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'Tis the season to watch the NBA

Sam Smith takes a look at the five NBA games that will take place on Christmas Day, highlighted by the Thunder and Heat in an NBA Finals rematch, and the Rockets and Bulls, when Omer Asik makes his return to the United Center.
Kevin Durant's Thunder and LeBron James' Heat are both on pace to meet again in the NBA Finals.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

Christmas is time for a lot of important things. Obviously acknowledging your faith for Christians, watching “It’s a Wonderful Life,” agreeing you’ll never go to a mall again and, of course, watching the NBA.

There are no actual passages in the Bible about celebrating the NBA on Christmas. Though I don’t think there’s much about electric lighting outside your house. But it’s done, anyway. So I think the NBA is cleared to play.

To the NBA, Christmas represents a few things. One is high TV ratings, which enable the NBA to charge networks more in rights fees. I’m checking the Bible for any mention of that. But it also represents the best guess by the people who run the NBA who is going to win the championship. They don’t say that, but it cannot be that much a coincidence the Bobcats and Kings never play on Christmas.

The league, representing all the owners, has to be unbiased. So perhaps it’s merely a coincidence the favorites to win the championship just about always play on Christmas Day.

Perhaps. But it’s also a good chance to take a look at the teams believed to be the most likely to be playing after Memorial Day and the chances this season they will be. Here’s a look at the matchups and the chances each team will reach the NBA’s final four, which is the conference title.

Boston Celtics at Brooklyn Nets, 11 a.m.

Most thought the Celtics would be Miami’s biggest challenger in the Eastern Conference. Not anymore. When they lost in Chicago last week, coach Doc Rivers said his Celtics team wasn’t very good. And no one argued. The conventional wisdom was the way they built up depth to complement Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would threaten Miami. But it’s the poorest defense they’ve played since the trade for Garnett. They’re in the bottom half of the league in most categories and the league’s worst rebounding team. Of course, Miami is No. 29 and not exactly in trouble. Which suggests Boston’s veterans have slowed. It doesn’t look like they’re going anywhere. Neither are the Nets. They put together the most expensive starting lineup in the NBA adding Joe Johnson, extending Brook Lopez and resigning Deron Williams. There’s some sort of reptile Williams has as a tattoo on his arm, it seems. So it must be a family crest. Williams is about to run out his second coach, Avery Johnson, after complaining about Johnson’s scheme as the Nets were losing. "That system (in Utah) was a great system for my style of play,” Williams told media. “I'm a system player, and I loved coach (Jerry) Sloan's system. I loved the offense there. We could've been a really good team. We just weren't that good defensively as a group." So it was much better in Utah? I happened to be there the night Jerry Sloan decided to quit because of Williams. I overheard Williams outside the locker room blasting Sloan to his teammates and Bulls players, saying how Sloan’s coaching was ruining him and he was going to run the plays and the heck with Sloan. The Nets have committed contracts that put them in the luxury tax through 2015-16. Their defense is poor to average and they’ve discovered Williams isn’t a franchise player. Williams is shooting 39.6 percent overall and under 30 percent on threes, so, of course, it has to be someone else’s fault. It was the same issue in Utah when they lost. Had to be the coach; never Deron. You can’t win with an overrated guy like that. Conference finals? Neither.

New York Knicks at Los Angeles Lakers, 2 p.m.

This one could be 148-136 and is the opener for the main act. The Lakers have Steve Nash back, and the story of where they are was the excitement of winning in overtime in Golden State Saturday. Not quite good for a 16-0 playoffs yet. They still have too many good players to be bad, though it’s not quite Mike D’Antoni’s offense with Kobe taking 41 shots to get 34 points, as he did against the Warriors. The Lakers won’t defend much, which opens the court for the Knicks three point shooting, which is pretty good when they are unguarded. The Lakers will be a better team in the playoffs when everyone plays more halfcourt. The Knicks thus far are the surprise of the Eastern Conference with no one playing exceptionally well. Conference finals? Both the Knicks and Lakers have a reasonable chance, though the Knicks probably a bit moreso given the competition.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Miami Heat, 4:30 p.m.

