Sadly—fortunately?—the Bulls were left off of the NBA Christmas Day slate. But while we didn’t get to see another big night from Lauri Markkanen and co., we did get a better idea of the true contenders among the some of the top teams in the league.
Christmas Day featured five games, all involving teams still in the playoff hunt sans the Knicks. So what did we learn?
We learned that the Rockets can still hang with the league’s best, as they downed the Thunder 113-109 behind 41 points from James Harden. Houston held the Thunder to 43 percent from the field and seem to have rediscovered last seasons’ mojo. Their win was even more impressive considering that it came without Chris Paul in the lineup.
PJ Tucker and Danuel House Jr. form a tenacious defensive duo on the wings, with rookie Gary Clark Jr. also playing the role of low-usage, defensive-minded forward well. Turnovers will continue to be an issue for Houston in the absence of Paul, just as 3-point shooting will continue to be an issue for the Thunder all season. But both teams should see the light at the end of the playoff tunnel by the end of the season.
There wasn’t much to take away from the first game of the day, as the Bucks 14-point win over the Knicks was only surprising because Milwaukee shot a miserable 6-for-32 from the 3-point line.
Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated with a 30/14/3/4/2 stat line, though New York got solid performances from some of their young talent, with Noah Vonleh specifically shining with a 14-point, 15-rebound double-double in 33 minutes.
Boston proved that last season’s playoff series win over the Sixers was no fluke, as Kyrie Irving got whatever he wanted all night. He dropped 40 points in the OT win, including some truly amazing shots that he hit while guarded by All-Star Jimmy Butler.
The Sixers lack of bench production--13 points off the bench compared to 25 for the Celtics --sunk them in this game. With their “big 3” in place, the rest of this season should be about adding depth around the margins for Philly.
Even if the Sixers had home court advantage in the playoffs, they will be hard-pressed to make the NBA Finals with Landry Shamet being the best shooter off the bench.
The final two matchups of the night were Western Conference showdowns. The main event of the evening (Warriors-Lakers) almost marred by injury, as LeBron James went down with a groin injury after just 21 minutes of play. But once James went down, Rajon Rondo led the charge. He showed a heightened aggressiveness on offense, finishing with 15 points and 10 assists, while shooting 1-for-3 from the 3-point line. Los Angeles also had seven players score in double figures. We learned that the Lakers will be a tough out in the postseason because of the attention to detail on defense, combined with their ability to get up-and-down the floor quickly. Curry had a rough game against the Lakers, and Lonzo Ball deserves some credit for applying pressure on or off-ball.
In the Christmas nightcap, the Jazz dominated the Trail Blazers 117-96. Utah is still trying to climb back into the playoff race, as they sit a full two games back of the No. 8 seed. But we learned that their dominant defense is capable of vaulting them back into the thick of things, even with a struggling offense.
Donovan Mitchell is still shooting a horrid 31 percent over his last five games, but in that same span the Jazz are playing some of their best defense of the season. Utah is tops in the league in defensive rating over their last five games, allowing an impressively low 97 points per 100 possessions. Until Mitchell starts shooting better, the offense can stay afloat by emphasizing Rudy Gobert and Ricky Rubio more than usual. The duo combined for 32 points in the Jazz’ Christmas day win, one of the rare times Mitchell and Rubio have scored effectively, at the same time.
📹| Saint Rick being jolly 🎅— Utah Jazz (@utahjazz) December 26, 2018
14p | 6a | 3r | 2s | 1b pic.twitter.com/cshpeKRLrh
There are still doubts to be had as far as the Jazz’ case to make the postseason. If Mitchell’s regression this season is real, then move the Jazz to the top of the list of teams that need to make a roster move. They can win games with a less efficient Mitchell, but it is increasingly hard to string together wins with the offense being where it is currently.
Now that all of the Christmas Day dust has settled, we sit with 11 teams in playoff contention in the East and 14 (!!) in the ultra-competitive, parity-filled West. See how Christmas Day and the rest of the week changed our NBA Power Rankings here.