Thunder-Heat, Knicks-Lakers headline stacked Christmas schedule
By Ben Golliver
The NBA's Christmas lineup is stacked. The 10 teams on tap Tuesday include five of the six division leaders, six clubs from the country's four largest cities and one shining small-market beacon. The quintupleheader will feature grudge matches, reunions, rivalries, rematches, the two best players in the world going head-to-head and oodles of highlight potential. Watching the entire lineup could run you 13 hours, so here's an in-depth preview and viewer's guide to help you manage the marathon.
• As you count down to tip off, check out all the Christmas-related content that's spilled out over the last month.
• The NBA released this video playing on Carol of the Bells, with five stars dribbling basketballs to the song's tune.
• A first look at the special "BIG Color" monochromatic jerseys that the 10 teams will be wearing.
• Knicks fan Spike Lee waxes poetic on Bernard King's 60-point Christmas explosion.
• Durant and his mother star in a black-and-white spot that highlights their relationship.
• The NOC flips The 12 Days of Christmas into The 12 Dunks of Christmas, complete with new lyrics and visual demonstrations.
• And, the best for last: The Basketball Jones with a brilliant rundown of basketball-themed Christmas carols.
Consider yourself caught up. Continue reading for the game-by-game preview.
Game 1: Celtics (13-13) at Nets (14-12), 12 p.m. ET, ESPN
• Previous meetings: The Nets are 2-0, winning 102-97 on Nov. 15 in Brooklyn and 95-83 on Nov. 28 in Boston.
• Headline-dominating story: Bad blood. The last time these two veteran-dominated, underachieving Atlantic Division teams faced off, Rajon Rondo wound up with a two-game suspension for shoving Kris Humphries into the TD Garden baseline stands. Boston's loss led coach Doc Rivers to call out his team for being "soft," a label that is fairly accurate this season, considering the Celtics' up-and-down defensive effort and awful rebounding numbers. Rondo said he learned "nothing" from his suspension and Garnett called Rivers' comments "disturbing," so both stars should enter Christmas with large chips on their shoulders. Garnett helped kick off Christmas 2011 by shoving an opponent in the throat, so set your expectations accordingly.
Brooklyn is 3-8 in December amid poor shooting and blame-shifting comments from Deron Williams. Boston, 4-6 in December, hasn't been much better lately. Neither the Celtics nor the Nets are where they want to be, and it's safe to assume both teams will be playing better ball in March than they are right now.
• Matchup to watch: Avery Johnson vs. Kris Humphries. The Nets' coach hit the $12 million power forward with a DNP-CD in Sunday's victory against the 76ers. Newsday reported that Johnson said Humphries is "not in the doghouse" and instead cited a desire to play smaller lineups. It's unusual for any player commanding an eight-figure salary to simply be moved out of the rotation and it's particularly unusual for it to happen just a few months after his most recent contract was finalized. Humphries, of course, re-signed for $24 million over two seasons in July.
Humphries is averaging 7.1 points and 7.4 rebounds per game and his playing time has taken a hit with Gerald Wallace, Reggie Evans and Brook Lopez back healthy and/or added to the fold. Wallace can play either forward spot but isn't a great perimeter shooter; with Wallace at power forward, Johnson is able to play three guards and get more shooting on the court. Rivers prefers small lineups, so Humphries -- who had 10 points and 13 rebounds against the Celtics on Nov. 15 -- could very well be on the outside looking in on Christmas, rather than in the middle of the action in the teams' first meeting since the incident in Boston.
• Priority order (from one to five, one being the best): 3. Better basketball will be played on Christmas, no question, but the kick-off game should win the day when it comes to trash-talking and instigating, unless Metta World Peace and/or J.R. Smith erupt. Celtics-Nets might not be worth rushing Christmas morning for those on the West Coast, but East Coasters have every reason to settle in and start the day off right at noon.
Game 2: Knicks (20-7) at Lakers (13-14), 3 p.m. ET, ABC
• Previous meetings: The Knicks are 1-0, winning 116-107 on Dec. 13 in New York.
• Headline-dominating story: Mike D'Antoni's present vs. Mike D'Antoni's past. Nearly two months into the season, the Knicks are the league's most pleasant surprise while the Lakers are the biggest disappointment. The coach who connects the two teams D'Antoni, stands right in the middle of that.
