The holidays are here and five must-see matchups dropped on the NBA slate.
Check out what happened on Christmas Day as Yaron Weitzman, Ric Bucher and Melissa Rohlin share their top takeaways from each primetime contest.
Philadelphia 76ers 119, New York Knicks 112
Current situation: The Sixers are now 20-12 and currently riding an eight-game winning streak. The Knicks now fall to 18-16, and have lost three in a row.
Key Statistics: Joel Embiid continued to assert himself as the best player in the game. He is the league leader in goals and had 35 in Sunday’s win.
Main takeaways: The story of this game, before and during, was James Harden. An hour before tipoff, we got the bombshell, courtesy of ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, that Harden is “seriously considering a return to the Houston Rockets in free agency this July.” Later in the game, Harden had 29 points and 13 assists for the Knicks, while helping lead the 76ers to a 119-112 victory at Madison Square Garden. The win was the Sixers’ eighth straight, and showed what the team envisioned when pairing Harden with Embiid. Two dominant players (Embiid had 35 points on 12-of-22 shooting), who, at their best, form an unbeatable combo. The question, of course, would always be whether the stars are interested and willing to work with each other. Games like this show what it looks like when they do. Reports like the one that came out this morning are why it’s understandable if you remain dubious. — The Weitzman boy
Dallas Mavericks 124, Los Angeles Lakers 115
Current situation: Both LA and Dallas have underwhelmed this season. The Lakers are 13-20 and have now lost four in a row. The Mavs are now 18-16 and have won three in a row.
Key Statistics: This season, the Mavs are now 15-6 when Luka Dončić scores 31 or more. But he wasn’t alone today, as Christian Wood scored 30 and Tim Hardaway Jr. he made 26.
Main takeaways: The Mavericks dared LeBron James to beat them; the Lakers did not dare to do the same with Dončić. In the end, Dallas’ chicken play proved much more effective for a 124-115 victory. The Lakers and James, as they often do this season, looked like a formidable opponent early, but faded down the stretch. Concerns about Dončić’s lineup, meanwhile, seemed well-founded for the first 24 minutes. Forcing the ball out of his hands by double-teaming him as soon as he crossed halfcourt worked very well as Hardaway and Spencer Dinwiddie shot a combined 1-for-10 for a total of three points. The Mavs, meanwhile, settled for a selective second defender in James, and he took full advantage, scoring 18 first-half points on 9-of-13 shooting for an 11-point lead by the Mavs. Lakers at halftime.
But everything changed in the third quarter. The Lakers continued to double-team Dončić, but quicker decisions and better ball movement overall resulted in 3s galore. After missing 12 of 17 long-range attempts in the first half, the Mavs buried seven of 11 in the third quarter and limited the Lakers to 1-of-6 from the same range, all leading to a 31-point swing points Dallas takes a 20-point lead into the fourth quarter. James added 20 points in the second half for a game-high 38, but half of those came from the free throw line in the final period after the outcome had been decided. Dončić, after expending minimal energy in the first half, burst into life: 22 points, seven assists (no turnovers) and six rebounds to finish one board and one dime short of a triple-double. — Rich Bucher
Boston Celtics 139, Milwaukee Bucks 118
Current situation: With the victory, Boston stayed in the East at 24-10. Milwaukee is now 22-11 as it awaits the return of Khris Middleton once again.
Key Statistics: Jayson Tatum came out in Boston in his biggest game of the season so far, scoring 41 points on 14-of-22 shooting, seven rebounds and five assists. The Celtics are 15-3 this season when Tatum scores 30 or more, 5-1 when he shoots 40 or more and 12-2 when he shoots 50 percent or better from the field.
Main takeaways: When Tatum plays like the best player in the NBA, the Boston Celtics play like the best team in the league. That was shown once again in a battle between the league’s top two teams in the prime-time Christmas Day game, the Celtics pulling away from the Bucks for a 139-118 win behind Tatum’s 41 points.
Competitively, the game was closer than the final score might suggest, but the Celtics were in control for most of the night. The Bucks entered the game as the third-best defense in the league, with Brook Lopez a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and perennial All-Defensive Team selections Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo. But Tatum looked completely unfazed and had his scoring at all levels (interior, mid, long range) working.
For whatever reason, when Tatum plays with confidence, it rubs off on the rest of the Boston team. Point guard Marcus Smart was at his best, scoring just six points but dishing out eight assists with just one turnover. Jaylen Brown struggled at the free throw line (2-for-6) but was clinically efficient throughout (11-19 overall, 5-9 on 3s) for 29 points. Tatum knocked down three of his seven 3s (42.9 percent) and that inspired solid shooting from the entire squad (collectively 19-of-39, nearly 50 percent). The Celtics outrebounded the Bucks from beyond the arc, 57-39.
