After all the gifts had been opened on Christmas morning, NBA fans settled in for a long day of basketball that would provide some insight on what we should expect from the conference races over the final 50 games of the regular season.
First and foremost, the battle for basketball supremacy in Los Angeles is no joke. The Clippers and Lakers played a spirited game on Christmas evening that had playoff-level intensity. Forget the players saying a game in late December doesn’t carry much significance. Both LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court despite suffering injuries in recent games, and James even continued on after aggravating his groin injury in the opening minutes when he took a charge from Chicago native Patrick Beverley.
We’ve already learned through the first 30-plus games of the season that the friendship and chemistry between James and Davis is real. The superstar duo is lethal running pick-and-rolls, with James able to set up the big man with alley-oops or on-time passes when Davis pops out to the perimeter. James currently leads the NBA in assists, something no other forward has accomplished in the history of the league. He turns 35 next week, but James' desire to add another championship to his resume hasn’t diminished one bit.
Plus, now that Kyle Kuzma has returned from his ankle problems, the Lakers have a third player capable of scoring 20-plus points on any given night. And the team's veteran supporting cast of Danny Green, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard (among others) is proving to be much more effective than the motley crew that was brought in to support LeBron in his first run with the Lakers.
The Lakers will undoubtedly be one of the favorites when the playoffs open in April, but they might not be the best team in Los Angles.
After their five-point win on Christmas, the Clippers now own a 2-0 record against their more celebrated city rival. Kawhi Leonard was the best player on the court Wednesday night, showing the ability to easily create his own shot in the mid range, while drawing fouls on his drives to the basket. Leonard finished with a game high 35 points and 12 rebounds, while shooting 11-for-19 from the field, 5-for-7 from 3 point range and a perfect 8-for-8 from the free throw line.
The Clippers also have the potential to be a lockdown defensive unit in the playoffs with the long-armed Leonard and Paul George on the wings and the feisty Beverley making life miserable for opposing point guards. Plus, they have the best 1-2 punch off the bench of any team in the league with Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell.
Because of the load management philosophy that limits how many games Leonard will play during the regular season, it’s unlikely he’ll be one of the top candidates for league MVP. But after watching the way he decimated the Lakers’ defense Wednesday night, and the way he outplayed Giannis Antetokounmpo in last season’s playoffs, is there any doubt Leonard is now the most unstoppable big-game player in the NBA?
Both the Clippers and Lakers figure to be on the lookout for one more shooter to add to the mix via the trade and buyout markets later this season, but I’m guess most NBA fans would gladly sign up for a seven-game battle between the L.A. heavyweights in the Western Conference Finals.
What else did we learn from the Christmas Day games? It sure looks like nothing has changed in Houston. James Harden will continue to put up gaudy point totals and the Rockets will shoot a ton of threes, but does anyone really think they can beat either of the L.A. teams in a playoff series?
Houston lost to the lowly Warriors in their Christmas showcase game. Golden State limited Harden to just five points in the second half with an aggressive, trapping defense that forced him to give up the ball after he crossed halfcourt. Harden only got off 18 shots for the game, and wound up with 24 points, 14 below his season average.
Meanwhile, Russell Westbrook continues to struggle with his outside shooting. He made only 11 of 32 shots against the Warriors and missed all eight of his 3-point attempts. Westbrook is shooting just 23.8% from distance for the season, which makes him a poor fit playing alongside Harden in Mike D’Antoni’s offense.
The Rockets will win their share of regular season games because of Harden’s offensive brilliance, but you can forget about them as a realistic championship contender.
Over in the Eastern Conference, the Milwaukee Bucks have been rolling along with the league’s best record, including a recent 18-game winning streak. But the Bucks showed signs of vulnerability in their 121-109 Christmas matinee loss in Philadelphia.
Antetokounmpo could be on his way to a second straight MVP award, but he struggled against the Sixers’ taller frontcourt, scoring just 18 points on 8-for-27 shooting from the field. His recent 3-point shooting prowess also disappeared, as Antetokounmpo missed all seven of his tries from beyond the arc.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia got excellent all-around games from Joel Embiid (31 points, 11 rebounds) and Ben Simmons (15 points, 14 assists), while knocking down a franchise record-tying 21 threes. Sure, it’s unlikely the 76ers will shoot like that over the course of a seven-game playoff series, but their length could cause fits for Antetokounmpo.
The Bucks were playing without starting point guard Eric Bledsoe on Christmas because of a leg injury, but Bledsoe has always been hard to count on in big games because of his erratic play. Khris Middleton continues to be a solid complement to Antetokounmpo, but Brook Lopez’s shooting numbers are down after a career-best season from long distance, and the Bucks will sorely miss Malcolm Brogdon’s shot-creating ability come playoff time.
Will the Bucks try to make a trade before the Feb. 6 deadline to bring in another wing scorer to take some of the pressure off Antetokounmpo and give them a better shot at the franchise’s first championship since 1971? That will be one of the big questions as we head into 2020.
Finally, don’t count out Boston as a serious contender to get to the Finals. The addition of Kemba Walker to run the offense instead of Kyrie Irving has opened things up for young wing players Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who are both playing the best basketball of their careers. Brown scored 30 points in a Christmas Day win over Toronto, while Tatum appears to be headed to an All-Star game appearance, averaging 21.3 points and 7.2 rebounds for the season.
The Celtics will be a tough out in the playoffs with their versatility on the perimeter, which also includes the shot-making ability of former All-Star Gordon Hayward and the defensive excellence of Marcus Smart. And don’t be surprised if ultra-aggressive GM Danny Ainge looks to cash in some of the remaining first round draft picks he owns for a run at a reliable big man like Oklahoma City’s Steven Adams.
Sure, it’s never a good idea to make sweeping conclusions from one day’s worth of games, even if it is Christmas. But basketball fans around the country got an interesting preview of what me might expect to see when the battle for the championship begins next spring.
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