Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks
Team Totals: Bucks 118.5, Knicks 108.5
Angry Giannis Antetokounmpo should be a good Giannis. Back on Dec. 1, Mario Hezonja stepped over him (video here if you somehow missed it), and the Greek Freak had some things to say after the game. “I'm going to punch him in the nuts next time," Antetokounmpo said. Hopefully, someone bought Mario a cup for Christmas or The Nutcracker may be around for Christmas. Giannis also went berserk on Dec. 1 with 33 points, 19 boards, seven dimes, two blocks and three steals (also 31/15/4 on Oct. 22). The Knicks allow the most makes at the rim among Eastern Conference teams, and their first unit is allowing an eye-popping 120.4 defensive rating. That’s the worst in the league among lineups with at least 100 minutes with all five players still in the league. As long as he's not sleepy for the early start, he could be the star of the day.
Eric Bledsoe has also enjoyed the terrible Knicks defense this year, averaging 21.5 points, 4.5 boards, 10.0 dimes and 2.0 steals in the 34.0 minutes per game. He’s only averaged double-digit dimes against one other team this season (Spurs). He also fared better against Emmanuel Mudiay compared to others who guarded him, and he’ll almost certainly have Mudiay on him again. The last time Khris Middleton was at MSG, it was one of his low points of the season. Coach Mike Budenholzer benched Middleton for the fourth quarter and overtime, so perhaps Middleton has some extra motivation for this game. Middleton’s usage rate is finally back up with 25.3 over his last five games, but he still hasn’t found his jumper yet at 33.3% on those 51 shots. Still, the Knicks were putting Frank Ntilikina and Damyean Dotson on him more than the other Knicks, but this time he’ll likely get Kevin Knox to potentially roast. Brook Lopez only played 28 minutes in the last OT game as the Bucks went with a lot of small-ball lineups. D.J Wilson could be a viable punt in DFS with Ersan Ilyasova (nose) still out, especially if it’s a blowout. Malcolm Brogdon may not be 100% back from his hammy soreness and played just 26 minutes in each of his previous two before a rest day on Saturday.
Emmanuel Mudiay had his breakout game against the Bucks on Dec. 1 for 28 points in 36 minutes. He scored just 12 points combined in the previous two games before that explosion, but Mudiay has kept it rolling for 20.3 points per game this month. That’s on pace to be by far his best scoring full month of his career (15.8 in March 2016). He’s coming off a career-high 32 points in two of his last three games and is playing 34.0 per game over his last five outings. Mudiay has scored more points on Bledsoe this year (23 on 56 possessions) than anyone else and it’s not close per game (Mikal Bridges at 13 points). He’s always risky because that’s just who he is, but Mudiay is in a solid spot and he is much better at home (17.2 points at home, 12.6 away). Although, there’s added risk on him because both Allonzo Trier and Trey Burke should be in the rotation tomorrow. That also makes Frank Ntilikina a super dicey punt play.
Tim Hardaway Jr. is still playing through his plantar fascia issue and has been for almost four weeks. That hasn’t stopped him from playing 34.7 minutes per game this month. THJ played 47 minutes in the OT game on the first of the month (shoutout Bone Thugs N Harmony) while matching his season-high eight times. He’s always unpredictable because a whopping 79.3% of his shots are jumpers and he’s unassisted on 46.3% of his makes on a J. Plus, 51.2% of his shots are against tight defense (defender 0-4 feet away). All this said, the Bucks allow the most 3-pointers per game, so a hot THJ could be productive.
Kevin Knox also had his breakout game this season in that Dec. 1 game with his career-high 26 points. The Bucks let him hoist 12 treys in 37 minutes (again, they lead the NBA in treys allowed), and those 26 points at the time were double his combined output in his three games prior to the outstanding evening. He’ll likely be getting a handful of minutes at the four and he’s a good bet to lead the Knicks in minutes based on his team-high 37.4 minutes per game over the last five (THJ’s 34.1 is second).
Noah Vonleh was the primary man on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the last game, and he’ll have the tall task to guard him. Plus, he’ll very likely see time at the center spot. Vonleh’s per-36 stats at center are fantastic at 14.3 points, 14.3 boards, 4.0 dimes, 1.2 steals, 2.4 blocks and 0.5 treys on a 53/30/69 shooting line. Coach David Fizdale did not want to play Enes Kanter down the stretch in the last game, and Vonleh was the center to close before he fouled out. Luke Kornet could be an option because Mitchell Robinson (ankle) is still out.
