The NBA’s Christmas Day slate of five games feels a lot like the season itself. When we first saw the list when the schedule came out we were all-in, but as the season started to play out and the injuries came, the excitement wore off a little.
The star power is still there — LeBron James, James Harden, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, and the list goes on — but the matchups are not quite as intriguing. Let’s rank the NBA’s five-game slate from “I should use this time to go talk to Uncle Ed and get it over with” to “turn that NFL game off, it’s NBA time.” (All five games will be shown on both ESPN and ABC, and all times listed here are Eastern.)
This might have been the best game of the day — the Warriors eliminated the Grizzlies in a trash-talking playoff series last season that later, the Warriors would admit privately, was the toughest matchup of their title run. Memphis thinks it might have won that series if not for Ja Morant‘s fluky injury and as soon as the series ended Morant was calling for a Christmas Day rematch. He got his wish.
Then Stephen Curry injured his shoulder. He is out and the luster comes off this game as the Warriors — who had stumbled this season when Curry was healthy and playing at an MVP level, maybe Draymond Green punching Jordan Poole in the face has something to do with that — are 1-3 since he went out with a bottom-10 offense over that stretch and the worst defense in the league as well (which speaks to effort and focus). Poole will try, but he’s no Curry.
Tune in to watch Ja Morant, the most exciting and entertaining player in the game today. Tune in to watch the Grizzlies’ defense, which has been the best in the league since Jaren Jackson Jr. returned from injury (102.1 defensive net rating over their last 10 games), locking teams down in the halfcourt. But just ask the Bucks, this game could become a blowout and if you want to flip over to Buccaneers vs. Cardinals on NBC we’re not going to blame you.
Another game taken down by injuries. It might have been taken down before that as the Lakers were stumbling and unimpressive early, but they had their moments thanks to Anthony Davis playing center again and at an All-NBA, maybe MVP-ballot level. Now Davis is out with a foot injury and the Lakers are 1-3 without him, losing their shoes and their latest game to the lowly Hornets. With Davis out coach Darvin Ham has had to lean into smaller lineups to find scoring, but that hurts an already underwhelming defense.
LeBron James vs. Luka Doncic will always provide some spark, and you should tune in to watch MVP-level Luka. The Mavericks also are unveiling their Dirk Nowitzki statue outside the stadium before the game, which will be worth watching. But the trade speculation around these teams could be more interesting than the on-court play itself.
The NBA’s nightcap game will be worth staying up for — these are two of the top four teams in a wide-open West, and Nikola Jokic is always worth watching.
JOKER JUST HAVING FUN OUT THERE pic.twitter.com/CvK4Fbw7Le
— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) December 21, 2022
The real question about how watchable this will be is this: Will Devin Booker play? He has missed the last three Suns games with a groin injury. This season he has taken control of the Suns’ offense and has had some monster nights, and this could be another one going against a Nuggets team that seems to have a “take it or leave it” relationship with defense (24th in the league). The Suns are already without Cameron Johnson and Jae Crowder, which doesn’t help their defense against a deep Nuggets squad. Tune in to watch Jokic, plus Michael Porter Jr. is expected back and Aaron Gordon has been on a hot streak lately. Denver isn’t on top of the West by accident.
Before stumbling in its last couple, New York had won eight in a row and shot up the standings in the East thanks to Tom Thibodeau’s team coming around on defense. Once Thibs finally leaned into the untradable Quentin Grimes and gave bench minutes to Miles McBride (and, sadly but understandably, not Derrick Rose) this team started to come together. New York has the second-best defense in the NBA over their last 10 games, a 104.1 defensive rating.
But can the Knicks slow Joel Embiid?
Joel Embiid tonight:
The Sixers win their 7th straight 💪 pic.twitter.com/pLtQMOMKFj
— NBA (@NBA) December 24, 2022
Embiid leads the NBA in scoring at 33 points per game on 52.8% shooting, he can shoot the three but is primarily a beast in and around the paint, and the Knicks have nobody who physically matches up with him well. Throw in the fact James Harden is getting his legs under him — 20 points, 21 assists, 11 boards against a full-strength Clippers team Friday — and the 76ers are a tough team to stop.
Philadelphia has won seven straight, but how will it deal with the Christmas energy in Madison Square Garden and a Knicks team that Jalen Brunson has believing? Christmas Day in the Garden leads to special moments. Maybe the Knicks will get another 44-point RJ Barrett game like they did Friday against the Bulls (in a loss where New York fell apart in the final minutes). This is an Eastern Conference rivalry where both teams come in playing well, and it should be a perfect way to start your Christmas sports viewing day.
The two best teams in the NBA this season, clear and away, go head to head. This is what the NBA does best on Christmas. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been the best duo in the NBA this season, with Tatum playing at an MVP level. Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing like an MVP as well. Khris Middleton may be out (right knee soreness) but both of these teams are deep with good players who have stepped up on the biggest of stages — Jrue Holiday, Marcus Smart, Brook Lopez (looking like a DPOY candidate), Al Horford, and the list goes on and on.
