NBA Christmas Day takeaways: Eruptions and anticipated debuts
Key things we learned after 12 hours of Christmas Day basketball.
Five games, featuring the reigning two-time Kia MVP, the defending champs, the No. 2 pick in the draft, a team from New York City (no, not that one — the other one) and the previous year’s No. 1 pick.
It was all that and more on Christmas Day in the NBA, already a typically loaded annual event, except this time it was extra. There was something and someone for everyone, with star eruptions and anticipated Christmas debuts, all across 12 hours of basketball.
Here’s what to take away from those games, and the teams involved, and the players who had basketball fans holding their heads, and sometimes scratching them:
Heat 111, Pelicans 98
Duncan Robinson opened the Friday action with a Christmas Day record seven 3-pointers.
Miami is the most unorthodox title contender in the NBA, and Christmas Day showed why. Jimmy Butler tried to play through a bum ankle and lasted only 16 minutes. He’s the Heat’s best player, but perhaps not top-10 in the NBA, and after him, does Miami have a top-20 player? Anyway: It doesn’t matter. The Heat are such a balanced and cohesive group that there’s no need to lean on any single player. Try finding another elite team with Miami’s makeup. Duncan Robinson helped build a massive lead by making six 3-pointers in the first half and connected on 7-for-13 for the game, tying the Christmas Day record Brandon Ingram set in 2019. The usual suspects — Goran Dragic, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro — had strong stretches. Newcomer Avery Bradley (12 points, solid D) is buying into the program. And Miami won by 13, displaying the same elements that helped them reach the NBA Finals a few months ago. Miami is a T-E-A-M.
Zion Williamson and Ingram combined for 60 points but faded in the fourth quarter, going without a basket until the last few minutes; by then the score escaped them. Despite that, they’re forwards who can create their own shots, mesh well and are decent defensively. The issue for the Pelicans is how and when they upgrade the backcourt here in the first year without Jrue Holiday. Lonzo Ball got a no-vote of confidence when the club didn’t extend his rookie deal. JJ Redick is 36. Eric Bledsoe wasn’t wanted by the Bucks. Those players shot 5-for-25 with nine turnovers combinedx. Interestingly, the Pelicans could’ve drafted Tyler Herro (taken No. 13 by Miami) with the 2019 fourth pick received from the Lakers in the Anthony Davis trade, but GM David Griffin swapped it for No. 8 Jaxson Hayes and 17 Nickeil Alexander-Walker, two players at the back end of the rotation.
Bucks 138, Warriors 99
The Stephen Curry-James Wiseman pick and roll could quickly develop into an elite-level option.
Let’s put aside momentarily how the Warriors have resembled a last-place team again in this very, very small sample size of 2020-21. And also acknowledge the 0-2 record is courtesy of East heavyweights Brooklyn and Milwaukee. And mention Kelly Oubre Jr. and Andrew Wiggins have been straight duds, Oubre struggling mightily with his jumper (1-for-10 Friday) while Wiggins can’t shake those head-scratching plays that feed into the perception he’s an underachiever. Yes, put all that aside for another day because of James Wiseman (18 points, eight rebounds, three blocks).
The early showing by the rookie 7-footer is very encouraging, and remember, he didn’t play at all in the preseason and his entire college career at Memphis lasted about five minutes. That’s a lot of down time, making what he’s doing all the more impressive. The 19-year-old big man shows no wariness or intimidation, what you want from a No. 2 overall pick (“The game is starting to slow down for me,” he said). He had moments against Brook Lopez, a second-team All-Defensive center last season, keeping the Bucks’ big on alert. Until the Warriors get themselves together — and that might not happen until next season when Klay Thompson returns — the development of Wiseman will be the key to the season and, by extension, the future.
Meanwhile, it’s apparent the Bucks made a mistake giving Giannis Antetokounmpo that contract extension. After missing the game-tying free throw in the opener against Boston and then following up with a “meh” performance Friday, he’s obviously … OK, we joke. If anything, Giannis should feel even better about his team two games into the season, because the Bucks have covered for his sloppy start.
Khris Middleton (31 points in 26 minutes) was a Grinch to Golden State and newcomers Jrue Holiday and Bobby Portis are making their arrivals felt. Obviously, Giannis will get back to pulling the load. That said, there’s still the lingering sight of Giannis missing jumpers from 20 feet and beyond. This was an issue in the Orlando bubble, and even with defenders slacking off and giving him space, Giannis’ range remains a work in progress.
He missed all three of his 3-pointers against the Warriors and is now 3-for-11 on the season — not terrible, yet not reassuring, either. You wonder if the Bucks, who sing the gospel of the three-pointer, will mention to Giannis that a mid-range jumper is OK, that not everyone has to stretch the floor. Of course, that would be a radical and original thought here in today’s copycat NBA, so never mind.
Nets 123, Celtics 95
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant combined for 66 points against the Celtics.
