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Five things to watch during NBA Christmas Day slate

PBT's Kurt Helin and Corey Robinson reveal their picks for NBA MVP, Rookie of the Year and more with the 2020-21 season finally set to begin.

It was almost “The Year Without a Santa Claus the NBA on Christmas Day.”

After the bubble ran into October, the players and teams were focused on a January start to this season, if not later. That’s when the NBA’s television partners stepped in like Heat Miser and Snow Miser and changed everything — they wanted games on Christmas Day (and for the season to end before the Olympics started in July). When the owners and players saw how much money would be left on the table with a January start, suddenly they were on board with games on Christmas.

Things may have come together fast, but it’s still a strong slate of games. Here are five things to watch on Christmas Day around the NBA.

1) LeBron James vs. Luka Doncic

The present vs. the future of the NBA.

LeBron James is the present. He is the best basketball player walking the face of the earth today (even at age 35). Giannis Antetokounmpo wants the crown but hasn’t proven himself deep in the playoffs. Kevin Durant had the title but lost it when he tore his Achilles, then watched LeBron rebound and lead the Lakers to a ring while picking up another Finals MVP.

Luka Doncic believes he has next — and LeBron is a big fan. The third-year Mavericks point forward is the favorite to win NBA MVP this season according to NBC Sports betting partner PointsBet (he’s +400), and he has talked about leading the Mavericks deep into the playoffs this season. (They will need a healthy Kristaps Porzingis for that, he is still out to start the season recovering from his latest knee surgery.)

Luka isn’t knocking LeBron off the mountaintop just yet, but it’s showcase moments like this where his legend can grow. The Laker defense will focus on Doncic, but will Los Angeles play with more energy and focus on the defensive end than against the Clippers in the opener.

2) Can Boston slow Kevin Durant and Brooklyn’s offense?

Kevin Durant would like to remind you what the smoothest scorer in the game looks like.

Damn, Brooklyn has looked good. It may be just one blowout win against a questionable Warriors defense, plus a couple of meaningless preseason games, but the Nets are eye-popping when they have the ball.
Durant looks like his vintage self and is shooting over the top of defenders or hitting fadeaways, while Kyrie Irving’s handles are the best in the league, allowing him to get to the rim or step back for a three — Durant and Irving combined for 48 points on 32 shots in the opener. Caris LeVert would start for nearly every other team. New coach Steve Nash got the Nets to buy into ball movement — the ball is flying all over the court, players are moving, and Brooklyn looks like it has the best offense in the NBA.

Boston has had an elite defense since Brad Stevens got to town (the Celtics were fourth last season in defensive rating, once garbage time is removed), and they enter this game with two of the better wing defenders in the league: Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. Behind them, the Celtics have done a good job protecting the rim, but can they do it against an impressive Brooklyn attack?

The difference in this game may be the bench — Brooklyn has an elite one with LeVert and Jarrett Allen, while Boston lost depth during the offseason.

3) Clippers visited by the ghost of Christmas past blown-leads past.

The NBA schedule makers trolled the Clippers with the start of the season. First, they had to watch their cross-town rivals pick up their rings; then they had to face the source of their latest humiliation — blowing a 3-1 lead in the playoffs.

The Clippers looked good in their opener, behind a big night from Paul George, and knocked off the Lakers. Kawhi Leonard looked strong in that game as well, and it was evident how much Serge Ibaka brings as a floor spacer in certain matchups. The Christmas matchup, against Nikola Jokic, was why the Clippers got Ibaka — Montrezl Harrell got played off the floor by Jokic in the playoffs (and Doc Rivers stuck with him too long). Nobody is playing Ibaka off the floor. We will see if Patrick Beverley and Leonard can contain Jamal Murray, who struggled in the opener.

Denver may want to exorcise their own ghosts of blown leads after opening night against Sacramento.

4) Has Stan Van Gundy really got the Pelicans playing defense?

Stan Van Gundy has a well-earned reputation as a good defensive coach — his teams drill the fundamentals and practice it constantly. J.J. Redick half-jokingly said he was dreading it.

In the season opener, the Pelicans held a good Toronto team to under a point per possession. Was that a one-off game, or are the Pelicans really a good defensive team now? Miami will provide a real test — Jimmy Butler will muscle his way to the rim, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson will drain threes, and Bam Adebayo was the best Heat player in their opener.

That is the other thing worth watching in this one: Adebayo vs. Zion Williamson. Two of the best young big men in the game. You can be sure Adebayo will get time guarding Williamson, but if that pulls Bam away from his rim-protecting duties Brandon Ingram or Eric Bledsoe will make them pay. Miami also needs to track Redick, who was 6-of-11 from three in the opener.

5) With Draymond Green out, who guards Giannis Antetokounmpo for Warriors?

At least we get to see Stephen Curry.

There may not be much else to see in this one. Golden State’s two best perimeter defenders are Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, and both are sidelined by injuries, which just means more space for Antetokounmpo to do his thing. In the opener, Jrue Holiday made a few plays that remind everyone how difficult he can be to guard, and Khris Middleton was the guy with the ball in his hands initiating the offense late. It’s difficult to see how the Warriors slow that trio down.

On top of that, the Bucks come in motivated after having lost a heartbreaker in the opener. They need a win.

Curry looked like Curry in the Warriors opener, but everyone around him missed shots (Andrew Wiggins and Kelly Oubre were a combined 7-of-30). More importantly, the current crop of Warriors had no idea how to take advantage of the spacing Curry provides on offense with his gravity (they missed Shaun Livingston style players. As ugly as the Warriors’ offense was that game, the defense was worse.

It could be a long day for the Warriors, unless Wiggins or someone else surprises and has a monster game to help Curry.