 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals in his last five games).
Next five (listed alphabetically): Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz; Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics; Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets
An inside look from a Western Conference advance scout at Rudy Gobert:
“You don’t hear people talking about him, for reasons that don’t make sense to me. He’s the key to the defense out there and in my opinion the most important player on that roster. No disrespect to [Gordon] Hayward, who really is an underrated player in our league, but Gobert is the key. He’s giving you 12 points, 12 rebound and three blocks a night. That’s great production from a guy you don’t run plays for. He’s working on both ends, rim protecting on rolling hard to the rim on offense. He was physically overmatched against Boogie [Cousins in a Jazz loss to the Kings Wednesday] and still finished with 17 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks. And this is a guy who barely gets touches on the offensive end. They are not the same team without him. No way they’re a top six team in the West without him. Absolutely no way.”
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