Posted on: January 4, 2011 7:57 pm
Erik Spoelstra has a better than decent shot at being named All-Star coach for the East.
Posted by Matt Moore
If things were to continue on the pace they're going, with the Boston Celtics sliding due to injury and the Heat rolling through weak opponents, Erik Spoelstra could wind up as coach of the Eastern Conference team at All-Star Weekend. It would be a tremendous honor for the young coach, and be a reflection that he's done, particularly since there was a tremendous amount of fire on him with rumors that he was close to being canned.
It would also be a really awkward situation.
Also on that squad will be Boston Celtics and New York Knicks and Orlando Magic players. And while every year there's one team better represented than the rest, with three possible representatives on one team, there could be some ugliness about having their coach on the roster as well. Granted, most of the time these guys put aside their differences and just hang out as professionals, but Spoelstra's a young coach with three stars who pretty much do what they want on his roster, and in the All-Star game (should Bosh wind up making the cut). It's hard to see Kevin Garnett being too respectful of that development, or Paul Pierce, or Dwight Howard, all of whom have expressed frustration with the amount of press the Heat have gotten.
It should also be mentioned that between now and then, the Heat play the Thunder, the Bulls, the Magic, and the Celtics, which is a pretty steep hill to climb on top of all the other games in order to close the half-game gap the Celtics currently enjoy. The Celtics have less incentive to push themselves and more incentive to coast, so this is still very much possible, but it's far from a lock.
Either way, it would be a great turnaround for a coach on the hot seat for much of the season.
Posted on: December 31, 2010 3:13 pm
Posted by Royce Young
Seems like every year around this time, people all start wondering, "Was this the best sports year ever?" The clip shows start rolling every bit of stock footage they have, put a catchy song to it, wipe of the hands and boom, 2010 is wrapped.
Other than the two clear-cut top NBA storylines that have already been covered (LeBron's decision and Los Angeles winning the title in seven games), what else was big from The Association in 2010? What else captivated, caught attention or was just downright excellent?
Well, I'm glad I asked. Here are the top 10 (for 2010, get it?) NBA stories from the past calendar year, excluding, um, the top two stories.
10. LeBron's elbow
Nothing really took over the 24 hour news cycle like a good Brett Favre story quite like LeBron's elbow. What was wrong with it? Can he actually play? Will he have to shoot everything left-handed?
But the elbow story was so much bigger than just an injury situation in the Cavaliers series against Boston. It really was the downfall of LeBron in Cleveland. He played one of the most confounding playoff games ever in Game 5, constantly deferring to teammates and really just stopping short of sitting down at mid-court and waiting for the game to end.
His Game 6 effort was better, but still, the image of LeBron tossing his No. 23 jersey to the floor after the final buzzer is something that's burned into the memory of Cleveland. It was the beginning of the end for LeBron in his home state. He left without the title he promised and quite frankly laid an egg in his last games there.
Maybe it was because of the elbow, maybe not. The elbow was the trunk of the story, but the branches stretched far and wide.
9. The NBA Hornets
I get the feeling this story didn't get played up near as big as it actually is. What we're basically seeing in New Orleans is the death of a franchise. Like right in front of us.
The league has stepped in and is trying all forms of CPR it can think of, but with the attendance issues coupled with still bad situation in New Orleans, time is probably limited for the Hornets.
A league being forced to purchase one of its own teams isn't unprecedented, but it's surely not something you see every day. People like Phil Jackson have raised the question of how the league handles a situation like Chris Paul if it has greater interest in the Hornets and really, it's something for everyone to ponder.
8. Two tall people go down... again
It shouldn't really come as a surprise, but Yao Ming and Greg Oden are out for the season. Again. But it's more than that this time as both are facing career crossroads.
Yao has probably seen his last game as a member of the Houston Rockets with the team shopping his $17 million expiring contract and Oden will become a restricted free agent next summer, so who knows what happens from here for him.
The two big men aren't connected in any way, but the fact that two of the league's most promising seven-footers have been lost for yet another season is something that's nothing less than a shame. In a league running thin on true centers and post players that can affect the game on both ends, two have been shelved for the remainder of the season. But for them, it's a lot more about what comes next than just losing the 2010-11 season.