It also helped that the Celtics were as close to full strength as they’ve been all season, with center Robert Williams coming off the bench for his fourth start of the season, and the Bucks weren’t, with All-Star point guard Khris Middleton out. for a fifth consecutive game. Williams only improved one of the Celtics’ advantages over the Bucks: depth. Boston’s bench outscored Milwaukee 40-29.
Antetokounmpo has shown, at times, that he can erase that and every other advantage an opponent might have, but this was not one of those times. His plus-minus of -27 was by far the worst on the team, and he needed 22 shots to score 27 points. In a battle between two of this season’s top MVP candidates, edge: Tatum.
Golden State Warriors 123, Memphis Grizzlies 109
Current situation: Memphis and Golden State are headed in two different directions, but GS got a much-needed win on Sunday. The Grizz are near the top of the West at 20-13, and have won eight of their last 11. The Warriors are 16-18, and have lost seven of their last 10.
Key Statistics: Since Steph Curry went down with a shoulder injury, the Warriors are 2-3. And while they had a 16-point win at Toronto on Dec. 18 and a 14-point win Sunday, their three losses since Curry’s injury have been by an average of 26.7 points.
Main takeaways: I’ve been saying for a while that you can’t count out the Warriors even though they’ve struggled a lot this season. On Christmas Eve, they showed why this is true. Without Steph Curry and Andrew Wiggins, the Warriors, ranked 11th in the Western Conference, beat the second-seeded Grizzlies. For the defending champs, Sunday’s game was personal after their Western Conference semifinal series against the Grizzlies last season, which featured plenty of talk and silliness.
So, without two of their biggest stars, the Warriors won by committee.
Jordan Poole had a game-high 32 points in 29 minutes. Draymond Green put on a masterclass in doing everything but scoring, finishing with 13 rebounds, 13 assists and a brilliant defensive performance (while allowing just three points). And the team also got important contributions from Klay Thompson (24 points), Donte DiVincenzo (19 points), Ty Jerome (14 points), Anthony Lamb (11 points) and Moses Moody (10 points).
The Warriors made 18 3-pointers, twice as many as the Grizzlies. Despite a 36-point, seven-rebound, eight-assist performance from Ja Morant, the Grizzlies couldn’t overcome a complete team effort from the Warriors. It was a great Christmas present for the injured Curry, who was all smiles as he donned a green suit and cheered on his team from the bench. —Melissa Rohlin
Denver Nuggets 128, Phoenix Suns 125 (OT)
Current situation: Denver is in the conversation for the best team in the league, sitting atop the West at 21-11 and having won seven of its last eight. Phoenix, the best team in the West a year ago, is now 19-15 and has won just three of its last 11 games.
Key Statistics: Reigning MVP Nikola Jokić is improving. He’s the only point guard not in the top 10 in assists, and after Sunday, has a league-leading seven triple-doubles on the year.
Main takeaways: The final game was perhaps the most fun. The Nuggets cruised to a 128-125 overtime win over the Suns that included Jokić’s first 40+ point triple-double on Christmas (41 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists) and a monster clutch of Aaron Gordon on Landry. Shamet with 24 seconds left in the extra period that could catapult him to true All-Star consideration.
This nail-biter featured six lead changes and six ties, with both teams leading by double digits at times. What’s impressive for the Suns is that they made this such a competitive game even though Devin Booker only played four minutes after re-injuring his groin. In his absence, Shamet, a reserve, led the Suns with 31 points on 10-of-20 shooting, including seven 3-pointers.
But monster performances from Jokić, Gordon (28 points on 11-of-18 shooting and 13 rebounds) and Jamal Murray (26 points, 14 of which came in the fourth quarter) catapulted the Nuggets past the Suns, giving them the ultimate gift . of all for Christmas: the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference. —Melissa Rohlin
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the top: the Philadelphia 76ers and the boldest process in the history of professional sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
Ric Bucher is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously wrote for Bleacher Report, ESPN The Magazine and The Washington Post and has written two books, “Rebound,” about NBA forward Brian Grant’s battle with young-onset Parkinson’s, and “Yao: A Life In Two Worlds”. He also has a daily podcast, “On The Ball with Ric Bucher.” Follow him on Twitter @Rick Bucher.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.
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