Merry Christmas, NBA faithful!
1. Which Christmas Day game are you looking forward to most 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. Aside from being a good measuring stick for both teams, this game will have some stakes, too. If you’re of the belief that the Celtics and Bucks are destined to meet in the Eastern Conference Finals then their head-to-head record could very well end up determining whether that game takes place in Milwaukee or Boston.
Rohlin: Bucks-Celtics is most interesting, basketball-wise. But I’m also looking forward to Warriors–Grizzlies because of all the trash-talk that went down between the squads last season. Let’s not forget that after the Warriors won the championship, Klay Thompson, completely unprovoked, railed on how much it “pissed” him off when Jaren Jackson Jr. tweeted “Strength in numbers” after the Grizzlies beat the Warriors during a regular season game, poking fun at their slogan. Thompson went on to call Jackson a “freakin’ bum,” as well as a “freakin’ clown,” adding, “You gonna mock us? You ain’t never been here before, bruh.” So, yeah, their first matchup of the season should be fun.
Bucher: Both good choices. Hard not to go with Bucks-Celtics at No. 1 for all the reasons Yaron gave, but I’m going to go with a third, odd as it may seem — 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. This opens a five-game road trip for the Lakers and a three-game homestand for the Mavs. There’s an air of desperation around both teams. I don’t know how much a win would do for either team, but it would speak volumes about who the Mavs really are if they can’t beat an AD-less Lakers’ team at home in the national spotlight. The Lakers, meanwhile, need to find a way to stop their spiral since AD went down with a stress injury in his foot.
2. What element of the Bucks-Celtics matchup will you be looking at the closest?
Weitzman: The Bucks’ defense last year was built around the idea that it was okay to give up non-corner-3s as a trade-off for protecting the paint. They tried that strategy in the playoffs against the Celtics and got burnt by Grant Williams, and so this year they’ve tweaked things — only eight teams allow opponents to take a greater percentage of their shots from deep, according to Cleaning the Glass. Last year they were second-to-last in the category. The Celtics, meanwhile, take nearly half their shots from behind the 3-point line. I’m fascinated to see how this plays out on the court.
Rohlin: I’m excited to see the intensity of this game. This will be their first meeting since the second round of the playoffs last season, which turned into a grind-it-out seven-game slugfest. Both Jayson Tatum and Giannis Antetokounmpo are top MVP candidates this season and these kinds of games have implications on that race. Who is going to emerge as the top dog during the vaunted Christmas showcase?
Bucher: Two elements that might wind up being one: How does Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer utilize Giannis and which Tatum shows up. Bud has been a little more willing to give Giannis legitimate defensive assignments this season, thankfully, rather than putting him on lesser offensive threats to save his energy for the offensive end. We’re not going to see Giannis on Tatum all game long, but I’d love to get a few looks at that at pivotal points in the game. The need or interest in that, though, all depends on Tatum. I’m still stunned by what I saw when the Celtics had their first meeting against the Warriors this season: a hesitant, dare-I-say-even scared Tatum. That wasn’t the first time he’s appeared to be seeing ghosts against a top rival, either. He laid an egg against the Miami Heat a few games earlier and followed up the performance against the Warriors with another laid-egg against the Clippers. If Tatum is going to dispel the image that he can’t be counted on in big games, this would be a good place to start.
3. Is a preview of this season’s Western Conference finals matchup taking place on Christmas Day? Why or why not?
Weitzman: I guess Nuggets–Suns or, even more likely, Grizzlies-Warriors could be previews of the Western Conference finals, but I’m not buying the Suns and the Warriors are going to have serious ground to make up whenever Steph Curry returns to 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 be better once Desmond Bane returns to the court — and I love how the Nuggets are just stacking wins despite some struggles on defense and Jamal Murray still working his way back from his injury and a year away.