7. Finga Gunz
The actual incident occurred in 2009, but the fallout and result of Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittendon's locker room showdown stretched into 2010.
David Stern suspended Arenas for the remainder of the season on Jan. 6, shortly after a game against the 76ers in which Arenas flashed his now infamous "Finga Gunz" during pregame introductions.
Arenas said his teammates asked him to do it, tweeting, "I know everybody seen the pre game pics..my teammate thought to break the tention we should do that..but this is gettn way to much." Immediately sensing how this was probably about to be something, he tweeted, "I wanna say sorry if I pissed any body off by us havin fun...I'm sorry for anything u need to blame for for right now."
Well it was something. Arenas would go on to apologize a month later for his actions in a Washington Post editorial and would get sentenced to two years' probation and 30 days in a halfway house another month later.
Of course "Finga Gunz" was basically the beginning of the end for Arenas tenure in Washington with him being traded to Orlando in early December.
6. The shadow of lockout
Just as we all start having a bunch of fun with this NBA season talking about how ratings are up 30 percent, how more people are attending games, talking about how much talent is in the league, we get another story about how the owners and players couldn't be farther apart on a new collective bargaining agreement.
It's pretty much a certainty at this point that there will be a lockout next summer. Will that produce a complete work stoppage and therefore a loss of games? Let's hope not.
The NBA is really enjoying one of its most popular times in a long time, drawing in younger audiences and totally supplanting baseball as the No. 2 sport in America. The league has recovered from the darker days earlier in the decade to come out with new stars, new energy and a game that's growing worldwide. A lockout wouldn't necessarily destroy that, but it's something that's cast a shadow over everything in 2010. And it will absolutely carry over through 2011.
5.The Summer of Durant
First came the scoring title, which made him the youngest ever to win it. Then came second in the MVP voting. Then came a playoff berth. Then came a fantastic six-game series between his Thunder and the eventual champion Lakers.
And all of that was really before Kevin Durant actually got everyone's attention.
It started with a simple tweet about his contract extension in Oklahoma City. It ended with him holding up a gold medal and MVP trophy for Team USA in Turkey, the first World Championship title for the United States since 1994.
In a summer where televised decisions, big contracts, PR and distractions ruled, Durant ended up owning our hearts during the summer of 2010 just by being himself. He was always humble, never fake, always said the right thing and played really, really good basketball in Turkey.
4. Blake Griffin, basketball destroyer
We had to wait an extra year to get our NBA introduction to Blake Griffin, but I think it was well worth it. Maybe my memory fails me here, but I don't think any rookie the past 20 years -- LeBron included -- captured the attention of people quite like Griffin.
We're talking about Los Angeles Clipper games being must-watch TV. We're talking about sellouts at Staples not for the purple and gold, but for the other tenant. We're talking about nightly highlights and the constant anticipation to see the Ultimate Blake Highlight that keeps us glued to the TV when he's playing and refreshing Twitter waiting to see a slew of "OH MY HEAVENS BLAKE GRIFFIN!!!!" tweets.
On top of that, it's just the way Griffin plays . It's controlled recklessness. He plays like every possession might be his last. He jumps with everything he's got for every rebound. He dives for everything. He falls hard, but gets up. The words "animal," "beast" and "monster" have been used to describe him. But I don't think those even fit.
Here's the thing though: He's actually quite good outside of the flashy dunks. He's averaging 21-12 and has a well-polished post game and has given Clipper fans a reason to hope.
3. The NBA does Dallas
This wasn't any old All-Star Game. It was 24 of the biggest basketball stars on the planet and 100,000 of their closest friends.
The NBA took its talents to Dallas, where indeed everything was bigger. The game was played in Jerry Jones death star, with a tiny basketball court placed in the middle of the monstrosity. The game itself was OK, but the glitz and glamor of the game was something else. It was the biggest crowd ever to see a basketball game and more than that, a basketball event for the ages.
To see LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant all standing on the hardwood while a giant scoreboard hung overhead and 100,000 people look on flashing cameras was unlike anything the NBA's ever seen.