On a related note, here’s a link to a really cool article about the Knicks stressing sleep to their players.
Prediction: Bucks 114, Knicks 102
Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder
Team Totals: Thunder 109.8, Rockets 111.3
James Harden is on some kind of heater over his last six, averaging 39.7 points, 6.8 boards, 9.5 dimes, 4.0 turnovers, 2.5 steals and 5.0 treys on 65.0 TS% and a 37.5 usage rate. These stats could even continue based on his per-36 stats without Chris Paul on the floor this season (560-minute sample): 35.9 points, 6.0 boards, 10.2 dimes, 2.3 steals, 0.4 blocks, 5.3 treys and 5.8 turnovers. This game should be close and Harden has a 42.3 usage in the fourth over this six-game span. In the last game vs. OKC, he had Paul George on him for about half of his possessions and Harden struggled with just 19 points in 38 minutes. Although, Harden was decent against George in the 94 minutes on the floor together last year at 25 and 11 per 36 over that time.
Eric Gordon has not played well overall this season, and he hasn’t been very good when he’s on the floor with Harden and CP3 is on the bench. Per 36, Gordon has just 17.2 points, 2.1 boards, 1.9 dimes, 1.1 turnovers, 0.3 steals and 3.3 treys on a 38/33/79 shooting line. Gordon also didn’t play against OKC earlier this year and averaged 17.0 points per game against them last season. EJ (Eric Jr.) does have a 4.6 usage rate bump without CP3 on the floor with Harden (28.7), so he should have a shot to produce.
Clint Capela didn’t have a big game against OKC in the last one with 17 and seven, and last year he was just solid overall last year vs. Steven Adams with 19.2 and 9.4 boards per 36 over the 73 minutes last year. Although, Capela is just a better basketball player this year and perhaps he puts up a big game, but this isn’t the best matchup. P.J. Tucker did tweak his ankle on Saturday night, but of course he stayed in the game because he’s P.J. Tucker. He will likely have to guard Paul George a decent among along with Jerami Grant, and he should get huge minutes.
Austin Rivers is a Rocket and he said that there’s no drama with him and CP3. “Obviously, if I had a problem with Chris, I wouldn’t be here,” he said on Monday. It’s fair to say he is here because Brandon Knight just isn’t ready to contribute yet. His arrival could slightly cut into Gerald Green’s output after Green was hot on Saturday for 12 points in the third quarter (15 total). The Rockets on Saturday basically ran an eight-man rotation with Knight and Danuel House essentially splitting the last spot, and only six players logged more than 15 minutes (starters plus Green). Expect both Green and Rivers to play in the mid 20s.
Harden has been on fire, but he’s not the reigning Western Conference Player of the Week. That honor belongs to Paul George, who has been arguably just as hot as The Beard. Over the last 10, PG averaged 32.8 points, 9.1 boards, 4.7 dimes, 2.2 steals, 0.4 blocks and 4.0 treys with a 67.4 TS% and a 28.5 usage rate. Perhaps the most impressive part of this hot streak is PG making 12-of-16 treys when facing tight or very tight defense (0-4 feet). Russell Westbrook has been known for zapping usage and sometimes hurting teammates (see: Oladipo, Victor), but not PG. This year, PG has a 61.6 TS% with Westy compared to a 54.3 without him, and his scoring is somewhat similar with the only noteworthy difference being in the rebounding category. He’s been basically at his averages against the Rockets, but he’s just too hot not to trust.
Russell Westbrook has not been hot over his last 10, making just 36.5% from the field with averages of 16.6 points, 12.2 boards, 11.4 dimes, 5.0 turnovers, 3.5 steals and 1.2 treys. His struggles at the line have been a major problem at just 54.5% of his 44 attempts over those 10, as well. He’s been bad on pull-up shots in that time at just 27.4% on those 84 attempts, and he hasn’t been much better at 31.3% on his catch-and-shoot shots. Still, he should be a good bet for a triple-double. The Thunder have also run the fastest offense in time per possession by a decent margin since Westbrook came back from injury on Nov. 19. The Rockets are surprisingly at 22nd in that span, but somewhat surprisingly the Rockets have the longest time per possession on the defensive side. OKC is 29th, so it might not be your traditional pace-up spot for OKC.
