Another year, another interesting slate of results from a star-studded lineup of NBA games on Christmas Day.
Not all of the games were particularly good. Only two of them—the bi-coastal battle between the Los Angeles Lakers and the New York Knicks, and the 2012 Finals rematch featuring the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder—turned out to be tightly-contested affairs.
Regardless of the margins, each of the five matchups offered food for thought in one form or another. From old problems and new solutions to standout performances from stars in situations familiar and otherwise, the marquee day on the league's regular-season calendar yielded no shortage of storylines to track going forward.
As far as takeaways are concerned, these seven stood out from among the rest.
If Deron Williams wasn't happy with the Brooklyn Nets offense before, he certainly won't be now. He looked stagnant—if not downright disinterested—during a 10-point, six-assist, four-turnover debacle against the Boston Celtics.
To be fair, D-Will wasn't the only one who stunk it up in his all-blank uniform. Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson combined to shoot 9-of-26 from the field (and 6-of-12 from the line), and the team, as a whole, managed just 14 assists against a whopping 20 turnovers while playing lethargic ball throughout. Except for Gerald Wallace, who was his usual bundle of energy.
Oh, and the Nets lost to the Celtics, 93-76.
Perhaps D-Will and company were a bit "groggy" from slurping down eggnog. Perhaps the result was simply karma from Jay-Z's lack of a holiday album in his personal discography.
Or, perhaps Brooklyn's ongoing offensive woes are as troublesome as advertised. Scoring was supposed to be this squad's specialty, what with the likes of Williams, Johnson and Lopez constituting the core of the team.
Instead, the endless stream of isolations, post-ups and token motion has left the Nets merely in the middle of the pack in offensive efficiency while playing at the slowest pace in the NBA. It's no wonder, then, that Brooklyn has failed to crack the 100-point mark in regulation in each of its last nine games.
Or that Deron has been so outspoken about his displeasure amidst Avery Johnson's piecemeal scheme.
The Lakers have a ton of work to do before they can even think about a deep playoff run. The Oklahoma City Thunder, the cross-hall Clippers, the Memphis Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs have all established themselves as contenders in the Western Conference, with a slew of quality hopefuls following close behind.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have stumbled, bumbled and fumbled their way through injuries, coaching changes and the tremendous pressure that comes with outsized expectations for the NBA's glamour franchise.
But, for one day at least, the Lakers looked like the team everyone thought they'd be, thanks in no small part to Steve Nash. In just his second game back from a nerve injury in his left leg, the two-time MVP tallied 16 points, 11 assists and six rebounds in 38 minutes to propel the Purple and Gold to a 100-94 win over the visiting New York Knicks.
It was vintage Nash from start to finish. There were pick-and-rolls with Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant, pick-and-pops with Pau Gasol, crisp passes to L.A.'s role players and timely jumpers of his own sprinkled throughout. Nash ran the half-court offense to a tee and made basketball easy and fun for everyone.
On his side, anyway.
He brought a semblance of calm and control to the Lakers in crunch time, effectively replacing the frantic desperation of Kobe-centric "Hero Ball." Finally, the Lakers looked and played like something more than the sum of their impressive parts. There was energy, intensity, passion and teamwork, where once there had only been a malaise of disappointment and individual ambition.
Nash might not have been responsible for all of it, but he certainly deserves the lion's share of the credit for getting the Lakers to .500 for the first time all season, against a quality opponent, no less.
On the other end of the Lakers' fifth win in a row was the Knicks' third loss in their last five games.
Their once-torrid three-point shooting appears to have cooled off considerably. They missed more than 60 percent of their long-range attempts for the sixth game in a row, once again dying by the three as much as living by it.
But the bigger issue that New York's three-point reliance indicates is a lack of interior production. Tyson Chandler is hardly a post-up presence, and Carmelo Anthony and Raymond Felton can only do so much in the middle if they're to launch from beyond the arc as frequently as they have.
That much was clear at the Staples Center, where the Knicks mustered a mere 26 points in the paint, compared to 46 for the Lakers.