2. The sagas of Carmelo and CP3
At some point, Carmelo Anthony will be traded. I'm convinced. But until then, we'll all just continue on reading every rumor, digesting every report and speculating on every trade scenario after trade scenario.
Whether it's the Nets, the Knicks or someone completely different, Carmelo is going somewhere. We've waited months to get that answer and after getting kind of a close a few times, we still just wait. But it's the daily story in the NBA with constant rumors and reports circulating everywhere about it.
But before Melo came Chris Paul. Reportedly Paul was unhappy with the direction of the franchise and wanted out. Badly. Days went by and it just seemed like the Hornet star was going to demand his way out of New Orleans. But it never happened. Doesn't mean it's over by any means, but those winds have calmed for the time being.
So we wait on that big news to break. Right now all the attention is on the Nuggets and Anthony but all it takes is one source to pop up and say, "CP3 still wants out." And then we start all over.
1. Free agency
The story in the NBA over the past year has been stars on the move trying to position themselves for a better run on a better team. Or to find some brighter lights of a bigger market.
Sure there's some overlap between this and "The Decision" but the Summer of 2010 is something people were counting down to for years. Big names were available, at the right price. Amar'e Stoudemire. Chris Bosh. LeBron. Dwyane Wade. Carlos Boozer. Joe Johnson. Steve Blake. Just kidding.
Player movement was the story. It became seemingly all about LeBron because of what happened in his little TV show, but before that, it was about all the players that were out there. Dwyane Wade went to Chicago and spoke with the Bulls. The Rockets went hard after Bosh. Joe Johnson signed a stupid $120 million deal. Stoudemire wanted New York all along.
When looking back on 2010, the Lakers winning a second straight title will be remembered. Then LeBron. But if you can rewind to what you were thinking around June 20th, it was about all the available players. It became about LeBron because he made it that way. But when those 10 superstars were up for grabs at one point, and for that short time, it had everyone's attention.
Posted on: December 29, 2010 11:58 am
Posted by Royce Young
Each game is made up of elements which help formulate the outcome. Monday through Friday, we'll bring you the elements from the night before's games in our own specialized version of the game recaps. It's not everything that happened, but it's an insight into what lead to the results you'll see in the box scores. This is the Game Changer.
THE BIG ONE: NEW YORK'S COMEBACK FALLS SHORT
The Knicks fought back furiously against the Heat Tuesday, cutting a 14-point fourth quarter Miami lead down to three with two minutes left after Raymond Felton knocked down a free throw following a technical on Erik Spoelstra.
The technical is was brought the Knicks within a possession of the Heat, but it's also what may have finally woke Miami back up. After Spoelstra's technical, Miami closed the game on a 9-4 run that sealed the Heat's 24th win and New York's 13th loss.
Dwyane Wade dropped 40, with 15 coming in the fourth quarter. LeBron added 18, eight assists and 10 rebounds and Chris Bosh put up another 18. Amar'e Stoudemire finished with 30.
New York played much better with the Heat this time around doing more of what it's good at. In the first meeting, the Knicks got caught up trying to play too perfectly and too fast, as things unraveled in the third quarter. While they trailed the entire second half, this time the Knicks kept plugging and have themselves a chance.
In the end, too much Wade, too much LeBron.
Really, all the Knicks need is LeBron James. If they can just get him next summ-- ... what's that? Oh.
GO-GO-GADGET LINESDwyane Wade piled up 40 points and nine rebounds against the Knicks.
DeJuan Blair put up a mean double-double for San Antonio with 17 points and 15 rebounds.
Amar'e Stoudemire scored 30 in a losing effort against the Heat.
Derrick Rose had 18 points, 12 assists and six rebounds in a win over the Bucks.
DENVER WINS WITHOUT MELOBalanced scoring did the trick for the Nuggets against Portland Tuesday as the starting five all scored in double-figures. Other than Kenyon Martin's 10, the rest of the starting five scored 15, 17, 17 an 18. The bench only added 18 total, but it was the starters.
It wasn't so much that the Nuggets were outstanding, but more that the Blazers didn't know how to score. Without Brandon Roy, Portland only got scoring from LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum. Other than that, the Blazers just didn't know how to put the ball in the basket.
