|Kevin Durant and LeBron James face off for the first time since the 2012 Finals on Tuesday. (Getty Images)|
It's said that the NBA season doesn't truly begin until Christmas. Arguably the biggest NBA regular season day of the season features a quintuple-header this year, and the slate is stacked.
Kevin Durant and LeBron James face off in an MVP showdown as the Thunder and Heat meet for the first time since the Finals. The Knicks travel to Los Angeles as Carmelo Anthony tries to take down mentor and good friend Kobe Bryant, whose Lakers have Steve Nash back and look primed to get back on track. Boston and the Nets get back into the scrum after their brawl last time out, the Rockets' offensive onslaught takes on the Bulls' stout defense, and Lob City tries to defend its turf against the Nuggets.
So to make sure you know what you're getting into after the stockings are empty and the tons of wrapping paper has been collected (and put in the recycling bin, we're sure), we present this guide to the NBA Christmas Day games.
Oklahoma City at Miami, 5:30 p.m. ET
by Zach Harper
Keys to the game:
1. Kevin Durant in the post
2. Miami's defensive question mark
3. Oklahoma City's bench superiority
With the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat squaring off for the first time since the Heat finished off their Finals run in five games, the focus will deservedly go straight to the two best players in the league -- LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
While LeBron's teams have often had the advantage against Durant's teams when they've faced off (LeBron is 11-3 against Durant all-time, including playoffs), the two players have played each other to a virtual standstill. In the Finals showdown last June, Durant (30.6 points per game, 54.8/39.4/83.9) outshot and outscored LeBron (28.6, 47.2/18.8/82.6) in nearly every way possible. However, the two things that stood out were LeBron's overall game (10.2 rebounds, 7.4 assists) trumping Durant's game (6.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists) and Durant's foul trouble (4.0 per game) compared to LeBron's (2.0 per game).
Many people will point to the missed foul call at the end of Game Two and say LeBron received the majority of the favorable calls over Durant, but LeBron has shown an incredible ability to avoid fouling, even when playing arguably the top defense in the league at his position. He hasn't committed a foul since Dec. 8 against the New Orleans Hornets. Some of that can be a superstar call type of thing, but some of it is just knowing how to avoid fouling.
In the Finals, Durant's free throw attempts per 36 minutes went from 4.8 attempts when James was on the court to 12.0 when he was on the bench. One way for Durant to draw more fouls is by using his much improved post game against LeBron. Synergy Sports has Durant's post game last season as the 50th best in the NBA, scoring 0.89 points per possession and making 42.5 percent of his shots. This season, Durant is the best post player in the NBA.
He's scoring an absurd 1.13 points per possession and making 55.4 percent of his attempts out of the post. A lot of this is footwork and balance in the post.
When Durant struggled against LeBron in the post, it was because he came out of his move and into his shot with hesitation and imbalance. He would be hunched over as he gathered for his shot and it didn't allow for proper separation on his shot. Once in the video, you even see LeBron blocking the impossible wingspan of Durant on a shot coming across the lane.
When Durant scored against James in the post, his footwork was spectacular. He got great separation on his jumper or he blew by him for the dunk. It's all because he was able to remain balance. If he's making an incredible amount of shots working out of the post, it will force LeBron to play more physical to try to regain the advantage.
And while LeBron hasn't had a hard time avoiding fouls called against him, Durant is pretty adept at drawing fouls against any kind of defender. If he can get LeBron in foul trouble early in any matchup between the two, we might see the final result start heading in Durant's favor.
New York Knicks at Los Angeles Lakers, 3 p.m. ET
Keys to the game:
1. How hot is Melo?
2. Can Nash keep turnovers down for the Lakers?
3. Knicks' three-point shooting
Speaking of teams who need a statement win, the Lakers are trying to get back on track now that Steve Nash has returned. The Knicks blew them out in their last meeting at MSG before a half-hearted rally brought them within striking distance.
