8 Takeaways from NBA Christmas Day Action
Christmas Day belongs to the NBA's biggest stars, and after a spotty start, the holiday action picked up in a big way.
Early on, the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls reminded us all that an awful lot has changed since they met for a triple-overtime thriller last April.
Then, the New York Knicks finally inspired their fans to accept reality. That's not a good thing, by the way.
Russell Westbrook continued playing dress-up, the Los Angeles Lakers got a key component back in their rotation and LeBron James finished up the early slate of games in style.
Toss in some vintage Gregg Popovich crankiness and a heated, high-octane nightcap between the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, and you've got yourself one merry NBA Christmas.
Also, there were lots of sleeves.
Here's what you need to know about today's Yuletide hoops.
The Knicks Have Reached the Final Stage
Under the popular model created by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five basic stages to any grieving process.
Based on the totally disengaged demeanor of the fans assembled in Madison Square Garden, New York Knicks supporters have powered right through denial, anger, bargaining and depression. Yep, the stunning silence toward the end of the Knicks' 123-94 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder ironically screamed "acceptance."
Carmelo Anthony missed the game with a sprained ankle, but his presence wouldn't have mattered. Oklahoma City ran the Knicks off the floor in an embarrassingly lopsided contest.
Led by Russell Westbrook's triple-double and 29 points on 16 shots from Kevin Durant, the Thunder scorched New York with a blistering second-half surge.
There were a few boos along the way, but as the game wound down, quiet set in.
Per Brian Mahoney of the Associated Press, Durant commented, "I said that on the bench, I was like, 'Man, it feels like nobody's in here.'"
The Knicks have alternated wins and losses over the past couple of weeks, but they've beaten just one team (the Atlanta Hawks) with a winning record all season. Now, when the blowout defeats against quality opponents come, fans in MSG don't even muster the energy to boo for more than a few minutes at a time.
They've accepted it: The Knicks are sunk.
A Lot Can Change in Eight Months
On April 27, 2013, the Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls played one of the most thoroughly entertaining games in NBA history.
Nate Robinson pumped in 29 points during the fourth quarter and extra periods, draining impossible shots with irrational confidence. He and Joe Johnson traded clutch jumpers that swung the game back and forth down the stretch like a hyperactive pendulum. In the end, the Nets relented, giving Chicago a 142-134 postseason victory.
Things weren't quite that exciting when the two teams faced off on Wednesday.
Brooklyn played like a team that had given up, and the bench was particularly disengaged. Altogether, the Nets' reserves shot 4-of-30 for the game. Deron Williams hit six of 10 shots to lead Brooklyn with 18 points but managed just four assists.
Brooklyn totaled just 11 dimes as a team.
Chicago did enough to win comfortably, and Taj Gibson was particularly effective. But nothing the Bulls did was very pretty. In fact, almost all of Chicago's productivity was a direct result of the Nets simply failing to muster any energy.
Per Howie Kussoy of the New York Post:
The Nets’ abysmal offense allowed Chicago to begin its onslaught, but their defense ensured their demise. Brooklyn allowed 36 points in the third quarter to the lowest-scoring team in the league, including 11 from Jimmy Butler, who led a game-sealing 21-5 run.
The outcome: a thorough 95-78 win for Chicago.
Both of these teams have been decimated by injuries and terrible luck, so nobody was really expecting a barn-burner like the one we saw last April. But the nearly unwatchable mess on display Wednesday served to highlight just how much has changed.
Jordan Farmar Matters
You certainly wouldn't know it from his individual statistics, but Jordan Farmar's return was vitally important to the Los Angeles Lakers offense.
The point guard saw his first action since Dec. 1, and although he made just one of his seven field-goal tries in 33 minutes, Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni was happy about what the team's only healthy ball-handler provided to the offense.
Per Mike Trudell of Lakers.com, D'Antoni admitted after the 101-95 loss to the Miami Heat that Farmar was rusty, but that he also restored L.A.'s floor balance.
It's not hard to see evidence of that assertion either. Farmar managed just two assists on the night, but Los Angeles got plenty of open looks from long distance as a result of his penetration and ball movement.
On the night, Los Angeles hit 14-of-36 from long range. Were it not for such success from beyond the arc, Miami likely would have run away with the contest.
Nothing is more important to a D'Antoni offense than open three-point looks. So as the only healthy point guard on the roster, Farmar is going to have more influence on the Lakers' success (or failure) than anybody.
He's immensely important.
Of course, that should be pretty obvious by now. It's not often a player who makes just a single field goal in a loss gets an entire takeaway slide all to himself.
There's Just Nobody Better Than Gregg Popovich
Seventy-seven seconds. That's how long it took Gregg Popovich to decide he'd seen enough.