VIDEO: FACES BLEED IN INDYMike Dunleavy and Nate Robinson got up close and personal, cracking faces in Boston's win. Honestly, it's surprising this doesn't happen more often.
I GUESS DIRK IS ACTUALLY KIND OF IMPORTANTThe Raptors beat the Mavericks 84-76 behind 17 points and 12 rebounds from rookie Ed Davis. Dallas was without Dirk Nowitzki who missed the game because of a "sore knee" he sustained against Oklahoma City Monday night.
Dallas started the game 4-20 from the field, and scored a total of 49 points combined in the first, third and fourth quarters. Against Oklahoma City, the Mavs picked up the slack despite not having Dirk by getting scoring from Shawn Marion, Jason Terry and Caron Butler. Tuesday, those three did OK, combining for 45 points. The problem was, nobody else could score.
So yeah, I guess the Mavs kind of need Dirk.
SPURS TAKE DOWN THE LAKERS; TIME TO WORRY IN L.A.?From the opening tip, you could feel the intensity. This might've been a regular season game on Dec. 28, but it sure seemed like something you'd see April 28.
Two titans of the postseason were playing and even though it's just one more of 82, anytime the Spurs and Lakers hook up, pleasantries don't stay in the arena very long.
Kobe Bryant and George Hill tangoed in the first half, pointing fingers in faces and saying, um, stuff to each other. Ron Artest roped Tony Parker on a fast break for a hard foul. Andrew Bynum clothes-lined Tiago Splitter on the inside. Richard Jefferson and Derek Fisher had an exchange with Fisher picking up a technical after chasing Jefferson down to bump. Hard fouls, technicals, trash talk -- this one just had that extra umph.
But just like a classic Spurs playoff win, San Antonio used stifling defense, smart offense and big plays from role players to overwhelm the Lakers in the fourth quarter, beating the defending champs 97-82 in front of a sold-out AT&T Center crowd.
And here's where we go one of two ways: Is the story how well the Spurs are playing or if the Lakers officially in crisis mode?
Let me hedge here and say both. The Spurs are playing wonderful basketball. They're undefeated at home in December, own the NBA's best record and get something from everybody that steps on the floor. Tim Duncan was just 1-7 from the floor and scored only two points. Manu Ginobili went just 3-12 from the field. So naturally, since this is the Spurs we're talking about, someone stepped up.
Click here to read the rest of how the Spurs dominated the Lakers.
PARTING THOUGHTIt's been a rough stretch for Indiana's Danny Granger lately. The Pacer scorer is shooting around 35 percent from the field over the past couple weeks and really punctuated that with a 5-21 performance against the Celtics. It's nothing Granger is doing wrong necessarily, he's just missing shots. And when shooters start missing, they start forcing things. It's a tough cycle to be stuck in, but Granger will break loose at some point.
Posted on: December 28, 2010 10:10 pm
Edited on: August 14, 2011 9:53 pm
New York Knicks power forward Amar'e Stoudemire posterizes Miami Heat forward LeBron James. Posted by Ben Golliver.
New York Knicks power forward Amar'e Stoudemire has put more players on posters than just about anyone else in the NBA, so it's hardly news when he embarrasses someone with one of his tomahawk jams. But when that someone is Miami Heat forward LeBron James? Different story. It's big time news. Check out Stoudemire posterizing James during the fourth quarter of Tuesday night's game between the Knicks and Heat in Miami. With the Heat leading 93-82 with 5:03 seconds left in the game, Stoudemire collects a pass from Knicks guard Toney Douglas in the middle of the paint and goes straight up with it. James leaves Danilo Gallinari in the weakside corner to sneak over and contest the dunk, but gets hammered on in the process. Here's the video, courtesy of outsidethenba on YouTube. Stoudemire finished with 30 points, seven rebounds, one assist, two steals and two blocks in 43 minutes, but James and the Heat had the last laugh, as Miami closed out the win, 106-98, at home. Dwyane Wade led the Heat with 40 points, nine rebounds, two assists, two steals and one block in 38 minutes. James finished with 18 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists in 40 minutes.