This is the main attraction, the rematch from last season’s Finals. Though he’s been around awhile, last season’s Finals was the coming out party for LeBron James, who has emerged as clearly the league’s No. 1 star. He’s so good Miami can be the second poorest rebounding team in the league and remain on top in the East (Pat Riley may not believe rebounds equals rings anymore). They are by far the best shooting team at a shade under 50 percent dominated by James as no team has been dominated since Michael Jordan. He’s scored at least 20 in every game and is above his career average in shooting, three pointers, rebounds, blocks, free throws and low turnovers. So you match that against Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the most productive duo in the league as both are in the top six in scoring. They traded an All-Star in James Harden and haven’t slowed a bit as one of the league’s best shooting teams. They’re both on pace to meet again in the Finals.

Houston Rockets at Chicago Bulls, 7 p.m.

This one was curious at first given the league schedulers knew Derrick Rose wouldn’t be playing and Houston didn’t have Harden. So how did they know this game would mean something? Is David Stern Houdini? Now it’s an interesting matchup against the league’s highest scoring team in Houston, which pushes the ball against one of the league’s best defensive teams, the Bulls, fourth in shooting defense and second against threes. They’re both longshots to make it to the conference finals, though the Bulls hold out hope considering Rose’s return and the Rockets with their high powered game and defensive presence of former Bull Omer Asik.

Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Clippers, 9:30 p.m.

They were both sort of X-factor picks before the season, and you don’t want to sleep on the Clippers anymore with 13 straight wins and tied with the Thunder for margin of victory, which is perhaps the best indicator of ultimate success. Chris Paul’s presence makes them a serious team. They’re one of nine teams averaging more than 100 points and second in field goal defense with active shot blockers. They have two stars in Paul and Blake Griffin and a strong bench even without Grant Hill or Chauncey Billups playing much. The Nuggets are coming on after the toughest opening schedule in the league and, as always, one of the most difficult to beat at home. Their problem is they have a lot of good players, but no great player. It means a lot of wins, but not really going anywhere while the Clipper should play the Thunder in the conference finals.

Talented but troubled Cousins on his way out of Sacramento

-- How about the Kings having their third biggest winning margin Sunday once DeMarcus Cousins was suspended? You could guess this was coming the way Keith Smart basically coddled him after Cousins got Paul Westphal fired last year. It was stunning to watch Cousins, an amazingly gifted big guy stand outside and shoot 20 footers and never get taken out or apparently asked to stop. No surprise the Kings had their most assists this season in a win over Portland Sunday. The Kings basically can’t trade him now with bargain basement value. Everyone’s been warned about Cousins since he was at Kentucky. I remember a GM telling me before that 2010 draft Cousins was the best talent, but if you want a big man to take Greg Monroe. He went seventh to the Pistons and has become one of the better young bigs in the league. Cousins went fifth. On review, it was a disappointing draft with John Wall No. 1 (worst shooter in NBA); Evan Turner, who is developing well; Derrick Favors, still coming off the bench in Utah; Wesley Johnson, who has been traded to the Suns and rarely plays; Cousins; Ekpe Udoh, traded; Monroe, Al-Farouq Aminu, who plays off the bench in New Orleans; Gordon Haywood; another Jazz reserve and perhaps the best guy, Paul George at No. 10. The rest of the lottery was Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry, Ed Davis and Patrick Patterson. Which is another reason why missing the playoffs isn’t all that great. As for Cousins, he’ll be traded. He dropped his agent and hired agent Dan Fegan, who is famous for getting his players traded as he so annoys teams they can’t wait to get rid of the guy. Cousins has amazing talent for a big man, size, post potential, good hands and feet. He’s obviously got mental problems, though the NBA is generally fine with that. You probably can get him for a No. 1 pick. Of course, then what do you do with him as he obviously destroyed whatever chemistry the Kings had or worked toward.

NBA news and notes

-- It’s become unusual in Philadelphia, where Andrew Bynum gives all his medical updates as the team rarely says anything. Bynum still may be months away from playing. Though it probably was worth the risk with a year left on his deal as the 76ers likely were not going to extend Andre Iguodala. The biggest loss may have been letting go Nikola Vucevic, who with the Magic is developing into a tough big man averaging almost a double/double and a guy to keep an eye on. … The Raptors have won five straight and one of their big surprises has been Michigan State’s Alan Anderson. He’s bounced around teams in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the D-League the last seven years and basically after sitting all season is averaging 17 points in the last four games, all Toronto wins. … Though he’s out now injured, the Raptors supposedly would like to put Kyle Lowry in a trade package and keep Jose Calderon. The Raptors give up 11 more points per game when Lowry is on the court compared with Calderon. … Since going scoreless Dec. 1 in a loss in Golden State, Paul George is averaging 21 points the last 11 games as the Pacers have won eight of 11. … I’m a believer in LeBron James now. But, really. It’s been six games and more than 225 minutes of playing time and often playing inside and James doesn’t have one foul. Not one! James was last called for a personal foul more than two weeks ago early in a game against New Orleans. He’s averaged more than 37 minutes per game. In that stretch the Heat is 5-1 and four were playoff teams. Said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin: “He knows how to play and be aggressive and not get fouls.” C’mon, how could that be?