Melo was blistering last time out, with 30 points before going down with an ankle injury. He's back for this game and if the Lakers can't find a weapon to throw at him, he could wind up putting coal in their stockings.
Meanwhile, if the Lakers don't figure out their perimeter rotations to defend the 3, New York can bury them. A lot depends on Raymond Felton, who is feast or famine this year in terms of shooting. When he's off, he keeps gunning. It's like J.R. Smith is contagious. Smith, meanwhile, in between bouts of J.R.-Smithness, is actually being a distributor and smart player.
This one might come down to whether the Knicks play smart or stupid and if the Lakers play active or sluggish.
Keys to the game:
1. Celtics' perimeter defense
2. Nets' interior scoring vs. Kevin Garnett
3. X-Factors: Andray Blatche, Jeff Green
Or as I like to call it, "The Battle of Should Be Better." Both the Nets and Celtics have underwhelmed relative to expectations. The Nets have been unable to get all their pieces to work together consistently, as their stars have struggled for most of the season, Deron Williams in particular.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have been a mess for much of the season, sporting a .500 record largely due to an incredibly weak schedule. Their defense has slowly come around (Boston now sports the 11th best team in defensive efficiency, points allowed per 100 possessions), but they're still unable to close the deal in many big situations.
So going into Tuesday's game, both squads could use a big win.
The last time these two teams met -- it got a little ugly.
Kris Humphris has fallen out of the rotation, so the odds on a Christmas Day fight go down. But the Celtics, who are 0-2 against the Nets this year, still have the same concerns. Namely, the fact that Joe Johnson lives to play against them.
The Celtics have got to play better rotation defense if they want to get a statement win on Christmas.
Houston at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET
1. Chicago stopping Harden in transition
2. Joakim Noah's versatility
3. Rocket perimeter barrage
A team with a terrfic defense that struggles offensively in Chicago faces a tremendous offense that has issues with getting stops in Houston as the proverbial unstoppable O meets the immovable D.
Houston is led of course by James Harden, who has become an elite player at scoring in transition. Harden's ability to navigate through the defense and either score or draw the foul has made him into a top scoring player. The Bulls' defense behind Tom Thibodeau's schemes does a good job at stopping the ball in transition, which is a huge key against Harden.
From there, the Bulls will have to find a way to score, and Houston's not exactly stout when it comes to that, with the 20th best defense by efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions).
Luol Deng has been the primary scoring option, and the Rockets lack a lockdown wing stopper. But the best player for the Bulls this season has ben Joakim Noah, and that's who the Rockets should be most concerned with. Noah goes up against former teammate Omer Asik down low, but it's been the irritant Noah's versatilty that has done the work this year. He's been a great passer out of both the mid- and low post, and is logging a near-triple-double consistently throughout the year.
The Rockets have been on a tear lately, and this shapes up to be an underrated game Christmas Day night.
Denver at Los Angeles Clippers, 10:30 ET
1. Clippers' pick and roll-attack vs. Denver
2. Can the Nuggets make threes? Or a three?
3. Clippers' bigs vs. Denver's inside attack
The Clippers have been on a huge roll as of late, winning 13 in a row, a franchise record. They're balanced by strong play both on the perimeter and inside, and have moved widely away from being a team that "just dunks." Chris Paul is obviously the base of the soup, but Eric Bledsoe's relentless attack off the bench and Jamal Crawford's instant fireball helps the Clippers offense be the juggernaut it has been.
Denver, meanwhile, has slowly rounded into form. After a brutal opening schedule, the Nuggets have started to look a lot better, even if they're miles away from where some had predicted they would be near the top of the West.
The Nuggets lead the league in points in the paint, as their dribble-drive offense creates slashing lanes for Ty Lawson, Danilo Gallinari, and Andre Iguodala while their finishers in Kenneth Faried, Kosta Koufos and JaVale McGee benefit from the attention drawn to the wings.
The Clippers are the only team to feature a top five team in both defensive and offensive efficiency.