LeBron James

NBA Christmas Day games set stage for rest of regular season and playoffs

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USA Today

NBA Christmas Day games set stage for rest of regular season and playoffs

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.

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Bulls dealt a dose of good news with John Collins suspension

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USA TODAY

Bulls dealt a dose of good news with John Collins suspension

The 2-5 Bulls woke up to a dose of good news Tuesday morning. 

Following a date with Anthony Davis, LeBron James and the Lakers Tuesday night at the United Center, the Bulls will take on an Atlanta team that just lost one of its best players. 

Hawks forward John Collins was hit with a 25-game suspension Tuesday morning for violating the league's Anti-Drug Policy:

Collins is currently second on the Hawks with 17 points per game and leads the team in rebounds (8.8), blocks (2.0) and minutes (32.2) while starting all five games for the 2-3 squad. 

The Bulls, meanwhile, have dropped three of their last four contests entering play Tuesday night. They will also play the Hawks another time during Collins' 25-game hiatus — Dec. 11 at the UC.

The Collins suspension now means the Bulls will likely see old friend Jabari Parker starting at power forward Wednesday night.

For what it's worth, Collins said he plans to fight the suspension in a statement provided by the Hawks.

"I have always been incredibly careful about what I put in my body, but I took a supplement which, unbeknownst to me, had been contaminated with an illegal component," Collins said in the statement. "I plan to fight my suspension in arbitration so I can get back on the court as soon as possible and continue to contribute to our 2019-20 campaign."

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Bulls-Lakers: Live stream, storylines, game time and more

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USA TODAY

Bulls-Lakers: Live stream, storylines, game time and more

Things can only go up from here, right?

The Bulls are off to a very disappointing 2-5 start, which comes despite having one of the league's easiest schedules to start the season. There are plenty of issues on both sides of the ball for Chicago but a small share of positives as well, such as the shot distribution on offense or Wendell Carter Jr.'s recent play. 

Tuesday's game against the Lakers at the United Center will represent the first time this season that the Bulls faceoff against one of the elite teams of the Western Conference.

Here are the essentials for tonight’s game:

When: 7 p.m. CST with Bulls Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m.
Where: United Center
Broadcast: NBC Sports Chicago
Live stream: NBCSportsChicago.com and the NBC Sports MyTeams app

And here are three storylines to watch:

Anthony Davis looking to get off to a hot start at home

Coming into Tuesday's matchup with the Bulls, Davis, a Chicago native, is leading the league in first-quarter points per game, averaging an impressive 11.5 points per first quarter.

The Lakers, who will be looking to close out their three-game road trip with a win at the UC, will look to ride AD's offensive efficiency to a win against a Bulls team that is struggling mightily with rebounding and defending in the paint.

The Bulls are 25th in the league in opponents points in the paint, while the Lakers are one of the better paint scoring teams in the league, posting 52.7 points per game (fourth in the league). New Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has the squad second in the league in post-ups per game (16.7) and is a big part of the reason Davis is currently averaging a career-high 28.5 points per game.

This is a terrible matchup for the Bulls on paper, so this would be a great game for the team to step up and show some of that mental and physical toughness that Jim Boylen has been asking for.

LeBron James vs. the Bulls' wing depth (or lack thereof)

The Bulls' lack of wing depth is going to be a problem, even once Chandler Hutchison returns to the court. And one way or the other, guarding LeBron James is obviously going to be a colossal task for Chicago. James' scoring and rebounding numbers have taken a dip but he is having a career year in terms of playmaking.

James has already racked up 67 assists over 6 games (11.2 assists per game) and is coming off of a 21-point, 11-rebound, 13-assist triple-double in Sunday's win over the Spurs. The Bulls are going to be in even more trouble against James if they are without the services of Otto Porter Jr., who is listed as probable for Tuesday's game.

Chicago's three-guard lineups that feature Ryan Arcidiacono, Coby White, and Kris Dunn have actually held up with Wendell Carter and Thaddeus Young on the floor, but these lineups will be hard-pressed to perform well when L.A. has James, Davis, and Dwight Howard on the floor.

If the Lakers decide to go with jumbo lineups with James playing the one or the two, the Bulls will be at such a disadvantage on the boards that they will need to hit their perimeter shots to stay close in this one.

Wendell Carter Jr.'s productive stretch 

Wendell Carter Jr. is one of the few Bulls having an all-around solid season, as evidenced by being the only Bull with a positive net rating through seven games. Carter, who had seven double-doubles last season, has four double-doubles over his first seven games of the 2019-20 season.

Carter, who is shooting a career-best 71.7% on field goal attempts less than five feet from the basket, finally appears to be settling nicely into the Bulls new-look offense. It is early, but Carter's recent stretch of player indicates a player who knows where to find their shots within the offensive system.

After shooting a woeful 6-14 against the Raptors on October 26, Carter has shot a remarkable 75% over his last four games.

The Bulls will need a big-time effort against the Lakers' frontcourt to win Tuesday's game, and Carter would appear to be the best option to guard Davis but he will likely spend some time as a help defender on Davis as well, both roles equally important to the integrity of the Bulls' defense.

But while Carter's defense—as it is every night—will be vital to the Bulls picking up a win, his offense will be just as important in a game that will likely be a defensive battle. 

Both the Lakers and the Bulls have top-12 defensive ratings over the past two games, will it be an unlikely hero on offense on Tuesday night, or will one of the usual suspects help get the job done?

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.