Luckily for the Knicks, help is on the way. Amar'e Stoudemire should be back in action before too long. According to Sam Amick of USA Today, the All-Star big man won't be in uniform for New York's next date, against the Phoenix Suns, but should be ready to make his season debut within the next few weeks.
And what a welcome debut it'll be. Stoudemire is just the sort of middle-of-the-floor scorer that the Knicks need, particularly off the bench. He spent two weeks honing his craft with Hakeem Olajuwon this past summer in preparation for just such a role in the low post.
Carving out a proper role for STAT—on in which his defensive deficiencies won't kill the Knicks—still figures to be a chore for head coach Mike Woodson. But, at the very least, New York will have another scoring option if/when the treys stop falling.
Kevin Durant played brilliantly (33 points, seven rebounds, three assists). Russell Westbrook couldn't decide between Jekyll (21 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, two steals) and Hyde (5-of-19 shooting, five turnovers). The offense stagnated at times amidst isolationism (14 assists against 16 turnovers). And the defense broke down in crunch time, giving up an easy slam to a wide-open Chris Bosh with 25 seconds to play.
All told, the game was close throughout, but OKC simply didn't execute down the stretch. As was the case during Games 2 through 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals.
The Thunder's tremendous talent was evident, but so too was their tendency toward making mistakes against top competition.
OKC is still the favorite to come out of the Western Conference until further notice, but if the Thunder don't shore up their holes in due time, they're liable to be left standing at the altar for a second time in as many seasons.
He served reminder of as much in leading the Heat to a 103-97 win over the Thunder in an NBA Finals rematch. James led the Heat in points (29), rebounds (eight), assists (nine), steals (two) and minutes (42). That effort put him within a stone's throw of notching his second Christmas triple-double in three years.
It's a testament to the quality of the league that the best player on the planet—who won the NBA MVP, the Finals MVP, his first NBA title and his second Olympic gold medal in 2012—has managed to fly under the radar, relatively speaking.
But when the time comes for the MVP voters to cast their ballots, don't be shocked if LeBron is atop most peoples' lists. Another such accolade would be James' fourth in five years, putting him on par with Bill Russell as the only other player in NBA history to be so honored.
Remember when some dunce thought it best for the Houston Rockets to bring Jeremy Lin off the bench? Remember when he and James Harden couldn't play together, at least not in a productive manner?
Seriously. Who was that guy who thought that?
To be sure, the Lin-Harden partnership is still far from perfect, but it's yielded some rather impressive results of late. The Rockets' two young guards combined for 46 points and 17 assists in a 120-96 thrashing of the Chicago Bulls on Christmas Day.
This, after teaming up for 50 points and 11 assists against the Knicks, 51 points and 13 assists versus the Philadelphia 76ers, and 46 points and 19 assists opposite the Memphis Grizzlies.
Each of those games also yielded victories. In fact, the Rockets have won each of their last four games by an average of 20.8 points. At 15-12, Houston currently sits in sixth place in the Western Conference and may well climb even higher as Jeremy and James continue to improve as a dynamic duo.
Raise your hand if you thought the Los Angeles Clippers—yes, the Los Angeles Clippers—would have the best record in the NBA at the end of Christmas Day.
Now, put your hand down and stop trying to rewrite the past.
To be sure, the Clips had the look of a quality team coming into the season. Great chemistry between Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, an improved DeAndre Jordan in the post and a revamped bench led by Jamal Crawford all figured to give the runty little brother of pro basketball in L.A. a shot to strike out on its own.
But who'd have imagined they'd be an NBA-best 22-6, with a 14-game win streak that feels like it could go on ad infinitum?
The Clips' 112-100 victory against the visiting Denver Nuggets may not have been their most impressive of the young season, though it was illustrative of the sort of destruction of which this squad is clearly capable. The reserves carried the day for LA once again, scoring 64 points combined while wiping the floor with their Rocky Mountain counterparts.
That's been the case for the Clips all year. Whether the first five make hay or not, they can always count on the backups—most of whom have been solid starters elsewhere—to outplay the other team's second unit and build up a sizable advantage thereabout.
With Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill still on the mend, don't be surprised if the Clips continue to wear down their opponents with their incredible depth and continue to expand their historic point differential.