Attention, Eastern Conference contenders: This is now the deal when you get the Nets. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving taking star turns and ownership of possessions, quarters and halves, maybe entire games, at their whim. As if their individual skills and shot-making weren’t enough, they’ve apparently taken a liking to the offense flavored by Nets assistant coach Mike D’Antoni, one of the most influential offensive minds of modern-day hoops. The Nets’ top assistant is likely thanking the basketball gods that he’s away from the chaos in Houston and working for a club where star chemistry isn’t a problem, at least so far.
Kyrie, scoring 37 points, ruled in a Christmas Day game that didn’t include Kemba Walker on the other side. And KD (29 points) jump-started the Nets’ romp by going into his bag for layups and jumpers. They combined to shoot 10-for-14 from deep. And for the second time in two games, the Nets won by blowout. They’re a team with a pair of championship-proven stars and very good complimentary players and a system that caters to their talent. Until proven otherwise, they’re your favorites in the East.
Yes, Kemba is hurt, didn’t play and could be out another few weeks, so let’s concede as much. That said, the Celtics don’t appear to be better than last season, and that’s a problem when Milwaukee improved (notably adding Jrue Holiday) and Brooklyn really did, tacking on a healthy Irving and Durant. After taking this Christmas whipping, do the Celtics pause and reassess and explore the possibility of adding James Harden to the mix? Sure, that would represent the nuclear option, essentially admitting the current crew won’t get it done this summer.
Jayson Tatum remains a rising superstar, Jaylen Brown has continued to improve, and yet Danny Ainge has some thinking to do: the GM lost Gordon Hayward last offseason and lacks a proven post player. Is Boston truly better than the Bucks, Nets, Sixers or Heat? With a shortened schedule, contending teams must make quicker judgments than usual with regard to making changes by the trade deadline. And Harden represents a major, major change.
Lakers 138, Mavericks 115
The Lakers cruise to their first win of the season with a win over the Mavericks.
The last time Montrezl Harrell faced the Mavericks, he played poorly and made an off-color remark to Luka Doncic that forced an apology — the beginning of a value collapse on the free agent market. That playoff series, and the next equally bad one against the Nuggets, in the Orlando bubble seemed to expose Harrell as a poor defender and shooter. Teams cooled on him, the Clippers didn’t even attempt to re-sign him, and the Kia NBA Sixth Man award-winner settled on a two-year contract for $19 million with the Lakers (by comparison, Jerami Grant got three years and $60 million with Detroit).
But Harrell has been beastly so far this season, and was a far different player Friday in a rematch with the Mavericks. He scored 22 points on 10-for-13 shooting with seven rebounds in 28 minutes. With Dennis Schroder adding 18 points and six assists, the Lakers’ offseason is looking better and better.
In Dallas, there’s no timetable for the return of Kristaps Porzingis after meniscus surgery, although January seems possible. The Mavericks won’t rush their 7-foot-3 co-star back, especially given his injury history, which means Doncic will go solo for a bit longer. That could prove costly in a 72-game season, during which the Mavs can’t afford a mediocre stretch and expect a playoff spot, especially given the stiff competition in the West.
Doncic racked up 27 points and seven assists against the Lakers and looked reasonably well, but there’s a big drop-off between Porzingis and the third-best Mavericks player, who’s either Tim Hardaway Jr. or Josh Richardson, neither of whom hurt the Lakers or has been an All-Star. The Mavericks were one of the teams harmed by Giannis Antetokounmpo’s decision to re-sign in Milwaukee; Dallas hedged on adding more pieces last offseason, hoping to keep their cap clear for Giannis next summer, but now there needs to be a change in plans. In order to be taken seriously as a title threat, they’ll require a third star or at least some upgrades among the supporting cast, and that help might not arrive this year.
Clippers 121, Nuggets 108The Clippers race past the Nuggets to wrap up the Christmas Day slate.
The Clippers had reason to collapse, much like Kawhi Leonard did after getting elbowed to the jaw by Serge Ibaka with six minutes left. That’s because their lead went from 24 points to 11, Kawhi was done for the night, and this is just a few months removed from The Real Collapse in the Orlando bubble. But what the Clippers did was score a mentally refreshing win Friday, given how wrecked they were from losing a 3-1 lead to Denver in the playoffs.
So far, so good this season for the 2-0 Clippers, who are still without the injured Marcus Morris but showing the ball movement and poise that coach Ty Lue wants from this crew. Look, that collapse in the playoffs will haunt them until they make amends, not in the regular season, but when the postseason rolls around again. Between now and then, the best the Clippers can do is achieve these mini-goals and position themselves for larger ones come springtime.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, were worried about Jamal Murray for roughly six quarters: the four he played in the opener, when he scored just one basket against the Kings; and the first two Friday, when he matched that field goal total. Murray finally found his rhythm by late third quarter and finished with 23 points.
But if he plans to be in the conversation for an All-NBA team, especially given how he scorched Earth and scored 40 or more points in three playoff elimination games last summer, he needs to remain at a consistently high level. The Nuggets will need that after losing a pair of rotation players in Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, while also waiting to see if Michael Porter Jr. is for real.
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