After the Houston Rockets got a game-opening bucket from Dwight Howard and a dunk from Terrence Jones, Popovich immediately stopped play with a 20-second timeout. It was a classic move, one Popovich breaks out every so often when he senses that his team hasn't come out with the necessary sense of urgency.
Better to berate his players before the game gets out of hand than wait until it's too late.
There's not really much strategic discussion in those early stoppages. Instead, Pop uses them to assess his team's readiness with a basic, old-school gut check.
As Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated tweeted, "Love the Gregg Popovich, one-minute in, does-anyone-want-to-bleeping-play timeouts."
These things shouldn't be so enjoyable, but the Popovich-as-curmudgeon narrative has taken on a life of its own. At this point, we're all eagerly awaiting his in-game interviews just to see how crotchety and terse he'll be. It's fun to watch him play the character he's created.
Oh, and by the way, Pop's early timeout was funny for those of us who enjoy his brand of leadership. But it certainly didn't work.
Houston continued its early blitz, amassing a 40-25 advantage by the time the first quarter had ended and going on to win 111-98.
Russell Westbrook Is Messing with Us
I figured it out, you guys.
Russell Westbrook has been messing with us all this time. His lens-less glasses, his paisley shirts, his man purses—all part of a meticulously planned joke. That's the only explanation for his ridiculous outfits over the past few seasons, and after seeing his completely absurd duds on Christmas, I'm more certain than ever.
Before taking on the Knicks, we got a peek at Westbrook's weirdest getup yet: a pair of leather, single-strap overalls set off by a gold chain thicker than one of Kevin Durant's biceps.
There's just no scenario in which I'm willing to accept that he actually thinks he looks good. It's not possible. He's just trolling the fashion industry and NBA fans at the same time. This is performance art.
It's Time for the NBA to Consider Style Points
Believe me, I recognize the irony of discussing style points immediately after talking about Westbrook.
Instead of over-the-top outfits, though, the style points I'm pushing have to do with above-the-rim plays. Specifically, it's time for the league to consider awarding additional credit for the kinds of show-stopping buckets LeBron James generated on Wednesday.
On two separate occasions against the Lakers, James hammered down alley-oop finishes that simply deserved more than the requisite two points.
On the first, Dwyane Wade flipped the ball behind his head on the break, setting up James for a high-flying tomahawk that absolutely ignited the Staples Center. There's just no way that thunderous jam should be worth the same number of points as an uncontested layup.
Later, Wade flipped a pass off the backboard that a somewhat surprised James violently flung through the cylinder with his left hand.
I'm not sure which play was better, but they were both worth the price of admission.
Come on, NBA rules committee; it's time to come up with a scoring system that rewards plays like these.
James Harden: Door-Slammer
After Houston surged out to an big early lead, the Spurs chipped away until a Manu Ginobili triple narrowed the Rockets' advantage to just three points with 9:34 remaining in the final period.
That's when James Harden took over.
Showing no ill effects from his sprained left ankle, the Beard poured in 16 points from that point on. He nailed six of his final seven attempts to snuff out any hopes the Spurs might have had of completing the comeback.
Overall, Harden posted a team-high 28 points on 11-of-16 shooting. He made all three of his long-range attempts, handed out six assists and grabbed six rebounds in 42 brilliantly efficient minutes.
His fantastic offensive night was a microcosm of the Rockets' overall excellence. Basically, Houston played its ideal game, hitting a dozen threes, turning the ball over just 10 times and shooting 52 percent from the field overall.
It's far too early to argue that the Rockets are the better team than the Spurs, but it's beginning to look like Houston poses a uniquely difficult challenge for Tim Duncan and co.
Blake Griffin Caught More Elbows Than Breaks
Nobody is ever going to defend the way Blake Griffin exaggerates contact. Everyone acknowledges he's got a penchant for flopping, and that makes him somewhat unpopular among both fans and his peers.
But he got a raw deal against the Golden State Warriors.
The always-down-to-scrap Draymond Green tossed a (mostly) unsolicited elbow toward Griffin's cranial region as time expired in the third quarter of the Warriors' 105-103 win against the Los Angeles Clippers. Understandably, Green earned an ejection for the shot, even though it was a glancing blow.
But for reasons that are still unclear, Griffin also received a technical.
A few seconds into the fourth quarter, Andrew Bogut then sneakily tangled himself up with Griffin underneath the basket. It was almost certainly a deliberate move by Bogut, designed to capitalize on the officials' desire to keep things clean in an increasingly dirty game.
The ploy worked as both Bogut and Griffin absorbed technical fouls. Griffin had to hit the road because it was his second tech.
In a game ultimately decided by just two points, L.A. probably could have used Griffin's services down the stretch.