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6 NBA things to know for Dec. 23

Some key storylines and NBA tidbits to know for the day ahead

1. Another monster night for Harden?

Over his last 11 games, James Harden has scored 40 or more five times — including a 47-point game Saturday against the Suns. Since Thanksgiving, he’s averaging 40.5 ppg, ranks third in the league in clutch points (32) and, lest you think he’s all about scoring, ranks fourth in deflections (46) and seventh in loose balls recovered (18). He’s doing it all as you can tell and the Kings’ 17th-ranked defense is next up (10 ET, League Pass) in the task of trying to slow him down.

2. Pacers, Raptors set to square off

Any doubts about Toronto’s ability to hold up in the face of injuries was proven otherwise over the weekend as the Raptors nipped the Wizards and notched an epic comeback vs. the Mavs. The Pacers are essentially healthy, but went out with a whimper Sunday in Milwaukee. Both teams are scrapping to stay in the East’s upper playoff crust as they meet (7 ET, NBA TV). Rebounding could play a big part in this one: both squads are in the bottom 10 in Rebounding Percentage this month despite Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis ranking fifth in rebounds per game this month (14.0 rpg).

3. Are the Jazz truly improving?

Win streaks aren’t always proof of success in the NBA, and Utah may be a case study in that. The Jazz have won five in a row, but none of those wins have come against winning teams. In fact, their last win vs. a team currently over .500 came on Nov. 12 vs. Brooklyn. A road game with the Heat (7:30 ET, League Pass) might validate the win streak Utah has been on. Joe Ingles’ playmaking has been key in Utah’s success: he’s averaging 6.2 apg this month, which is nearly two assists more per game than what injured point guard Mike Conley is averaging this season.

4. Reinforcements for Atlanta

The Hawks got off to a 2-3 start through Halloween and had some (then-)realistic hopes of perhaps a playoff run. Then things came crashing down as big man John Collins was issued a 25-game suspension after testing positive for a growth hormone. Atlanta has gone 4-21 since then, but the big man is back tonight vs. Cleveland (7 ET, League Pass). Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce isn’t putting unnecessary pressure on Collins to save the season, but Atlanta will no doubt be glad to have his 17 points and 8.8 rebounds per game back in the mix.

5. Nuggets can’t overlook Suns

Denver came up big against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday and essentially rolled past them for their sixth straight win. A showdown with the Suns (9 ET, League Pass) is a decided mismatch on paper given that Phoenix will be without Deandre Ayton (and may not have Ricky Rubio, either). But remember that Denver had a six-game win streak working in late November only to blow a 17-point lead in an OT loss to the struggling Kings. To date in December, the Suns are allowing the fourth-most points in the paint, a stat that should favor the Nuggets’ Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic.

6. Taking stock of Anthony, Portland

Sixteen games into their time together, the Blazers and Carmelo Anthony have amassed a 9-6 mark and are in the midst of a four-game win streak. Since Nov. 19, the Blazers are No. 10 in Offensive Rating (111.5), No. 18 in Defensive Rating (110.3), No. 30 in passes made per game (242.3) and No. 27 in secondary assists (2.3) while they are No. 2 overall in the NBA in isolation plays (10.3%). As the Pelicans pay a visit (10 ET, NBA TV), its important to note that Anthony’s defensive stats — 1.7 spg, 1.3 bpg — are pretty solid this month as is his 3-point shot (45.5%).