Five NBA games, five things to look for on Christmas Day
Christmas Day belongs to the NBA. Well, on the sports calendar. Hopefully, you have higher priorities for the day. There will be 13 hours of NBA games starting at noon Eastern — you’ll be trying to stream them all on your phone while sitting bored on your Aunt Lilly’s couch. To help out a little, here are five things to look for, one from each game on the Holiday slate. Enjoy, and happy holidays.
1) New Orleans vs. Miami Heat (noon ET on ESPN). This game looked a lot better on paper before the season started (which is a theme for this Christmas Day slate). In this case, it was because we expected the Pelicans to continue climbing the ladder in the West, not taking a big step back due to injury and a roster that can’t do what new coach Alvin Gentry would like to do (namely, run and shoot well). The Pelicans also remain defensive mess (their biggest issue last season), and the Heat will expose that.
However, this game still gives us one of the best one-on-one match-ups of the day — Hassan Whiteside vs. Anthony Davis. Two athletic, young, up-and-coming big men who will both run the court and spend time matched up. Can Whiteside slow Davis? Will the Pelican’s guards be able to get Davis the ball in a dangerous position? There are a lot of questions, but that matchup should be fun.
2) Chicago Bulls at Oklahoma City Thunder (2:30 pm ET on ABC). It’s a battle of rookie coaches out of the college ranks brought in to take their teams to the next level. Billy Donovan came into Oklahoma City and tried to ease that transition, still running some Scott Brooks sets and gently guiding the team away from isolation ball (last season 14 percent of Thunder possessions ended with isolations, this season it is 8.4 percent). It has worked, the Thunder are finding their identity. On the other hand, Fred Holberg came into Chicago and tried to install an entirely new package and found pushback from players who asked to slow it down and use some Thibodeau sets. The Bulls haven’t found their identity yet on offense.
The Bulls are winning thanks to a Top 5 defense, but they are without Joakim Noah for this game. Can they slow down the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook machine? The Bulls play better on bigger stages, but this is a tall order.
3) Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors (5 pm ET on ABC). This is the game everyone wants to see — a Finals rematch and very possibly a Finals preview. This is the marquee game with the league’s two biggest stars — LeBron James and Stephen Curry — going head-to-head in a much-anticipated matchup. The Cavaliers will have Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love this time around, unlike the NBA Finals.
The thing to watch: Can the Cavaliers hang with the Golden State small-ball lineup? It was small ball that beat Cleveland in the Finals last June, and good small-ball lineups have given them trouble this season. Now that they are healthy the Cavaliers can try lineups — such as Irving, Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, LeBron, and Love; or sub Tristan Thompson in for Smith to go a little bigger — and see how that matches up with the Warriors. It may not decide this game, but how those lineups fare against each other is something the coaches will file away looking ahead to the Finals.
4) San Antonio Spurs at Houston Rockets (8 pm ET on ESPN). The San Antonio Spurs have been the best team in the NBA in the month of December — they have the top ranked offense and the top ranked defense for the month, and they are outscoring teams by 22 points per 100 possessions. After a slow start, the Houston Rockets have fought their way up to .500 and have looked better of late, although that has come against a very soft schedule, something that is changing over the next couple weeks.
The matchup to watch? Kawhi Leonard guarding James Harden. The league’s best perimeter defender against the guy the players voted the MVP last season. The Spurs will win the game, and if Leonard smothers Harden it could be by a lot.
5) L.A. Clippers at L.A. Lakers (10:30 pm ET on ESPN). There are only three reasons to watch this game.
A) You can’t take your eyes off the new 60-inch Ultra HD 4K TV Santa brought you.
B) You love watching Chris Paul throw lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan (and Griffin throwing to Jordan, which is becoming commonplace).
C) You believe in Christmas Kobe Bryant, and he is going to fly in with an entertaining game for the ages that makes this more interesting than it otherwise should be.