Plus, nothing breeds animosity and a rivalry in the NBA like familiarity, and this will be the 15th meeting between these teams in the past two years. The Celtics eliminated the Bucks in an epic second-round series last playoffs.
Both teams have been a little flat of late, hitting some mid-season doldrums, but both sides will be up for this one. This is the game of the day — great teams who will want to make a mid-season mark on the other. This game is must watch. If that means going into the other room to get away from your family, they will understand.
“The best player on earth can’t get a call. It’s amazing.”
Lakers coach Darvin Ham made that comment out of frustration after another game where the Lakers felt robbed at the end. He wasn’t the only Laker.
LeBron James was once again brilliant — 41 points, nine rebounds and eight assists — but with the game tied against the Celtics and 4.1 seconds on the clock, he drove the lane and didn’t get the foul call when it clearly looked like Jayson Tatum hit him on the arm as he shot.
Wow. Just wow…
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) January 29, 2023
After the game, referee crew chief Eric Lewis admitted the officials missed the call:
“There was contact. At the time, during the game, we did not see a foul. The crew missed the play.”
LeBron couldn’t believe it… pic.twitter.com/Qa6zd886Hc
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 29, 2023
Patrick Beverley picked up a technical foul for bringing a photographer’s camera over to the referee to show evidence of the foul.
Pat Bev really picked up a camera to troll the ref over his missed call 💀 pic.twitter.com/2pxXCneQkn
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 29, 2023
These losses are a punch to the gut for a Laker team with little margin for error and trying to make up ground in the West (at 23-27 they sit 13th in the conference). But LeBron sees a pattern — he is scoring 30.2 points per game (sixth in the league) but is getting to the line just 4.9 times per game, fewer than anyone else in the top nine in the league in scoring.
“I don’t get it. I’m attacking the paint, just as much as any of the guys in this league that’s shooting double-digit free throws a night, and I don’t get it. I don’t understand it,” James said postgame in Boston.
The other Lakers were a little more direct.
Anthony Davis shared his thoughts on the no-call at the end of regulation vs. Boston.
(via @jovanbuha) pic.twitter.com/Daad91VtPB
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) January 29, 2023
Boston pulled away in overtime to get the 125-121 win, snapping their own three-game losing streak.
HIGHLIGHTS: Celtics force OT and get a much-needed win vs LeBron & the Lakers
Presented by @tmobile pic.twitter.com/pQrk7gakme
— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) January 29, 2023
LeBron finished with 41, Anthony Davis 16 (on 6-of-15 shooting off the bench) and Beverley had 15 including a key putback dunk. Jaylen Brown scored 37 for Boston, Tatum 30 and Malcolm Brogdon had 26 off the bench.
There are no moral victories for these Lakers more than halfway into the season, playing the team with the best record in the NBA close and almost winning does not count. Time is running out on LeBron and his team, they need to string together some wins. They felt they should have gotten the chance to win this one.
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid won the battle of MVP candidates with 47 points and 18 rebounds as the Philadelphia 76ers extended their winning streak to seven games with a 126-119 win over Nikola Jokic and the Denver Nuggets on Saturday.
Jokic and Embiid have finished first and second in voting for the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award over the last two seasons. Both are among the top candidates for MVP as this season hits the halfway mark, although Embiid was not named among the All-Star starters from the Eastern Conference.
🔥 EMVPIID 🔥
47 PTS | 18 REB | 5 AST | 3 STL | 2 BLK | @myteamtoyota pic.twitter.com/tFpRh1tf7Q
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) January 28, 2023
“I’m used to it and it’s not the first time,” Embiid said. “I think it’s more of a motivation to go out there and try to win the whole thing. That’s the only way that I’ll get that respect.”
Jokic gave Embiid a nod for his play.
“He’s really talented,” Jokic told the Denver Post of Embiid. “Really shifty.”
Joel Embiid put on a MONSTER performance in the Sixers W. #NBARivalsWeek pic.twitter.com/TiXwFAFsZE
— NBA (@NBA) January 28, 2023
James Harden had 17 points and 13 assists, and Tobias Harris scored all 14 of his points in the second half after being shut down by Denver’s defense in the first half.
“We were able to figure some things out and get some stops,” Harris said. “Guys stepping up and making shots was huge for us to cut the deficit in the fourth quarter to try and make something happen.”
Jokic had 24 points, eight rebounds and nine assists for Denver, which has lost three of its last four games. Jamal Murray chipped in 22 points and Michael Porter added 20.
“We turned it over and they just turned up the pressure on us,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “They got to the basket way too easy with their attack mentality. And we just got way too careless with the basketball.”
Embiid has scored 40 or more points nine times this season and 35 times in his career. In addition to the All-Star snub, Embiid was also given a $25,000 fine by the NBA on Friday for an on-court demonstration after-basket celebration during Wednesday night’s win over Brooklyn.
“Let’s keep offending Joel by fining him and not putting him among the All-Star starters,” Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers said sarcastically.