Posted on: December 28, 2010 8:32 pm
Edited on: August 14, 2011 9:52 pm
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra reportedly met with New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire during the first hours of this summer's free agency period. Posted by Ben Golliver. We all know how the 2010 summer free agency period ended: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to team up and take their talents to South Beach to play for the Miami Heat, while former Phoenix Suns forward Amar'e Stoudemire headed to the Big Apple to play for the New York Knicks. After the fact, and given the strong starts for both teams, those moves now seem like they were destined to be. But on Tuesday the New York Post reported that an alternate version of history -- one that could have found Stoudemire in Miami -- had a chance to develop, before Wade intervened.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra met with Amar'e Stoudemire and his agent, Happy Walters, at midnight, July 1 in Los Angleles for two hours. "It was a very good meeting," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra told The Post yesterday. "He was a confident guy. My sense was his main concern was to go somewhere he can win."
Stoudemire had intense interest in Miami, where he has owned a home for several years. He also would have returned to the state where he lived during his high school years before turning pro. Stoudemire was Mr. Basketball in Florida his senior year at Cypress Creek High in Orlando. The Heat may have tried to get Stoudemire on the cheap in order to get James and Dwyane Wade to fit under the salary cap, but ultimately sources said the Heat went harder after Chris Bosh because of Wade's personal friendship with him. The Heat may have preferred Stoudemire's talent because the team made several attempts to trade for him at last February's deadline, according to sources.Stoudemire's combination of size, strength and skill, in combination with James and Wade, would be a truly terrifying proposition for opponents. But would Stoudemire have been a better fit than Bosh? Stoudemire (26.2 points, 9.3 rebounds) is putting up bigger numbers than Bosh (18.5 points, 8.2 rebounds) so far this season, but they're playing in two entirely differen systems, and Stoudemire is options one, two and three for New York, while Bosh is option three for Miami. Given that Stoudemire is not an elite defender and that he's not as effective as a floor-spacing shooter as Bosh, his bigger size and more fearsome low-post game would not be as big of an improvement over Bosh for Miami than one might expect at first glance. Plus, Bosh has come on strong over the last month or so, silencing early season doubters who questioned whether he was the right third wheel for Miami. This is a thrilling "what if" scenario that will haunt Bosh until the Heat win a title. If Bosh comes up short in the playoffs, there will surely be a chorus of second-guessers saying: "Shoulda been Amar'e."
Posted on: December 25, 2010 3:28 pm
Edited on: December 25, 2010 4:14 pm
Knicks point guard comes up big to help Knicks topple Bulls on Christmas.
Posted by Matt Moore
Raymond Felton isn't mentioned as a top point guard in the league with so many amazing players at the position. His performance on Christmas Saturday against Derrick Rose and the Bulls. Felton finished with 20 points on 9 of 18 shooting, 12 assists, 5 steals, and 5 turnovers to Rose's 25 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists, 6 steals and 7 turnovers, with 12 of 28 shooting. But it was Felton's play in the fourth quarter that was essential at both ends. He managed to disrupt Rose enough and snagged two steals to help the Knicks pull away while the Bulls' offense went into the tank.
Then with the lead cut to six inside of a minute, Felton threaded a behind the back bounce pass to Wilson Chandler who used the space afforded to get his man in the air, then slice to the bucket for the score that iced the game. It was the kind of play he made all day, that he's made all season. Chicago elected to try the Boston approach on Amar'e Stoudemire and throw all their defense at him, which left space. Felton took advantage of it.
In particular, Saturday's game showed the difference in Felton under Mike D'Antoni versus Larry Brown. Under Brown, Felton would need to peel back on possessions like the fourth quarter jump ball he obtained, to set the offense. Under D'Antoni, Felton saw an opening and immediately attacked the basket.
Stoudemire gets all the marquee attention at the Garden, but Felton was the big difference for the Knicks today.
Assorted bullet thoughts:
Posted on: December 24, 2010 12:08 pm
Edited on: August 14, 2011 9:50 pm
Everyone wants to receive cash for Christmas, and everyone hopes Santa Claus doesn't leave coal. We hand out cash and coal to the NBA's teams, players and executives based on their pre-Christmas performances. Posted by Ben Golliver. Christmas Day: when your greatest hopes either come true, or come crashing down on top of you. You either get what you want, or hate what you got. Christmas expectations can be a mother, just like expectations in the NBA. The NBA Facts & Rumors staff sat down and tossed out this question: Who in the NBA deserves cash (what we all secretly want) and who deserves coal (what we all not-no-secretly fear)? Who was nice and who was naughty? The results are in. Check them out below.
