Every year, NBA Christmas Day is one of the most exciting regular season days in sports. It features five matchups of basketball’s best (except the Toronto Raptors, who deserve better) and more than 12 hours of games, starting at noon on the East Coast.
This holiday season, let’s take a look at one player, lineup, trend or anything else to watch in each 2018 NBA Christmas Day game.
Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks (12 p.m. EST) – The emergence of Kevin Knox
It’s always great to pick an arbitrary cutoff line and see how a player’s stats have improved, right? But in all seriousness, Kevin Knox has shown clear signs of development during the month of December, in which his stats have spiked across the board.
In his first 16 NBA contests, the rookie Knox averaged just 7.5 points and shot a putrid 32.5 percent from the field, including a similar percentage from beyond the arc. Since December 1, Knox has taken nearly double as many shots per game as he did in his first month and a half in the league. He’s averaging 17 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game in December – all significant improvements from his rocky start.
The last time these two teams met, Knox flashed some change-of-pace skills on the drive, in addition to making five 3-pointers:
Keep an eye on Knox on Christmas Day, especially since he may be asked to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo and/or Khris Middleton at times.
Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets (3 p.m. EST) – OKC’s offense vs. Houston’s defense
As of the writing of this article, the Thunder rank No. 1 overall in defensive rating, while the Rockets rank in the bottom five. Houston is fourth in offensive rating, while Oklahoma City is just 19th.
While Houston’s offense isn’t the historically great machine it was last season, it’s still lethal when the Rockets are clicking. With Chris Paul having a down season, James Harden has been on a tear, averaging north of 33 points, nearly six rebounds, and over seven assists per game in December (on 49-41-89 shooting splits). On the other side, Oklahoma City’s defense is stellar, and – unlike last year – it’s held up despite Andre Roberson’s absence.
We know these two teams will perform on their respective strong ends. This matchup may come down to which team can best cover up its weaknesses. As Def Pen’s Justin Jett rightly pointed out, Clint Capela can no longer stay in front of guards on switches, which has caused ripple effects on Houston’s defense.
Clint Capela no longer being trusted to guard small guys has additional consequences. IE extra help, open threes, lots of layups, etc. pic.twitter.com/jSq6ap7Cn5
— Justin Jett (@JustinJett_) December 12, 2018
Part of that may be due to Capela’s lack of stamina. He’s playing 33.8 minutes per game this season, which is easily a career-high. The Rockets no longer have the depth to rest their top players for extended stretches.
For the Thunder, it would help if Russell Westbrook could make a 3-pointer; he’s shooting just 24.5 percent from deep this year, the lowest since his rookie season.
Pay special attention to Oklahoma City’s offensive possessions in this one. With the two teams’ weaker points colliding, it seems like something’s got to give.
Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics (5:30 p.m. EST) – Who guards Kyrie Irving?
As Derek Bodner of The Athletic Philadelphia noted on Twitter, former 76ers swingman Robert Covington was the primary defender for opposing starting point guards in nine of Philadelphia’s first 13 games this season. However, Covington was shipped to Minnesota in the Jimmy Butler deal, so he’s out of the picture. The Sixers, meanwhile, need someone to guard Kyrie Irving, the leading scorer and top offensive option for their Christmas Day opponent.
In the first matchup between these two teams – which occurred on opening night of this season – Sixers guard Markelle Fultz defended Irving to start. But Fultz is currently away from the team due to ongoing issues. Throughout that opening night game, Philadelphia mixed it up against Irving, using T.J. McConnell and Landry Shamet to defend him at times. Irving scored just 7 points on 2-14 from the field, though part of that surely had to do with rust, as he was coming off of injury. With other players now slumping and Irving averaging over 22 points, he’ll be called upon to carry the offensive burden on Christmas.
It’ll be interesting to see whether the Sixers choose Butler, Ben Simmons or someone else to guard Irving. The answer could be crucial in a potential playoff meeting between these two teams.
Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors (8 p.m. EST) – How will the Lakers survive without Javale McGee’s rim protection? (Or, if he plays, how effective will McGee be?)
Among 127 rotation players who have defended at least three shots per game within six feet of the basket, Javale McGee is sixth in opponent field goal percentage at 48.3 percent. For those who prefer traditional stats, McGee is also fourth in blocks at 2.6 per game.
McGee’s rim protection has been a large factor in the Lakers ranking 10th in defensive efficiency, despite most of their rotation featuring minus defenders (including LeBron James, who rarely helps on that end during regular season games). McGee is often able to stop guards at the rim in switches or after they blow by other Laker defenders:
McGee’s unsustainably high playing time slowed down after Tyson Chandler joined the team, but in 19 games since then, McGee has still played a key role in his 22.1 minutes per game. With McGee recovering from pneumonia and potentially out for this game, the Lakers may have torely heavily on Chandler to protect the rim against a Golden State offense that leaves no room for defensive errors.
Of course, with the Warriors employing Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant, McGee’s former teammates may run him off the floor through the pick-and-roll. Even the Lakers themselves likely know that they, as currently constructed, can’t beat Golden State. But if they hope to do any damage in the playoffs, McGee will need to do his job defensively against good teams. It’s debatable whether McGee’s performance against the Warriors (if he even plays) will reflect how he’ll fare against other playoff teams when it matters, since the Warriors are practically in a league of their own.
Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz (10:30 p.m. EST) – Evan Turner and Portland’s five-man bench mob
Finally, in the nightcap, two of last year’s Western Conference playoff teams square off. There’s plenty to watch from the Jazz; they’re off to a rough start that’s left them out of the playoff picture, though only by a few games. Many predicted Utah to finish as high as second in the conference, or at least earn homecourt advantage in the first round of the postseason. But Utah’s struggles are worthy of a deep dive for another time. For now, let’s look at something that’s going on with the Blazers.
In the prior three seasons of the Damian Lillard-CJ McCollum era in Portland, Terry Stotts had staggered his star guards to ensure that one of them would be on the floor at all times. But this season, as ESPN’s Zach Lowe reported in November, Stotts decided on a new approach: pairing the two of them as much as possible and leaving Evan Turner to run bench units, as he did in Boston.
That experiment has had mixed results through more than a third of the season. Three of Portland’s six most-used lineups thus far are full five-man bench units, and they’ve each played at least 50 minutes. Two of the bench mobs have been unremarkable in 50 minutes apiece, and Stotts has only used those lineups in seven or fewer games. But a unit featuring Turner, Seth Curry, Nik Stauskas, Meyers Leonard, and Zach Collins has fared surprisingly well, with a +13.2 net rating in 110 minutes. (That lineup played 15 minutes and had a ridiculous +66.7 net rating in Portland’s Dec. 19 win against the Grizzlies, in which the Blazers’ starters all had a negative +/- while the reserves were all double-digit positives.)
Turner has had a bounce-back season, nearly doubling his assists average from last year in the same number of minutes. He’s been given free reign to run the offense with 3-point threats spotting up around him. Turner’s already excellent passing vision out of the pick-and-roll has been aided by the space created by Leonard and Collins, two stretch big men. It’s allowed Turner to create good looks for everyone else on the floor:
Look out for lineups featuring Turner and the rest of Portland’s reserves on Christmas Day. National TV commentators who don’t do their research will surely be puzzled if the Blazers succeed with Lillard and McCollum off the floor. But the success of bench units like this doesn’t usually translate to the playoffs, so we’ll have to see how Stotts handles and tweaks his rotations over the coming months.
All stats according to NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. Stats are current through games played on Dec. 19, 2018.