Five things to watch as NBA takes over Christmas Day
While you spend your Christmas morning/afternoon trying to hook your father’s new tablet up with wifi and show him how to download golf apps — be prepared for a frustrating experience, I warn you now — there will be NBA games on in the background.
Christmas Day has become the unofficial second opening day of the NBA season, when casual fans often watch their first NBA games of the season, so the league loads up with marquee match ups (or what they think will be marquee matchups, nobody expected the Knicks to be this unwatchable).
There are a lot of things to watch on Christmas Day — like if you get to watch Kevin Durant at all, as he is trying to return from a sprained ankle — but here are PBT’s Top 5.
1) LeBron James’ welcome in Miami. LeBron James is returning home… well his old stomping grounds anyway. The other city he deserted. And make no mistake, Heat fans feel like he betrayed them and left them as well. Remember all the national venom and negative press that came LeBron’s way after his poorly handled decision to go to Miami — “The Decision” followed by the “not one, not two, not three” pep rally? Heat fans were the people in his corner through all of that. They had his back, they cheered him wildly and welcomed him to the South Beach community. They celebrated four straight trips to the Finals and two titles with him.
Then he bolted them, too. So how will Heat fans react? There will be a video tribute to LeBron in Miami and while there may be some boos I don’t expect a lot of anger. The fact of the matter is Miami has more laid back lifestyle — they have the sun, the beach, the nightlife, the beautiful people and spicy foods and that is the city’s identity. It is not wrapped up in its sports teams like other cities. But know that they were hurt.
2) How well will a rested Kobe Bryant play? Kobe Bryant was exhausted. You could tell when he shot 11-of-45 (24.4 percent) over his last two games and 33-of-113 (29.2 percent) in his last five games. Or you could just ask him. After the last two games he was up front in admitting he was fatigued. There was no reading between the lines. So Byron Scott rested him Tuesday vs. the Warriors — and the Lakers won. The Lakers are 22 points per 100 possessions better when Kobe sits this season. The reason isn’t Kobe’s play so much as the style of play he forces the team into — he dominates the ball, defenses load up, other players stand around and watch Kobe, and the Lakers become easy to defend. (The Lakers have been at their best when Kobe was doubled, because he passed out and other guys, who need open looks to hit shots, were getting open looks.)
Will a more rested Kobe have his legs and his jumper back? Will the Lakers have off-the-ball movement? Will it matter when Jimmy Butler is virtually inside Kobe’s jersey defending him. About the only thing you can be sure of from this game is Pau Gasol will show Lakers fans he had plenty left, if he was just healthy and used properly in the offense.
3) Russell Westbrook vs. Tony Parker. On a day of great potential one-on-one matchups, there may be none better than this point guard showdown — one we got to see in the Western Conference Finals last season. The matchup will be especially important if Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard don’t play (Durant is possible, he has missed the last three games but is not far from a return; however Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said Leonard, the Finals MVP, is not really close to coming back). San Antonio has survived a rash of injuries (including to Parker) and Popovich taking the concept of rest to a new level and still have an 18-11 record with the fifth best defense in the league. The Thunder are just now starting to get on track after injuries to Westbrook and Durant to start the season and while they are the 10 seed currently at 13-16 (2.5 games back of the eight-seed Suns) nobody doubts they will make the playoffs and be a legit contender once there.
Remember, once Serge Ibaka got healthy last playoffs the Thunder essentially played the Spurs even or maybe were a little better, they just couldn’t get out of the hole. The key to this game is which of the point guards dominates puts more pressure on the opposing defense, which one bends the other team’s defense out of shape and exploits it. Westbrook does that with pure athleticism and aggressive play — and he has played angry all season and is averaging 27.4 points, 7.2 assists and 5.5 rebounds a game. Parker does it with deceptive quickness and great guile, plus a team around him that is on his same page. This is going to be fun to watch.
4) Warriors and Clippers get nasty. This is the best rivalry in the NBA right now — these two teams just flat out do not like each other. It’s palpable. You could see it in last year’s Christmas Day showdown between these teams — there were multiple technical fouls and a flagrant on Blake Griffin at one point. That carried over to the seven-game playoff series between these teams. The Warriors have looked a little more vulnerable lately with Andrew Bogut out with an injured knee (and he will miss this Christmas showdown), but they still have the best record in the NBA (23-4), the best defense in the NBA, the best point differential in the NBA, and the best backcourt in the NBA with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. They have a coach in Steve Kerr putting his guys in better positions to play to their strengths. There is nothing not to like about this team, save for Bogut’s knees. The Clippers have that high-powered offense still led by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but the Clippers defense has been middle of the pack this season. Average. Actually, a little below average, they are currently 19th in the NBA at 104.4 points allowed per 100 possessions. That could be trouble against the Warriors offense. But if it gets physical and chippy, that plays to the Clippers strengths more.
5) John Wall. He’s the best player you have not watched enough of lately. Wall has blossomed into a legitimate Top 5 point guard in the NBA. He is taking fewer shots because he’s become wiser about his shot selection, and with that his assists have gone up — he is now averaging 17.8 points and 10.4 assists a game. He still puts a lot of pressure on opposing teams because he’s so fast with the ball in transition, but he’s become better at distributing on the break and not just putting his head down and driving to the rim. He’s one of the best defensive point guards in the league. All of that should overwhelm the Knicks. The Wizards are loaded with three-point shooters — Bradley Beal tops the list — and the Knicks defenders apparently don’t believe in rotations, so if Wall kicks the ball out on his drives there should be plenty of big assists. Enjoy watching Wall play on Christmas Day, you just want to make sure to do it in the first three quarters because he may not need to play the fourth against New York.