Wednesday, December 25, 2013

NBA Christmas Day Viewing Guide

Look away from the Christmas Tree for a second and plop down on the sofa for some Holiday Hoops. (flickr)
By Jeremy Conlin (@jeremy_conlin)

As per usual, the NBA is gearing up for a slate of five games on this lovely Christmas day. Each game has a few different things to watch for, so use this as your guide to navigating the labyrinth of basketball viewing with family-obligation roadblocks.

Chicago at Brooklyn (12:00 p.m. - ESPN)

My best advice for anyone in a home where this game is likely to be playing on the television is to run and hide. Even when Derrick Rose and Brook Lopez WERE playing, both of these teams were about as entertaining as watching the TV Guide channel in supermarket checkout lines. Without the two stars, the game quickly devolves into an ugly mess.

The good news is that if you're attending a large family gathering, this game will be on during the time that you'll likely either (a) be traveling, (b) have your first wave of guests arrive, (c) be expected to help in preparations, (d) be catching up with family members who you haven't seen in the last year, (e) opening bottles of whiskey, and/or (f) hastily wrapping presents at the last minute. So you'll probably miss some or most of the game.

For those of you can't (or won't) run and hide or busy yourself with other things, here's the key to the game:

Chicago cannot score. Cannot. They're 28th in offensive efficiency and could be missing Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler, and Kirk Hinrich for the game. Meanwhile, Brooklyn cannot play defense. Cannot. They're 29th in defensive efficiency and that's mostly with Brook Lopez, who was having a great season deterring shot attempts at the rim. It will be a battle between an eminently stoppable force and an easily moveable object. Chicago will "win" on their defensive end, but their offensive end is where the real magic happens. And by "magic," I mean "dumpster fire."

Oklahoma City at New York (2:30 p.m. - ABC)

Your guests have probably arrived (or, you've probably arrived at your destination). Dinner will probably be served shortly, which is a Godsend, because this game is almost as ugly as the first one. Oklahoma City is very quietly the league's best team (or damn close), and the Knicks haven't really resembled a professional basketball team at any point this season.

On top of that, Carmelo Anthony left Monday's game against Orlando with an apparent ankle injury and is reportedly a game-time decision. New York is a bad team with Carmelo in the lineup. Without him they really have no hope of staying competitive with the Thunder (frankly, they have no hope staying competitive with the Thunder unless they trade for LeBron before tip-off).

The Knicks' problems with defending high screen-and-rolls is well documented. Luckily for them, Oklahoma City doesn't have an offense predicated on spread pick-and-rolls at the top of the key. Unluckily for them, they still have no idea how to assemble a defense capable of getting stops against bad offensive teams, so expecting them to do so against a top offense, well, it's just not happening.

Miami at LA Lakers (5:00 p.m. - ABC)

Dinner is probably over at this point, but if you're lucky, you'll be knee-deep in your family's gift exchange, perhaps even a time-consuming tradition like a Yankee Swap (or a White Elephant Gift Exchange for you weirdos). The Lakers have been able to stay competitive, thanks in large part to Mike D'Antoni, who has a borderline wizard-like ability to maximize the productiveness of fringe players so long as they can run the floor and make open shots, but it won't be enough to keep pace with Miami.

Miami is still in that phase of the season where they play an incredibly vanilla style (by their standards, not compared to, say, Cleveland) - they aren't going to pull a single thing out of their bag of tricks until they absolutely have to. They're somewhat Spurs-ian in that they simply play their game knowing that their system (or, in Miami's case, their elite talent) will carry them for extended stretches.

LeBron has now played in six consecutive Christmas Day games (Wednesday will be his seventh). Here are his lines from those games:

2012 (with Miami): 29 points, 9 assists, 8 rebounds, 12-20 FG, beat Oklahoma City by six
2011 (with Miami): 37 points, 6 assists, 10 rebounds, 11-19 FG, beat Dallas by 11
2010 (with Miami): 27 points, 10 assists, 11 rebounds, 8-14 FG, beat LA Lakers by 16
2009 (with Cleveland): 26 points, 9 assists, 4 rebounds, 9-19 FG, beat LA Lakers by 15
2008 (with Cleveland): 18 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 6-13 FG, beat Washington by four
2007 (with Cleveland): 25 points, 12 assists, 6 rebounds, 9-19 FG, beat Miami by 14

In other words - LeBron comes to play on Christmas.

Houston at San Antonio (8:00 p.m. - ESPN)

Finally, some real action! The day is winding down, you've probably eaten way too much, you're probably all tuckered out from all the excitement of gift-giving, but drink some coffee and power through it, because this is where the real fun starts.

These two teams met the Saturday after Thanksgiving and played one of the better games this NBA season - Houston went into San Antonio and beat the Spurs 112-106 in a game that was played so fast that it could have been simulcast on the Speed Network if the Speed Network still existed (104 possessions in 48 minutes!!!). Houston was able to win thanks to shooting 13-for-30 from deep and strong work on the offensive glass, rebounding 29.3 percent of their own misses (San Antonio rebounded just 8.7 percent of their own).

The Duncan-Howard matchup is always a fun one, as is the Ginobili-Harden mirror match. The thing to watch in this game is how aggressively the Spurs defend Harden in the pick-and-roll game. Harden's three-point accuracy has taken a big step back, and he seems to be more and more willing to settle for pull-up threes when the defending big sags back into the paint instead of attacking the space in front of him. If the Spurs can bait Harden into a bunch of off-the-dribble threes as opposed to hedging aggressively and possibly opening themselves up to ball reversals or Harden rejecting the screen for a crease to the basket, the Spurs could even the season series.

LA Clippers at Golden State (10:30 p.m. - ESPN)

It's late night, which means it's the perfect time for some egg nog with a little brandy or rye, sitting back on the couch, and enjoying some West Coast hoops.

The Clippers and Warriors have met once already this season, on the third night of the season, and as fun as the Rockets-Spurs matchup was, this one was even better - the two teams but on offensive clinics, with the Clippers prevailing 126-115. In regulation. The pace was almost as high as that Rockets-Spurs game (103 possessions), but the efficiency and execution was far superior at Staples Center on Halloween.

Stephen Curry scored 38 points, dished out nine assists, and made nine of his 14 attempts from beyond the arc. Not to be outdone, Chris Paul went Point God and slapped up a 42-15 on 12-20 shooting and 16-17 from the free throw line.

The pendulum may have swung away from the Clippers since then, as J.J. Redick's absence has left the Clippers struggling at the wing spots at times, and Andre Iguodala's return to the lineup for Golden State has done wonders for them on the defensive end.

When these two teams meet, they both seem to want to run the other team out of the gym, but right now, it appears that Golden State is the team better equipped to do it. Draymond Green has seen an uptick in playing time in recent weeks, giving the Dubs another wing option to throw into the mix to keep everyone fresh. When Iguodala is healthy, the Warriors really only play eight guys - Curry, their four wings (Thompson, Barnes, Iguodala, Green), and three bigs (Lee, Bogut, O'Neal/Speights). When they're healthy, they don't have fringe players like Toney Douglas and Kent Bazemore cluttering the back end of their rotation the way the Clippers do with Ryan Hollins and Willie Green. The more minutes those guys play, the bigger of an advantage it is for Golden State.

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