D'Antoni and his super pupil Steve Nash will take the court against the team from which D'Antoni abruptly resigned last season. In New York, D'Antoni is remembered as an average coach, at best, who walked off the job when the going got tough. The Atlantic-leading Knicks haven't looked back since he left, crafting an elite offense around a very strong season from Carmelo Anthony by loading up on shooters. Good riddance, many would say. In Los Angeles, D'Antoni was the savior, then a bum, and now possibly a savior again, at least if Nash, back from a leg injury, can deliver the wizardry that Lakers fans so impatiently waited for over the last six weeks.
• Matchup to watch: Pace. Both teams have top-six offenses and average defenses. The Lakers, even without Nash, have played at the fourth-fastest pace this season. The Knicks, meanwhile, are down at No. 22, creating points in volume from unselfish ball movement in their half-court offense. L.A. was fairly mesmerizing in Nash's return Saturday, but New York, despite cooling off a bit lately, still leads in the NBA in three-point makes and ranks third in three-point percentage. The Knicks are built to keep up on the scoring front with the Lakers, even if Nash succeeds in pushing the tempo as desired, so anything but a good old-fashioned shootout would qualify as a disappointment.
• Priority order: 2. New York has been hungry all season and would love to play road spoilers here as it did recently in Miami. That said, the Knicks blew the Lakers off the court in Madison Square Garden less than two weeks ago and one would think that Bryant, Nash and company won't let this one go down like that in the Staples Center with everyone watching. In addition to the obvious big-wattage star power, there are a lot of potentially combustible elements: World Peace, Smith, Dwight Howard vs. Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton under the microscope, to name a few. This one is worth watching.
• Previous meetings: None this season.
• Headline-dominating story: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. This is as simple as it gets: best player in the world vs. second-best player in the world for the first time since James' Heat beat Durant's Thunder in last season's NBA Finals. The two teamed up to take gold at the London Olympics and then returned to their corners like two heavyweight boxers: Durant has led the Thunder to the league's best record while James' Heat own the Eastern Conference's top winning percentage. Durant edged James as my first-quarter MVP on the strength of Oklahoma City's record, the team's response to the surprising James Harden trade, his off-the-charts shooting percentages and his improved rebounding numbers. But James, always brilliant, wasn't far behind. Sit back and watch the show.
• Matchup to watch: Russell Westbrook vs. Russell Westbrook. It's safe to assume that Westbrook and the Heat both remember that the All-Star point guard was the Thunder's most effective player in the Finals. Westbrook averaged 27 points, 6.6 assists and 6.4 rebounds, highlighted by a 43-point explosion in a Game 4 loss. After putting up career highs in points and field-goal attempts in 2011-12, Westbrook has scaled back his own offense a bit in favor of more distributing, posting a career-high 8.8 assists per game and cutting his turnovers slightly, from 3.6 to 3.4. His shooting is down to 40.7 percent but he's improved his three-point accuracy to a career-high 35.2 percent, expanding on the progress he made in his mid-range game last season. Add it all up and Westbrook's unique brand of controlled chaos has left him second among point guards in Player Efficiency Rating, trailing only Chris Paul.
The Heat will struggle to keep Westbrook out of the paint and off the foul line, just like everyone else in the league. Tuesday's question will center on whether he continues this season's trends or whether he looks to initiate more opportunities for himself, potentially at the expense of others, given the matchups and history at play. There's no way to predict that until he's on the ball, eyeing the defense and preparing for takeoff.
• Priority order: 1. The combined talent and competitiveness of these two teams and their star players' love of the big stage should make for high-level basketball with elite entertainment value. Build your holiday around this potential 2013 Finals preview.
• Previous meetings: The Rockets are 1-0, winning 93-89 on Nov. 21 in Houston.
• Headline-dominating story: Allow James Harden to reintroduce himself. You can easily see the wheels turning in the NBA league offices last summer when it came time to set the schedule. Third-biggest city in the United States (Chicago, check). Fourth-biggest city in the United States (Houston, check). Global phenomenon (Jeremy Lin, check). Super popular and amazing point guard coming off knee surgery (Derrick Rose, well ... he probably won't be back, but ... it's worth taking a shot at a Christmas miracle, what the heck). Unfortunately, the 2011 MVP still isn't cleared for full-contact practices yet, let alone games. With Rose sidelined, Rockets-Bulls becomes a nice stage for Harden, acquired by Houston from Oklahoma City in a bold October trade. Harden, quickly signed to a five-year maximum extension, ranks fourth in scoring with 25.6 points. The Bulls will offer a stiff test as the No. 3 team in points allowed per possession.