CASHMatt Moore -- Indiana Pacers: Darren Collison isn't the man in Indiana, not yet. He doesn't need to be. But what was an incomplete and inconsistent team last year is much more solid thanks to the contributions of the players the front office decided to add, and the ones they decided not to get rid of. That the Pacers are within range of the playoffs demonstrates that their moves were sound. James Posey provides leadership, Collison provides another PG weapon along with T.J. Ford (how many teams have point guard surpluses?), and Roy Hibbert has continued to flourish. Good job all around by Larry Bird and the Pacers front office. Royce Young -- Amar'e Stoudemire: When the big summer free agency bonanza started, not many had Amar'e Stoudemire as a big prize. Most actually felt like Chris Bosh was the real power forward that should be on everyone's wish list. However, it's turned out Stoudemire has been everything the Knicks wanted and needed. He's exciting, has the star power to last in New York and most importantly, has led a pretty good turnaround for the Knicks. Plus, don't ignore what Raymond Felton has meant to the team. His offseason signing was seen as something to bridge the gap until the Knicks could get something better, but he's turning in an All-Star caliber season so far. Ben Golliver -- Wesley Matthews: Not like he needs the money after inking a five-year contract this summer, but Portland Trail Blazers guard Wesley Matthews has earned it, thanks to rock solid play in the first third of the season. Stepping into the starting lineup in place of small forward Nicolas Batum, and then sliding over to two guard when Brandon Roy went down to injury, Matthews has proven to be a versatile dynamo on both sides of the ball. His relentless optimism and hustle, along with renewed spirit from LaMarcus Aldridge, have been the main reasons Blazers fans haven't totally abandoned ship during another injury-plagued season. From unknown to overpaid to properly valued, it's been a rollercoaster ride for Matthews, but he deserves all of the recent praise, and more.
Ben Golliver -- Paul Westphal: The Sacramento Kings are the league's worst team, and it's not by accident. The list of Westphal's sins is a mile long. He hasn't harnessed promising rookie DeMarcus Cousins, and he hasn't even provided him with very good direction. He's failed to honestly assess and remedy the team's offensive failings. He's watched as star guard Tyreke Evans has taken a step back after a Rookie of the Year campaign. He's reportedly "lost the locker room" after juggling his lineups so often. He's lost lots and lots and lots of games. No one, save his immediate family, would be upset if he was ousted in Sacramento in the near future, and that's the definition of a man that's earned himself some coal.Matt Moore -- Joe Dumars: There's a song "A Change is Gonna Come." Apparently Joe Dumars has never heard this song. In the midst of a failing economy with too much money on the books and a disastrous season before, Dumars elected to stay the course. And that's led the Pistons right into the rocks, even worse than last year. Rip Hamilton is clashing with teammates, John Kuester's clashing with everyone, and the Pistons are struggling, even as they have recently shown signs of life. The Pistons don't just need to make moves, they have the ability to with the talent they have and the contracts on roster. Joe Dumars gets coal not for doing something naughty, but for not doing anything nice at all. Royce Young -- New Jersey Nets: The Nets figured to be players in the market last summer but missed out on all the big name players. They felt obligated to do something, so they made a couple moves to try and bolster the roster. Potential scorer Travis Outlaw, Jordan Farmar, and Anthony Morrow were signed, plus they traded Courtney Lee for Troy Murphy who appeared to be someone to help inside. Instead, the Nets are 9-21 and Murphy has been on the end of the bench for most of the season. The Nets whiffed on the big names in free agency and look to have missed on the players they did get.
Posted on: December 24, 2010 10:01 am
Edited on: December 24, 2010 11:26 am
Tis the season for Heat-Lakers, Celtics-Magic and more as we preview the NBA Christmas Day extravaganza.
Posted by NBA F&R Blog Staff
With five games on the NBA schedule Christmas Day, we walk you through each one, letting you know how to fit in your basketball with your sugarplums (we don't even know what those are, just go with it).