-- In New York they are pushing Carmelo Anthony for the MVP pretty much based on that he doesn’t shoot every time anymore. James, obviously, has been impressive. But consider Kevin Durant, who is averaging career highs in shooting, three point average, free throws, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks and minutes. And his team after losing James Harden has the league’s best record. … Wizards coach Randy Wittman is trying to put it all in perspective as the Wizards fell to 3-22: “I been trying to get thrown out for a while,” Wittman said after getting one early technical and not a second. “These guys won’t even throw me out.” They’re getting a lot of production out of Jordan Crawford, who was a backup shooting guard to start the season and lately the team’s point guard with all their injuries. He had a pair of triple doubles, though he doesn’t usually pass that much. He was the guy who dunked on LeBron while at Xavier after leaving Indiana that supposedly Nike tried to hide the film. Another Wittmanism: “I look up every morning and make sure the sky’s up there, that it’s not falling in on me.” ... The Bobcats now have 15 straight losses after that fast start, which is putting a dent in Mike Dunlap’s coach of the year campaign. … On top of again averaging a double/double in just 30 minutes a game, Tim Duncan also ranks among the top five in the league in blocks and remains along with Kobe Bryant the true marvels of the game to produce at that level for more than a decade. Greatness is most often defined as great consistency. … The Rockets have quietly moved up to sixth in the West with the league’s most explosive offense. Said 76ers coach Doug Collins about them: "You can tell they're an analytic team because they've got all their guys shooting threes. They go with the percentages - take 10 threes and make three of them and the percentage is close to if you make five out of 10 from two. They spread you and stretch you. I don't compare players by any stretch of the imagination, but to me, when he's (James Harden) coming down the floor with the ball, he's very similar to LeBron James. When you combine size, strength, speed and he loves contact. He seeks contact on every play. He can shoot the three, he has a great feel for the game." Harden is fourth in the league in scoring behind Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

-- Creeping up (or down) on the Bobcats is the Hornets with 11 straight losses and a barely-better-than-Washington 5-22 record. Which raises the question of whether Eric Gordon will choose to return. The injured (we think as no one says much) guard who said his heart was in Phoenix as the Hornets matched the free agency offer is now back in New Orleans at least watching games. The Times Picayune said microfracture surgery was recommended, but Gordon sought out other doctors until he could get a different diagnosis. No one is saying when he might return, but they better be careful as the Bobcats may request the name back and Gordon could try to report to the wrong team again. … Anthony Davis has been good, as expected, averaging 14.6 points and 8.2 rebounds, though playing in about half the Hornets’ games after injury. But with their record and the play of Portland’s Damian Lillard, the Portland rookie is running away with the rookie award. Lillard has been little short of amazing, winning still another game Saturday over the Kings with a big shot in the last minute, his third late shot to win. … No fine this time as the Thunder blew out the Spurs and coach Gregg Popovich sat his starters the entire fourth quarter rather than make a last run when they cut the Thunder lead to nine with 5:29 remaining. … It doesn’t explain everything about the Warriors’ 18-10 start, but their offseason moves for Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack have been two of the best as they’re combining for about 25 points per game and finishing many games. … Portland held the record for missed three pointers in a game at 0-20 for 10 days as Denver last week shot 0-22 on threes. In that game, the Nuggets didn’t hit their first jump shot outside the painted area until 35 seconds remained in the game in Portland. It could have been the humidity with all the rain. … You had to love this juxtaposition—if not their fabulous taste in music, as the Neil Diamond song “I am, I said” was playing in the Nets practice facility as Deron Williams was explaining why Avery Johnson is a dunce and then deciding he was misquoted. The song includes a line: "New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.”

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