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NBA Christmas Games: Stars May Be Sidelined, But These Players Are Worth Watching

Basketball will still be played on Christmas Day. Here’s one thing to keep an eye on for each matchup.

Despite a wave of positive cases and dozens of players still in health and safety protocols, the NBA’s Christmas slate is scheduled to go on as planned.

For many the day will be marked by who doesn’t play. Likely among them: Trae Young, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, Luka Dončić, Al Horford, Andrew Wiggins, Clint Capela, Anthony Davis (who’s out with a sprained knee) and many more. But since basketball will indeed be played, here’s one thing I’ll be watching for/thinking about during all five games. Happy Holidays!

Hawks vs. Knicks

Back in September, I flew down to Atlanta to report this story about the Hawks’ budding momentum and bright albeit complicated future. I asked everyone I spoke to a simple question about how good this team can ultimately be: Do you have a second All-Star?

The general response was, “Hopefully!” Some players and coaches began going down the roster to list a few candidates while others, feeling cautiously optimistic, felt it was too soon to say. John Collins was a tad more direct. “Yeah,” he began. “It's gotta be me.”

Coming off a playoff run where his individual sacrifice was integral to Atlanta’s success, Collins has backed up his preseason stance by essentially providing the exact same production he has over the past couple seasons. Collins’s usage and turnover rates are slightly down, but most other characteristics are nearly identical to what they were since Young was drafted—where he shoots on the floor, how accurate he is from different spots, etc.

All season, Collins’s importance has been more measurable than ever before, though; his on/off point differential is a team and career-high 14.3 points per 100 possessions. And now, with several teammates (including Young, Capela, Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari) likely to miss Saturday’s game against the Knicks because they’re in health and safety protocols, Collins has an opportunity to bolster his All-Star case as a complementary steady hand that gets to become a fist.

As Atlanta’s primary option against the Magic on Wednesday night, he finished with 28 points and 12 rebounds in a season-high 40 minutes, with a 28.5 usage rate that’s been topped only three times by him all year.

In Madison Square Garden, Nate McMillan won’t rewrite his entire playbook with Collins in mind, but the Hawks will need Collins to maintain his production untethered from its incandescent pick-and-roll playmaker (no teammate in the entire league has assisted another more than Young has Collins this season). They’ll likely have no choice but to sprinkle in a few more post touches and treat Collins more like the traditional offensive fulcrum he hasn’t had to be.

That question about Atlanta’s second All-Star still lingers over its 14–16 record, but if Collins is able to feed himself for an entire game and lead the Hawks to victory on such a relatively grand stage, maybe he can garner the attention his consistency deserves.

Bucks vs. Celtics

The Celtics are one of several teams that spent the first couple months of this season lost at sea. Stuck in the middle of their uncertainty stands their 23-year-old franchise player, Jayson Tatum. On some nights he’s a lighthouse guiding them to shore. On others, he’s almost the very fog that keeps everyone else from seeing clearly.

It’s easy to rhapsodize about Tatum’s skill. He’ll make two or three impossible plays during Saturday’s game that few would ever even consider trying. But despite being named the NBA’s most recent Eastern Conference Player of the Week, elements of Tatum’s fifth NBA season have mirrored some of the more frustrating traits held by the team he needs to lead.

Tatum became an All-Star for the first time in 2020, largely thanks to his emergence as one of the game’s most reliable and potent outside threats: a quarter of all his shots were pull-up threes and 40.4% of them went in. The shot is smooth as a pearl, often set up by a steady dribble between the legs and extended dance step back and to his left, just out of a hopeless defender’s reach.

These attempts made Tatum’s mid-range addiction forgivable. But now, on a similar volume, his pull-up three percentage is down to 28.2%, turning those inefficient long twos into a more consequential blight on his undeniable talent. (There are 19 players who’ve taken at least 100 mid-range shots and Tatum is the second-least accurate among them.)

It should be said that as a team the Celtics take way more attempts at the rim and fewer from the mid-range with Tatum on the floor as opposed to off it but he and the team exist on a higher plane when he’s dialed in behind the arc: The Celtics are 10-4 when Tatum makes over 30% of his threes and 6-12 when he doesn’t. This statement is a little reductive and he’s already launched the fifth-most threes in the entire league. But Tatum would still benefit from shifting his shot diet away from tough in-betweeners.

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As he develops, there’s a fascinating tug-of-war between Tatum thriving as a prototypical modern day star—someone whose position is indefinable, who shoots a bunch of threes, rebounds and has little issue defending the other team’s top threat—and the instinctive chuckers of yesteryear (i.e. Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant) who were long celebrated before analytics reset what should and should not have value in a winning context.