Miami Heat at Los Angeles Lakers, 5 p.m. ETWhen the Lakers and Heat tip off Saturday afternoon at Staples Center, their goal will not have anything to do with the other team. Forget sending messages, staking claim, or becoming top dog in conference (an impossibility for both teams considering their records relative to the conference leaders). This is about finding out about themselves.
The Lakers have drifted after a stunning start, losing to teams they have no business losing to and doing so on a regular basis. Even the win streak they peeled off came against exceptionally weak opponents like the Wizards, Sixers, and Pacers. In reality, this is their first big test against a contending opponent since their loss to the Bulls two weeks ago in Chicago. No one really doubts the Lakers, not yet. But a loss on Christmas Day in a major hyped game against the Heat would definitely put a damper on Christmas and plant some seeds of doubt about their ability to simply breeze through to another title. Beating LeBron and company allows them to send a message: "Don't confuse our coasting with weakness. We've got our fingers on the switch ready to flip."
The Heat on the other hand, are in a no-win position. Should they beat L.A., downing the defending champs with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles, critics will simply say what they've said every time the Heat have managed to win this season: it doesn't matter until the playoffs. (Note that when the Heat lose, this same approach is not employed; suddenly the games matter when the Heat lose "meaningless" games.) Should the Heat lose, well, that just means they're definitely not ready for prime time and that Kobe is still the real King. But testing themsevles against LA give them an opportunity to see where they're at and if the progress they've made is real in any sense. Beating the Lakers wouldn't be a real victory in terms of contending status, but would at least give them a measure of how good this team can be.
So how does this matchup shake out, exactly?
L.A.'s interior defense is considerably bolstered by the return of Andrew Bynum, and they're going to have considerable advantages inside. The Heat have no one to counter Bynum or Gasol inside, as Chris Bosh is simply not good enough to slow down Pau Gasol if he gets touches. Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, and Kobe Bryant should have their hands full on defense in this game, and in fact, Bryant may want to take a backseat on offense just so he can keep Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in check on the perimeter. This isn't to say Kobe can't get it done on the offensive end, but it's a strategy that would play both to the Lakers' strengths and the Heat's weaknesses. Somehow I doubt Bryant will opt for that.
Bryant needs to be careful though. If he decides to come out guns slinging and the triggers aren't perfectly aligned, he's going to start the fast break for the Heat. And that's their bread and butter. The Lakers need to slow this game down and force Miami to beat them in the halfcourt set, with Carlos Arroyo and James Jones taking jumpers. Do that, and Miami will wither and die on the vine. But get into an up-down type game with them, and the youth of Miami may create some problems for the Lakers.
Bench play will probably be huge in this game, since the Lakers have such a phenomenal advantage. Shannon Brown versus Mario Chalmers. Matt Barnes versus Juwan Howard. Steve Blake versus Eddie House, should Erik Spoelstra elect to turn to the veteran. The Lakers are dominant in this regard and should be able to extend leads or close deficits while multiple members of the Big 3 for Miami rest.
This isn't a game about sending a message to a possible Finals opponent. The Heat just aren't there, yet. But it is about proving something to themselves. For the Lakers, it's a firm conviction that they can turn it on whenever they need. For the Heat, it's that they may finally be ready to play with the big boys, something they have yet to show this season.
Should be merry and bright, indeed.
Boston Celtics at Orlando Magic (2:30 p.m ET)The Magic just started clicking a bit with their new, revamped roster with a big win over the streaking Spurs. Now they get another chance to bust a big streak.
The sizzling Celtics come to town riding a 14-game streak and playing as the best team in the Eastern Conference. Boston is doing damage behind a devastating defense and an offense that scores consistently throughout the entire 48. If Orlando expects to hang with Boston, the Magic will have to get production from their new line of scorers. Gilbert Arenas, Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson will have to provide Dwight Howard some major help. If Orlando doesn't get that, the Celtics will feast on the Magic's stalled offense and probably cruise to a 15th straight win.