Rohlin: The Western Conference is so gridlocked right now that only one game separates the top four teams and only four games separate the top-seeded Nuggets and the 10th place Minnesota Timberwolves. So, really, the conference is wide open. I could see the Nuggets and Suns duking it out in the West finals, as well as the Grizzlies and Mavericks. The big question mark here for me is the Warriors, sitting 11th in the West with a record of 15-18. It’s difficult to see them reaching the championship round considering how much they’ve struggled this season. But it also seems unwise to discount a team that knows how to win as much as Golden State does. It will be fascinating to see how this season plays out for them, especially knowing the implications that another title — or a disappointing season — could have on the dynasty’s roster.
Bucher: How could it be when the Clippers aren’t playing? I wouldn’t want to predict who is going to be in the conference finals and I suppose it could wind up being Nuggets-Suns, but sheesh, how much appeal does that really have? The Suns have somehow become an unlikable team, the DeAndre Ayton-Monty Williams discord doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon, and as much talk as there is about the Lakers’ bubble success being an outlier, the Nuggets haven’t looked anything like the team that took Orlando by storm. I know, I know, injuries have played a big part in that, but Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. are back, they added Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Bones Hyland continues to improve, and the Joker continues to be an offensive maestro — but the conference-leading record is a result of feasting on losing teams (12-3) and despite having the 25th-ranked defense. Maybe this is the year for the Nuggets, but at this point, I’m still going to ride with the Clippers being one of the two teams battling for the conference title. In spite of Kawhi Leonard’s limited availability, they are far and away the best defensive team in the Western Conference, and at full strength, have all the offense they need.
4. To this point in the season, what team, player or storyline has been the most intriguing?
Weitzman: Nikola Jokic making a case for winning 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 see Doncic growing frustrated, too. Something’s going to have to give here. Whether it’s Doncic demanding more help, or for a different type of change. But it’s definitely a situation worth monitoring.
Rohlin: For me, it’s the Nets. They went from being an utter disaster (Kevin Durant wanting a trade, Kyrie Irving being at the center of trade talks, Steve Nash getting fired, Irving being embroiled in drama over his tweet directing people to an antisemitic movie, etc.). To now, when they’re the hottest team in the league with a seven-game winning streak. This team has had more drama and ups and downs in the last few months than many teams have over years. That always makes for an interesting watch.
Bucher: What I love is that there isn’t just one, but I’m going to go with the Utah Jazz being 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 gunning to land the No. 1 pick and Victor Wembanyana, and maybe they still will, but for now, new team president Danny Ainge has us all guessing at what their end game this season truly is. They aren’t alone, either. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers are two other young, exciting, fun teams that were expected to be bottom-feeders and both have been highly competitive. As of right now, there won’t be a team that cracks 60 wins and there won’t be one with fewer than 20. That’s a whole lot of parity, far more than what we expected.
Weitzman: It depends 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 the struggles in Miami, Toronto and Atlanta, and you have some openings in the East. But can the Knicks beat either the Celtics, Bucks, Cavaliers, Sixers or Nets in a playoff series? No.
Rohlin: I agree with Yaron here. The Knicks have reemerged as an interesting and fun team. But can they actually compete against the heavy-hitters in the Eastern Conference? I don’t think so. That being said, Brunson is having himself quite a season, averaging career-highs in points (20.4) and assists (6.3), and if he keeps improving at this rate, the Knicks could definitely be a team to monitor going forward.
Bucher: Back to being a title contender? Good God, no. That’s 20-plus years in the rearview mirror. Back from complete irrelevance? Sure. It’s nice to have them competitive, but as I just noted in the previous question, who isn’t competitive on a given night? The hallmark of Tom Thibodeau teams is that they grind out wins in the regular season to earn a gaudy playoff seed and then get bounced far sooner than a team with such a gaudy playoff seed would normally get bounced. Don’t ask me to invest any faith that this Knicks-Thibs team will be any different.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She 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,” on 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 @RicBucher.
Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.
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