• Matchup to watch: Omer Asik vs. his former team. Honestly, there's just not a ton going on in this game, so this will have to do. Asik left the Bulls for the Rockets after Chicago declined to match a three-year, $25.1 million offer sheet for the restricted free agent last summer. Shifting from a 15-minute-per-game sub behind Joakim Noah to a full-time starter, Asik has scaled his production nicely, averaging 10.6 points and 11.4 rebounds in 30.7 minutes. With Asik gone, Noah has seen his minutes increase substantially (from 30.4 to 39.9) and he's responded with boxscore-stuffing production: 13.5 points, 10.6 points, 4.5 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.4 steals. Noah should be a strong contender for Defensive Player of the Year and he is a no-brainer selection to the All-Star team. The intrigue in Asik's facing the Bulls comes less from the actual matchup and more from the symbolism. His departure was one of a number of offseason moves that left the Bulls with a much different look. Take a moment to think about what could have been when Noah and Asik are scrapping for loose balls and rebounding position.
• Priority order: 5. On paper, this looks like the clear snoozer of the bunch. The Rose-less Bulls lead a weak Central Division by percentage points while the rebuilding Rockets have exceeded expectations at 14-12. The one X-factor here is Lin, who has picked up his production during Houston's three-game winning streak. Lin is averaging 18.3 points (on 56.4 percent shooting) and 8.3 assists in that stretch, including a solid performance in his highly anticipated return to Madison Square Garden. If he's not on top of his game, though, this might be the best time to step away from the tube for a bit.
Game 5: Nuggets (15-13) at Clippers (21-6), 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
• Previous meetings: None this season.
• Headline-dominating story: Fa-la-la-lobs. Lobs. Lobs. Lobs. Lobs. The Clippers are neck-and-neck with the Thunder and Heat in the "NBA's most exciting team" discussion and they've added countless new wrinkles this season. Jamal Crawford has stepped in as an early-season Sixth Man Award favorite, shooting hot early and delivering some sensational passing and dribbling exhibitions in a bounce-back year after an ugly season in Portland. Eric Bledsoe has been a breakout player, riding his freakish athleticism to headlines even if his role is smaller than many observers would prefer. DeAndre Jordan is having a career year. Blake Griffin's plateaued a bit but he's still Blake Griffin, and Chris Paul never misses an opportunity to cut out a team's heart in the fourth quarter. The Clippers have yet to hit any major speed bumps in their quest to win the Pacific Division and push the Thunder for a trip to the Finals. They play with style and, sometimes, in shameless fashion, continuing to stockpile the alley-oop highlights even in garbage time.
The inconsistent Nuggets get clear secondary billing here, but don't discount their ability to generate highlight plays. The Andre Miller-to-JaVale McGee connection is never dormant for long, even if McGee's minutes fluctuate under George Karl, and Andre Iguodala is always good for a few dunks in transition. Tuesday will mark Denver's 20th road game in their first 29 games, though, and the Clippers have won a franchise-record 13 consecutive games, including six double-digit victories in a row at Staples Center. If any of the five games has serious blowout potential, this could be the one.
• Matchup to watch: Shooting. Both teams are capable of doing real damage around the basket area and both have struggled, in sum, from the perimeter. The Clippers rank No. 23 in three-point percentage and the Nuggets are No. 27 as Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari have struggled. It's definitely been worse in Denver, where the Nuggets set an NBA record for most missed three-pointers without a make by going 0-for-22 against the Trail Blazers on Thursday. Denver actually made just one jump shot in that entire game and it didn't come until the final minute. The Clippers suffer from streakiness but have plenty of weapons capable of delivering knockout punches. Paul is a pretty good ace up the sleeve, too. • Priority order: 4. It's only natural that the nightcap in these five-game marathons winds up getting short shrift. You would be forgiven for skipping this one and just checking out the dunk highlights on Wednesday morning. That said, the Clippers rarely leave a late-night audience unsatisfied and the Twitter activity around their games always adds to the experience, if that's your cup of tea.