Merry Christmas, NBA fans!
This week, our panel of NBA reporters: Melissa Rohlin, Rich Bucher i The Weitzman boy — takes a look at the five Christmas Day matchups and what he thinks ahead of a tasty holiday mix.
1. Which Christmas game are you most looking forward to and why?
Weitzman: This is pretty easy for me. It’s Bucks-Celtics, the first matchup of the season between what I think most would agree are the two best teams in the NBA. Apart from being a good measuring stick for both teams, this match will also have some stakes. If you believe the Celtics and Bucks are destined to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals, their head-to-head record could very well end up determining whether that game takes place in Milwaukee or Boston.
Rohlin: Bucks-Celtics is the most interesting, basketball-wise. But I’m also looking forward to Warriors-Grizzlies because of all the garbage that went down between the teams last season. Let’s not forget that after the Warriors won the championship, Klay Thompson, completely unprovoked, talked about how “pissed off” he was when Jaren Jackson Jr. tweeted “Strength in numbers” after the Grizzlies beat the Warriors in a regular season game, mocking his catchphrase. Thompson went on to call Jackson a “sick bum” as well as a “sick clown,” adding, “You gonna make fun of us? You’ve never been here before, bruh.” So yeah, their first matchup of the season should be fun.
Bucher: Both good options. It’s hard not to go with Bucks-Celtics at No. 1 for all the reasons Yaron gave, but I’ll go with third, as odd as it sounds: Lakers-Mavs. These are two teams that aren’t supposed to be where they are in the standings with extremely proud, high-profile stars in Luka and LeBron. That opens a five-game road trip for the Lakers and a three-game homestand for the Mavs. There is an air of desperation around both teams. I don’t know how much a win would mean to either team, but it would say a lot about who the Mavs really are if they can’t beat an AD-less Lakers team at home under the national spotlight. The Lakers, meanwhile, have to find a way to stop their spiral since AD went down with a foot stress injury.
2. What element of the Bucks-Celtics matchup will you be watching the most?
Weitzman: The Bucks defense last year was built around the idea that it was okay to give up corner 3s as a trade-off for protecting the paint. They tried that strategy in the playoffs against the Celtics and were burned by Grant Williams, so they’ve tweaked things this year: Only eight teams allow opponents to take a higher percentage of their shots from deep, he said. Glass cleaning. Last year they were penultimate in the category. The Celtics, meanwhile, make almost half of their shots from behind the 3-point line. I’m fascinated to see how this works out on the court.
Rohlin: I’m excited to see the intensity of this match. This will be their first meeting since the second round of last season’s playoffs, which turned into a seven-game slugfest. Both Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo are top MVP candidates this season and these types of games have implications for this race. Who will emerge as the top dog during the Christmas window display?
Bucher: Two elements that may end up being one: How Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer uses Giannis and which Tatum shows up. Bud has been a little more willing to give Giannis legitimate defensive assignments this season, thankfully, instead of putting him in lesser offensive threats to save his energy for the offensive end. We won’t see Giannis on Tatum for the entire game, but I’d love to see him at key moments in the game. The need or interest in that, though, is all up to Tatum. I’m still shocked by what I saw when the Celtics had their first meeting against the Warriors this season: a hesitant and, dare I say, even scared Tatum. It wasn’t the first time he seemed to see ghosts against a superior opponent, either. He laid an egg against the Miami Heat a few games earlier and followed up the performance against the Warriors with another egg laid against the Clippers. If Tatum wants to shed the image that he can’t be counted on in big games, this would be a good place to start.
3. Is there a preview of this season’s Western Conference Finals game on Christmas Day? Why or why not?
Weitzman: I’m guessing Nuggets-Suns or, even more likely, Grizzlies-Warriors I could will be previews of the Western Conference Finals, but I’m not buying the Suns and the Warriors will have some serious ground to make up for whenever Steph Curry gets back on the court. No, in my opinion, the Grizzlies and Nuggets are the two teams to beat in the West. I think the Grizzlies are the clear favorites (they’ll only get better when Desmond Bane gets back on the court) and I love how the Nuggets are racking up wins despite some defensive struggles and Jamal Murray still recovering from injury and a year away.