Steven Adams was also quiet against Capela last year with 16.8 points and 7.4 boards in 73 minutes last year. Adams did have 19 and 10 against the Rockets last year, but Westbrook wasn’t out there for that blowout win. Jerami Grant should see decent minutes and could put up a good line with a few blocks. Dennis Schroder's playing time has dropped with 26.0 per game over the last two.
Prediction: Thunder 112, Rockets 111
Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics
Team Totals: 76ers 109.8, Celtics 113.8
The 76ers have one of the most talented three-headed monsters in the NBA with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler. Coach Brett Brown has been staggering them a decent amount with that trio logging 17.6 minutes per game together. Embiid’s stats haven’t really suffered with 24.2 points and 14.3 boards per 36, Ben has been at 17/9/9, and Butler is at just 16.8 points in that time. Embiid has been a monster without Butler at 33.3 points per 36 while Ben is at 21/11/10 without Jimbo. The Process' numbers against Boston are down a bit, but that was because Aron Baynes has limited him. Without Baynes, it should be mostly Horford on him. That would also be good news for Ben because Horford has really held Simmons in check. For the regular season over per 36 with Al on the floor compared to when he wasn’t, Ben’s points were down 4.9 with a usage rate dip of 3.7. Embiid also scored more per possession vs. Horford compared to Baynes in the playoffs last year, but Horford is still better than most. Still, Embiid will look to shine on the Christmas slate.
Wilson Chandler (left quad) is questionable for this one and hasn’t played since Dec. 19 because the 76ers had a light schedule with only one game since. He had a left quad contusion earlier this month, but he could be back and the 76ers likely won’t up his minutes too much with so much time on the sidelines. In the last game on Saturday, the 76ers went with some Embiid and Jonah Bolden for just the third game this year, and that would likely be on the table again. Mike Muscala sort of flopped in the last game with four points in 18 minutes as a starter, and he doesn’t fit this matchup well with the Celtics likely to go small at the four a ton. There could be a few minutes for Furkan Korkmaz, who can play both forward spots on this roster. J.J. Redick should have Kyrie Irving on him a bunch, but there won't bemany shots for him on the holiday.
Kyrie Irving had one of his worst games of the season in the opening-game victory on Oct. 16. Although, he still wasn’t right back then and may have been limited from a slow preseason. Irving was productive against the 76ers last year with 25.7 points per game. The 76ers put Markelle Fultz on Irving more than anyone in the opener, and last year they put Robert Covington on him for most of the minutes as a starter. That should mean he gets some Jimmy Butler, who has been a tough challenge for most except for Kemba Walker (40 points on 57 possessions!) and D’Angelo Russell (22 points on 29 possessions). Besides those two, only Kawhi Leonard (14 points), LeBron James (13.5 points) and Donovan Mitchell (11 points) have more than 10 points per game against Butler defense this season.
The Celtics finally got Al Horford back with 19 minutes on Sunday. He didn’t play in the fourth because of garbage time, but Horford did only play 11.8 minutes in the first half. He did miss seven games from a lingering knee issue, so it may be a while before he’s hitting 30 minutes consistently. Jaylen Brown did have a strong series against the 76ers last year, but he’s seen higher usage rates without Kyrie next to him. Besides a few bright spots, this year has been a big let down. Jayson Tatum did go off in the opener with 23 and nine, but this was before Kyrie got his season rolling. Marcus Morris figures to get remain in the first unit to hurt the playing time for Gordon Hayward, who has been quiet with just 8.8 points per game over the last four. Coach Brad Stevens will likely want some more rim protection, and he said after Wednesday that Robert Williams was effective in that area. It’s possible he’s ahead of Daniel Theis, but obviously there won’t be much opportunity with Horford likely looking at 25-28 minutes. Expect Marcus Smart to see a ton of minutes for defense, as well.
