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Three takeaways from Christmas: Boston makes statement in East, West wide open

Three Things To Know — modified today for the Christmas holiday games — is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Boston shows it is team to beat in East

All season long, the sentiment in these parts has been Boston and Milwaukee are the two best teams — not only in the East but also in the NBA.

Then — in the most anticipated game on Christmas Day — the Celtics steamrolled the Bucks. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined to score 70 and a Celtics team that had looked a little bored the past couple of weeks came in focused and dominated.

If Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo are the two mid-season frontrunners for the MVP award, Tatum made his case on Sunday. The Celtics’ star scored 20 of his 41 points in a third quarter that changed the game.

Bucks fans will rightfully point out that Khris Middleton missed this game (right knee soreness) and he changes the dynamic. Also, both of these teams will evolve and look different come May — when they likely would meet in a playoff series — than they do on Christmas.

However, right now, the Celtics look like the clear frontrunners in the East…

Although maybe it’s time to count the 76ers in that contenders mix. Even without Tyrese Maxey, Philadelphia went into Madison Square Garden and beat the red-hot Knicks in the early game on Christmas, 119-112. Joel Embiid had 35 points, while James Harden posted 29 points, 13 assists and four steals.

Philly has won eight in a row and maybe they can make it a big three in the East by the time we get to the playoffs. They made their Christmas Day statement.

2) The West is wide open, Curry-less Warriors handle Grizzlies

Is there any team in the West you would bet to come out of the conference and make the Finals over the field?

I wouldn’t. In recent weeks, the Grizzlies had looked like the best team in the West. The Warriors have looked like contenders only in flashes and just came off a 1-5 road (they had lost 7-of-9 overall), and Golden State was Stephen Curry and Andrew Wiggins.

Jordan Poole scored 32 and the Warriors created a little space at the end of the first half and never looked back, talking a lot of trash (that went both ways) on their way to a 123-109 win.

I’m still of the mind Memphis is a contender, but they will have to prove it in the biggest moments and on the biggest stages now, and that starts with Ja Morant (who did have 36 in this game). It also would help if Jaren Jackson Jr. could stay out of foul trouble and on the court. Meanwhile, we keep giving the Warriors the benefit of the doubt both because they have games like this and because we saw what they did last June when focused (and with this same core). However, with this Christmas Day victory Golden State is 16-18 and it is creating a much harder path to a Finals return than it may be able to handle with all these first half of the season losses.

The West is wide open. Don’t forget about the Pelicans. Luka Doncic makes the Mavericks dangerous and we saw in the third quarter of their win over the Lakers on Christmas what happens when other Mavericks hit shots too. The Clippers are a sleeping giant just hanging around, but does anyone want to bet they can get Kawhi Leonard and Paul George right long enough to make this work?

Or maybe the team to beat in the West is the team that closed Christmas Day with a dramatic win….

3) Aaron Gordon’s dunk of the year candidate punctuates Nuggets’ OT win

The NBA saved the best for last — the Nuggets and Suns put on the day’s most entertaining game. Forget that. I’d say the most entertaining game of the season. And the biggest highlight was Aaron Gordon throwing down the hammer on the Suns’ Landry Shamet in overtime.

(Gordon was initially called for an offensive foul on the dunk, but when the officials went to the replay to determine if Shamet was in the restricted area it threw the entire play into review and they determined this was an and-1 situation where Shamet leaned into him).

Gordon had seven dunks on the night and finished with 28 points, but the star of the show was the two-time MVP Nikola Jokic who had a 41-point triple-double.

We’re not taking much big picture away from this game — the Suns were essentially without Devin Booker, who tried to go but left the game four minutes in due to a groin injury (he had missed the previous three games). Without Booker, Shamet stepped up with 31 and Phoenix showed real grit, but the Nuggets came away with the 128-125 win and are now in sole possession of first place in the West.