What Boston does so well defensively is that it funnels the opposing offense into becoming one dimensional. The Celtics take what you want to do and use it against you. Orlando wants to use dribble penetration to clear lanes for Howard and also to free shooters. Boston's fine with letting you try and do that, but they're just going to close those lanes off and shut down the shooters. This is a game where Howard will have to play big on the inside of Orlando wants to play with the Celtics.
However, the new Magic have options that they didn't have before. This feels like it could be a big opportunity for Arenas to really break out offensively or for Turkoglu to get some of that isolation play going where he drains step-back after step-back. The Celtics can play with Orlando if it's scoring, but the Magic have the players to put points up in a hurry. Boston wants a game in the high 80s, while the Magic probably want to push the pace a bit more and score in triple-digits.
This game will likely come down to who gets to play their game the longest, and also who plays the other guy's game better. The Celtics are tested and typically thrive in these situations, but the Magic may be gelling a bit. There's definitely a chance here to play streak-buster a second time for them.
Chicago Bulls at New York Knicks (12 p.m. EST)A rematch of the November 4th Knicks win, this game features two teams still trying to gain an identity. After a long impressive win streak, the Knicks dropped three straight to Boston (understandable, especially on a buzzer beater), Miami (understandable, even in a blowout), and Cleveland (not understandable in any universe ever created). Then they go out and drop the Thunder this week, just to keep us on our toes. The Bulls? We know they're good. But Joakim Noah is out with a hand injury, which changes much of their dynamic. This game could wind up being a preview of a first-round playoff series, and we're going to see a lot of familiar themes most likely. Primarily that Carlos Boozer can't guard Amar'e Stoudemire in any impactful way, and that the Knicks are going to be run through by the saber that is Derrick Rose, especially on the pick and roll.
This should be a fun one to open the day with, in a fast paced affair featuring two good point guards (and one elite), two good power forwards (and one elite), along with capable supporting players. The Knicks will need to send help in the form of wing defenders when Rose drives off the pick and roll, or he's going to get to the basket all day long. They have to take their chances with Kyle Korver and Luol Deng on the perimeter. The Bulls on the other hand will need to flash help at Stoudemire to get him off the shot-fake elbow-jumper that he's killing teams with this season. Tom Thibodeau versus Mike D'Antoni also means a classic clash of styles.
Denver Nuggets at Oklahoma City Thunder (8:00 p.m. ET)The primetime Christmas Day game lost some of its luster with Carmelo Anthony missing due to a recent death in his family. Obviously, basketball has taken a backseat for Carmelo and rightly so. But despite his absence, there's still an important Northwest Division game to be played.
The Thunder are right atop the division with the Nuggets just a few back. Oklahoma City hasn't been the most consistent team in the world but with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook playing as the most dangerous tandem in basketball, they don't have to be. Denver will look to run and get hot from outside to keep pace with the Thunder's big guns, but OKC's improving defense will be a key in shutting off a big Nuggets run.
The game may not have the same star power and spotlight head-to-head matchup of Carmelo and KD, but it's still something worth watching.
Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors (10:30 p.m. ET)Four out of five big-time match-ups isn't bad. Christmas Day's nightcap is easily the least glamorous affair on the schedule, with the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers, two teams that have battled injuries for the last two seasons, facing off in California.
Blazers guard Brandon Roy and center Joel Przybilla won't play, and Portland will continue to run things offensively through its make-shift centerpieces, LaMarcus Aldridge and Wesley Matthews. The duo has stepped up big in Roy's, as has reserve guard Rudy Fernandez. The Blazers just beat the Warriors in Portland last week, so what will be different this time around? For starters, Portland always struggles on the road against the Warriors, and Golden State point guard Stephen Curry, as of this writing, is expected to make his return from a nagging ankle injury that has kept him out since Dec. 8. In Curry's absence, it's been all Monta Ellis all the time for the Warriors, as Golden State's leading scorer has maintained his big numbers from last season (25.6 points, 5.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds), while improving his field goal (from 44.9% to 48.0%) and three-point shooting (from 33.8% to 36.4%) numbers. Ellis had a chance to beat the Blazers at the buzzer in Portland, but it rimmed out. He's hit for 30+ four times in December, and could easily make it five on Saturday, assuming that he's out for a little Christmas revenge.