Prediction: 76ers 107, Celtics 106
Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors
Team Totals: Lakers 113, Warriors 122
The Warriors continue to slow down their opponents with the longest time per possession against in the NBA, and the Lakers have been right in the middle at 17th. On the other hand, they’re both in the top six for offense, so pace should be flying on both makes and misses.
LeBron James leads all active players on Christmas with 321 points and is not far behind Kevin Durant’s top-ranked 31.1 for points per game at 26.8 to put him fourth (Carmelo Anthony is second at 31.0(!), Dirk Nowitzki is third at 27.3). The King is actually healthy this time after he played through a hand injury against the Warriors in The Finals last year (thanks, J.R. Smith). He did go off in the 2017 Finals with a 34/12/10 average line, and he’s had a strong Christmas game (2016) and a bad one (2017) recently. He also played 40 minutes in each of the last two Christmas games, and chances are Magic Johnson won’t be able to limit his playing time.
All eyez on Zupac aka Ivica Zubac, who has averaged 17.5 points, 7.5 boards and 3.0 blocks in 32.5 minutes per game over the previous two. That’s obviously due to JaVale McGee missing both and Tyson Chandler missing one. McGee is out and Chandler is questionable, so it could be time for some California Love. The Zubac starting lineup has a +29.3 net rating over the last two in 42 minutes, and no other non-Zubac lineup saw more than six (Rondo, KCP ,Hart, Kuzma, LeBron). It’s not the best matchup and coach Luke Walton has emphasized the small-ball defense needing to play better “shell defense” and not sticking so close to the guy each player is guarding, but he’s playing well enough to continue to get more run. To those who fade, y'all are suppose to be happy Zupac is free! Y'all look like y'all wanted him to stay in jail! Bustas! Picture him rollin' to the rim as the Lakers try to cause some switches.
The last two games with Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo back have caused a bit of a log jam with only four players getting 27-plus minutes per game over those two (LeBron, Kuzma, Ingram, Zubac). Josh Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope were tops in fourth-quarter minutes in the last game, and Lonzo Ball’s minutes in the fourth dropped all the way to 1.7 after he closed two games ago. You might want to avoid the rest of those guys.
Kevin Durant likes Christmas with his 31.1 points per game on Christmas, leading all the active players. Last year in the playoffs, it was LeBron James guarding KD for about 40% of the possessions, and KD fared well with his 29/11/8 average line en route to his second Finals MVP. KD has also owned the Lakers lately with 31.0 per game against them last season. He did tweak his left ankle on Sunday and is probable, but it doesn’t sound like it’ll limit him at all.
Stephen Curry is also another hot superstar over his last nine, averaging 29.0 points, 5.7 boards, 4.6 dimes, 1.8 steals and 5.2 treys on a 28.3 usage rate and a 65.2 TS%. Curry’s having his best year from deep at 46.5% from three to match his career-high 5.1 treys per game (2015-16). Curry also lit up Lonzo in the one game against him with 19 points on 48 possessions. It's certainly possible the Warriors score enough points for both Steph and KD to go nuts.
Coach Luke Walton has compared some players to Draymond Green, and Green has put up good numbers against the Lakers with a 14/11/8 line in two outings last year. He also had an 11/9/6 line two years ago. Green also has played four more minutes per game when he has a night off compared to a second half of a back-to-back set. Klay Thompson has been a little quiet over his last four with no games over 16 points, and he’s made just 3-of-19 from deep (15.8%). He’s having by far his worst year from deep at just 33.7%, which was previously just 40.1% in 2012-13 -- yeah, he’s shot at least 40% from deep every year. Thompson did score 24 points in each of his last two Christmas games against the Cavs, but he was not slumping like he is now.
Besides the big four, it’s kind of a mess with Jonas Jerebko scoring a career-high 23 points on Saturday, but had just seven on Sunday. He got the start Sunday, but it should be Kevon Looney who scored just six points in a start on Saturday. The Warriors have only used the Hamptons Five for just 32 minutes this season with a -5.2 net rating (115.5 pace), and part of that is because Andre Iguodala isn’t playing many minutes this season while the Warriors had Curry and Dray.
Prediction: Warriors 127, Lakers 114
Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz
Team Totals: Blazers 104.3, Jazz 110.3
I went way over the word-count limit (as usual), so let’s just fade this game and spend time with your family and friends. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Prediction: Jazz 105, Blazers 102