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Three Things to Know: The three things we learned Christmas weekend

Golden State Warriors v Phoenix Suns

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - DECEMBER 25: Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors waits to check-in during the second half of NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Footprint Center on December 25, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Warriors defeated the Suns 116-107. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

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Three Things 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 going that make the NBA great.

1) The rest of the NBA is chasing the Warriors

There is a theory (I think it was Tom Haberstroh’s) that the best time to judge the NBA title race was how teams did from Halloween until Christmas. The theory goes that teams had shaken out the early-season cobwebs, they were relatively healthy and engaged, making it the time you can clearly see what teams are. Of course, it’s not perfect — this year the Bucks were never whole in that stretch, for example — but it’s a good measuring stick.

This season, the Warriors were 22-5 in that stretch and had the best net rating in the NBA, +11.1. They looked like the best team in the NBA.

If there were any doubts that the Warriors are sitting in the pole position for the upcoming title chase, they were erased on Christmas Day when Golden State beat Phoenix in the Valley of the Sun, 116-107, behind 33 points from Stephen Curry.

That win came from a Warriors team without key role players Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole —both on the COVID protocols list — plus Klay Thompson doesn’t return until next month. Same with James Wiseman.

What Golden State has in Curry, Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala and others are players who rise up to the big moments. Players who have proven themselves in the playoffs’ cauldron can take the heat.

There are teams that could knock off these Warriors come the postseason: The Suns were 24-3 between Halloween and Christmas and are the second-best team in the NBA; the Utah Jazz had the second-best net rating in the league during that stretch and are a force but need to prove they can play in the big moments; the Nets were 19-6 over those six weeks despite injuries keeping core guys out, but now Kyrie Irving will return for road games; the Bucks are rounding into form despite a rash of injuries and are the defending champs; Miami has looked dangerous when healthy (and keep winning despite core guys missing time).

A lot can happen between now and June, but the Warriors on Christmas showed they are the team to beat.

2) LeBron James isn’t enough to lift up these Lakers

LeBron James has scored at least 30 points in each of his last four games, playing at an All-NBA level and attacking downhill like a man of 27, not almost 37.

The Lakers lost all four of those games.

Including to a very shorthanded Nets team on Christmas. LeBron passed Kobe that day for most points scored on Christmas in NBA history, but Brooklyn got a triple-double from its star James Harden, and its role players such as Patty Mills stepped up in a way the non-LeBron Lakers players did not. Both teams were shorthanded, only one team looked like it.

Watch LeBron and you can see the frustration in his body language (it was very evident in the second half against the Suns last Tuesday) — the glares at teammates after missed defensive assignments, the dropped shoulders in resignation.

The Lakers have lost five in a row and in that stretch the defense has been bad — 24th in the league — but the offense has been worse, scoring less than a point per possession and being the worst in the league. Anthony Davis is out with a sprained knee, which is part of the problem — without him this team has collapsed like a Jenga tower.

In the last five games, LeBron is shooting 55.8%, Russell Westbrook is 45.3% (but is inconsistent night-to-night), Carmelo Anthony 36.2%, Talen Horton-Tucker 29.7% (in three games), Wayne Ellington 31.3%, and the list goes on and on. The Lakers brought in Isaiah Thomas on a 10-day hardship contract, and he scored 19 in his first game, but through four games shot 30.8% and the L.A. defense was five points per 100 possessions worse when he was on the court, so the Lakers chose not to bring him back for a second 10 days.

There are no easy fixes on the trade market. Despite the dreams of some Laker fans, Westbrook isn’t tradable, except in a salary dump (no other GM is making the deal Rob Pelinka did to get him this summer). The Lakers have a lot of veteran minimum players who don’t have the salary to bring back much help. The one hope might be combining the salaries of Horton-Tucker and Kendrick Nunn to bring back a starter-level player from somewhere (Myles Turner, the Pacers’ center is one rumor), but is one starter-level player enough for these Lakers?

The Lakers are struggling, but it is not on LeBron the player (LeBron the GM… maybe, how much did he push for Westbrook?).

Los Angeles is 16-18 and will play another month or more without Davis. The question is, at that point can the season be salvaged, or are the Lakers just a play-in team? Again?

3) COVID isn’t done sucking the fun out of the league

There are no style points in the NBA right now. In a decimated league, any win is a good win.

The Omicron variant may not be as severe or dangerous (at least to the vaccinated and boosted), but it hit the NBA hard on Christmas — just as it did the nation — and will continue to do the same for weeks.

Omicron has sucked some of the fun out of the league.

On Christmas, there was no Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Luka Doncic, and Trae Young, which doesn’t even get into the role players and depth issues. Joe Johnson and Lance Stephenson are back in the league because teams need bodies.

The day after Christmas, the NBA increased its testing of players (and inforced more of a mask mandate), and news came down Draymond Green, Lonzo Ball, John Collins, Kyle Lowry, Dejounte Murray, Jusuf Nurkic, Jae Crowder, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, Elfrid Payton, and Rajon Rondo all entered protocols, and that’s just a partial list from the day.

The carousel of roster players being put in protocols and G-League players jumping up for 10-day deals will continue, at least for a couple of weeks. It’s dizzying and hard to keep up, but in a world where we all will have to learn to live with COVID and the question is what that ultimately looks like, the NBA powering through feels like the right move.

Highlight of the Night: De’Aaron Fox returns from protocols and throws it down

De’Aaron Fox returned from COVID protocols, and he didn’t lose his hops or showmanship — this was a monster dunk.

Fox may be available in a trade heading into the deadline, the Kings are reportedly open to the idea (something they were not last offseason, even when talking Ben Simmons… although I might still rather have Fox than Simmons).

Last night’s scores:

Miami 93, Orlando 83
Cleveland 144, Toronto 99
Philadelphia 117, Washington 96
Memphis 127, Sacramento 102
Oklahoma City 117, New Orleans 112
San Antonio 144, Detroit 109
Chicago 113, Indiana 105
Denver 103, LA Clippers 100