Tatum leads the NBA in points and is second in minutes played. His post game might be the most under-utilized weapon in basketball and his growth as a passer is incremental and overlooked. But Tatum has also missed 62 more shots than anyone else, and in the last 10 years only Russell Westbrook and James Harden clanked more through their team’s first 32 games. He indulges in his own artistry and, often to his own detriment, believes hero-ball is the answer to all of Boston’s offensive problems. Sometimes he’s right. But short of Tatum suddenly being more accurate than DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Durant or his newest teammate from the midrange, he isn’t right nearly enough.

Suns vs. Warriors

How Deandre Ayton holds up against the Warriors—whether he’s bullying their small lineups, not allowing them to downsize or getting played off the floor—is a tactical question that may ultimately decide which team represents the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. In two games against the Warriors this season, Ayton has scored 24 and 23 points (two of his three highest scoring outings this year) while committing just two personal fouls.

Ayton’s post-ups are down this year, but the Suns really took advantage of his physical gifts in that first matchup against Golden State.

Zooming out, Ayton is one of the least appreciated players in basketball, following up a historic postseason run by currently shooting a robotic 82.2% from three feet and in. The 23-year-old is playing for the max contract he was denied during the offseason without straying outside the role he had so much success in last year. He’s composed and patient. It’s impressive.

Lakers vs. Nets

On Tuesday night, the tiny Anthony Davis-less Lakers were almost immediately desperate against a highly organized Suns offense that boasts shooting, size and selfless passers. They blitzed without any low man rotating over to cover a diving big, and double-teamed Chris Paul and Devin Booker high on the floor before they could even receive a ball screen.

The strategy was reminiscent of how the Lakers treated James Harden in the second round of the playoffs back in 2020. While that series feels approximately ten thousand years removed from where LeBron James and Co. find themselves now, on Christmas Day they’ll again face off against the Beard. And assuming Carmelo Anthony, Isaiah Thomas, Wayne Ellington, Russell Westbrook, etc., are in those lineups, expect to see a defense that’s either willing to live with compromising Harden isolations or forced to scramble around and hope for the best.

Of course, assuming Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are unavailable, Brooklyn is less threatening behind Harden than the healthy Suns. But Paul Millsap and a few others should be out of health and safety protocols, giving the Nets a troupe of veterans who still know how to attack a 4-on-3—as they did earlier this month against a Rockets team that kept squeezing the ball from Harden’s hands.

It’ll obviously be a humongous disappointment if Durant especially can’t match up against LeBron, but if the available players hold, this strategic battle within the war may decide who wins.

Mavericks vs. Jazz

There are several numbers currently sported by the Jazz that scream “historical juggernaut.” This one about their all-time great offense might be the most impressive: Utah’s offensive rating is 9.27 points per 100 possessions higher than the league average. The only mark since 2000 that outpaced that was submitted in 2004 by the Mavericks (+9.28). It’s also over double what they did last year, as one of the more formidable regular-season teams in recent NBA history.

Still, the Jazz are a rorschach test. Some look at them and see a very good albeit disillusioned poser that’s kidding itself if—after five straight playoff appearances cut short before the conference finals with this same general core, coach and fundamental system—it thinks a championship is possible without major change of some kind. Others look at what the data tells them and don’t need to see Utah climb the proverbial mountain before they believe it will happen.

Reputations forged in the past are extremely difficult to shake, and the gap between what’s necessary to find success in the regular season and playoffs is expanding. These Jazz are a victim of both realities, unfeared as legitimate title contenders relative to the Warriors, Bucks, Suns or even Nets despite making a statistical case as one of the most dominant teams ever assembled.

The trade deadline presents a massive opportunity for Utah to address some potential issues that they couldn’t deal with during the offseason—aka this team still needs to upgrade its perimeter defense. But those pieces don’t come cheap, and right now it’d seem silly to acquire one or two if doing so disrupted a rotation that’s currently a machete blade through tall grass.

And even if they were committed to transformation, Utah can’t trade any first-round picks before 2026. Would the Sacramento Kings take Joe Ingles, Jordan Clarkson and an unprotected first in 2026 for Harrison Barnes? Probably not.

In the meantime, all they can do is implement Rudy Gay (who looks decent) and hope Donovan Mitchell makes yet another leap before the postseason begins. Until then, the season’s top four in fourth-quarter plus/minus are Bojan Bogdanovic, Rudy Gobert, Clarkson and Mike Conley. In fifth? Steph Curry.

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