The Nuggets began the day with the second-best team field goal percentage at 50.7% and tops in 3-point percentage at 39.5%. In the first half, they overwhelmed Philadelphia’s perimeter defense, shooting 65.9% (29 for 44) from the floor and 10 of 17 (58.8%) from beyond the 3-point line. The hot shooting helped the Nuggets to a 73-58 lead at halftime.
Embiid started to take over toward the end of the third quarter, putting together a 16-point quarter on 5-of-6 shooting that keyed a 14-0 run that allowed the Sixers to close within 99-98 early in the fourth.
In the final quarter, Philadelphia wore down a Nuggets team playing the final game of a three-game, week-long trip. P.J. Tucker– who had switched defenively to Jokic and slowed him down in the second half- followed a Harden missed 3-pointer with a tip-in with over a minute left to stretch the lead to five. Embiid then hit a 3-pointer to restore an eight-point lead.
“I’ve always like to think I am a closer and I am,” Embiid said. “Taking the last shot or taking a last second shot with the clock ticking is fun for me. I love getting into those types of possession where you have to make the plays. That’s where you find out who is who and who is made up for those kinds of moments.”
Take Myles Turner off the trade market.
After months of negotiations, the Pacers and Turner have agreed to a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.
Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner has agreed on a two-year, $60M contract extension that includes an additional $17.1M renegotiation on his 2022-2023 salary, his agent Austin Brown of CAA Sports tells ESPN. pic.twitter.com/17nSSwN14z
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) January 28, 2023
This has since been confirmed by other sources.
Turner — back playing his natural center spot this season with Domantas Sabonis in Sacramento — is having the best season of his career, averaging 17.5 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.4 blocks a game. He has been one of the keys to a surprisingly good Pacers team this season.
That $60 million contract extension number can be a little misleading. Turner was already making $18 million this season, but because the Pacers are $24.4 million under the salary cap, they can do a re-negotiation and extension with the big man, giving him a $17.1 million bump right now (to a total of $35.1 million for this season) and extend off of that for two years, the first at $20.2 million and the second at $19.9 million, according to Shams Charania.
Technically Turner can still be traded at the Feb. 9 deadline, but the Pacers have no intention of doing so (as this signing signals). There had been a lot of trade interest in Turner, going back to last summer, most prominently with the Los Angeles Lakers in a swap that would have sent Buddy Hield and Turner to the West Coast for Russell Westbrook and two first-round picks. That draft pick compensation kept the deal from getting done (the Pacers wanted two unprotected first-rounders).
Jaren Jackson Jr. has been a defensive monster since coming back from foot surgery, something obvious by the eye test but backed up by impressive stats: 3.1 blocks and a steal a game, opposing players are shooting 44% on shots he contests and when he is on the court the Grizzlies have. 106.8 defensive rating (which would be best in the league by more than three points). He is the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year right now.
That led to a conspiracy theory post on Reddit about how the Memphis scorekeeper is padding Jackson’s stats, calling his numbers fraudulent. The post went viral — we all love to think we’re in on something nobody else knows — and has gotten to the point some Las Vegas sportsbooks have taken down Defensive Player of the Year betting.
The conspiracy theory does not hold water. At all.
The NBA pushed back on that theory by reminding people that all NBA stats are audited in real-time by someone watching the video in Secaucus (rebound or blocked shots being changed during a game is not uncommon because of this).
“In order to ensure the integrity of our game statistics, auditors, independent of the statisticians on-site, review all plays and stats decisions in real-time during NBA games,” NBA spokesman Tim Frank told NBC Sports. “If changes are necessary, they are made at that time or following a postgame review. All of the plays questioned in the post on Memphis games were scored consistently within the rules set forth by the NBA statisticians manual.”
Reddit has now labeled the post “Misleading.”
Another Reddit user compiled videos of the alleged stat padding incidents called out in the post, but watching them proves the NBA’s point that these were correctly assigned. For example, Jackson gets credit for steals on tipped balls, which is how steals are calculated. The video showed that many fans don’t understand the rules and definitions of what constitutes a steal or a block.
The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor went back and watched all 66 blocks Jackson had at home this season, using multiple camera angles, and found three that should not have been blocks — far from some great conspiracy.
I watched every block by Jaren Jackson Jr. in slow motion from alternate angles to investigate the NBA Reddit thread claiming the Grizzlies scorekeeper is “posting fraudulent numbers.”
But only 3 of his 66 home blocks are incorrectly labeled, a completely insignificant amount. pic.twitter.com/84ZiE1rPVD
— Kevin O’Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) January 28, 2023
On a more fundamental level than that, the NBA now has gambling and fantasy sports partners — if there was stat padding, those entities would be on it and the first to call out the league. The league’s statistics are big business — you can bet on the number of blocks or rebounds that Jackson or other players will get — and those gambling and fantasy entities also watch the games closely.
But we’ll be talking about this conspiracy theory again when NBA awards season pops up, because people want to believe, even in the face of evidence proving they are wrong. Not that we needed basketball to teach us that lesson.
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