Rohlin: The Western Conference is so tight right now that only one game separates the top four teams and only four games separate the top-seeded Nuggets and the 10th-seeded Minnesota Timberwolves. So really, the conference is wide open. I could see the Nuggets and Suns battling it out in the West Finals, as well as the Grizzlies and Mavericks. The big question mark here for me is the Warriors, who are ranked 11th in the West. It’s hard to see them making it to the championship round considering how they’ve struggled this season. But it also seems unwise to discount a team that knows how to win as much as Golden State. It will be fascinating to see how they play this season, especially knowing the implications another title, or disappointing season, could have on the dynasty roster.
Bucher: How can it be when the Clippers don’t play? I wouldn’t want to predict who will be in the conference finals and I guess it could end up being Nuggets-Suns, but man, how attractive is that? The Suns have somehow become a nasty team, the feud between DeAndre Ayton and Monty Williams doesn’t seem like it’s going away anytime soon, and as much talk of the Lakers’ bubble success as an outlier, the Nuggets they haven’t it resembled the team that took Orlando by storm. I know, I know, injuries have played a big part in this, but Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are back, added Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bones Hyland continues to improve and the Joker continues to be an offensive master, but the conference-leading record is the result of the feast of losing teams (12-3) and despite having the defense 25th. This may be the year of the Nuggets, but at this point, I’ll still go with the Clippers as one of the two teams contending for the conference title. Despite Kawhi Leonard’s limited availability, they are far and away the best defensive team in the Western Conference, and at full strength, they have all the offense they need.
4. So far this season, which team, player or storyline has been the most intriguing?
Weitzman: Nikola Jokic making a case for a third straight MVP and Zion Williamson validating all the pre-draft hype are two good answers, but I’m looking at Dallas, where Luka Doncic is putting up MVP numbers (32.5 points, 8.6 assists, 8 .3 rebounds, 49.4 FG%), but it doesn’t matter because his supporting cast is so weak. You can also see Doncic getting frustrated. Something will have to give here. Either Doncic asking for more help, or for a different type of trade. But it’s definitely a situation worth keeping an eye on.
Rohlin: For me, it’s the Nets. They went from being a complete disaster (Kevin Durant wanted a trade, Kyrie Irving at the center of trade talks, Steve Nash was fired, Irving was embroiled in drama over his tweet directing people to an anti-Semitic movie, etc.). Until now, when they are the hottest team in the league with a seven-game winning streak. This team has had more drama and ups and downs in recent months than many teams over the years. This always makes for an interesting watch.
Bucher: What I love is that there isn’t just one, but I’m going for the Utah Jazz to be a playoff team with a winning record right now after trading away their two All-Stars, Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert. They were supposed to be trying to get the No. 1 pick and Victor Wembanyana, and maybe they still will, but for now, new team president Danny Ainge is keeping us all guessing as to what his end game really is this season. They are not alone either. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers are two other young, exciting and fun teams that were expected to be deep and both have been highly competitive. Right now, there won’t be a team that gets 60 wins and there won’t be one with less than 20. That’s a lot of parity, a lot more than we expected.
5. The knicks have won eight of their last 10 games and will face Philadelphia Sunday. Are the Knicks back?
Weitzman: It depends on how you define “back”. Can they make the playoffs? Absolutely. The team is deep, Jalen Brunson is excellent and their defense is excellent, especially now that Evan Fournier, Cam Reddish and Derrick Rose have been benched in favor of Quentin Grimes and Deuce McBride. Combine that with struggles in Miami, Toronto and Atlanta, and you have some opportunities in the East. But can the Knicks beat the Celtics, Bucks, Cavaliers, Sixers or Nets in a playoff series? No.
Rohlin: I agree with Yaron here. The Knicks have re-emerged as an interesting and fun team. But can they really compete against the big hitters in the Eastern Conference? I do not think so. That said, Brunson is having quite the season, averaging career-highs in points (20.4) and assists (6.3), and if he continues to improve at this rate, the Knicks could definitely be a team to watch going forward.
Bucher: Become a candidate for the title again? Good God, no. That’s more than 20 years in the rearview mirror. Back from total irrelevance? For sure. It’s nice to have them competitive, but like I just said in the previous question, who isn’t competitive on any given night? The hallmark of Tom Thibodeau’s teams is that they get wins in the regular season to earn a flashy playoff seed and then rebound well before a team with such a flashy playoff seed would normally get the button. Don’t ask me to trust that this Knicks-Thibs team will be any different.
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.
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.
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.
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