The NBA Corner: Christmas Day Lessons
The NBA returned in all its glory on Christmas Day. Just like Santa Claus.
There were five matchups from New York to Los Angeles that spanned the entire day and gave us all a reason to be happy, even if your wife’s grandmother gave you a sweater that was a size too small as a not-so-subtle hint that you’re getting fatter. Nine of the NBA’s marquee teams (sorry, Golden State) were on display, giving every basketball fan around the world a wonderful gift.
Celtics at Knicks
Heat at Mavericks
Bulls at Lakers
Magic at Thunder
Clippers at Warriors
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts, all of whom teach him something about the meaning of Christmas. In my house, we don’t need this lesson – I already know that it’s about presents, food, and pro basketball (#TheAmericanWay). So what did the NBA teach us this year? Well, in addition to reconfirming a variety of items that were expected, those five games also taught us a few new lessons. Let’s start with what we already knew.
Carmelo can score
- 37 points in 33 minutes (10-17 from the field, 4-7 from 3, 13-15 from the line). Amar’e Stoudemire was New York’s big signing last summer after losing out on LeBron, but Carmelo Anthony is their most important player. His ability to score in bunches is the reason celebrities are attending Knicks games again.
The Knicks need backcourt help
- No shock here. Landry Fields seems to be a better player than he is in reality. He played 33 minutes on Christmas and his +/- was -11. That’s unacceptable for a player that is the fourth or fifth option on the court. Yes, Tony Douglas played well (+12), but Rajon Rondo torched them the entire game (see below) and in the playoffs, when the game slows down and defenses pack the paint, strong guard play is often the difference between advancing and going home. Right now, the Knicks don’t have strong guard play. Maybe Baron Davis is the answer. Maybe Jeremy Lin is the answer. Regardless, it’s clear that Mike Bibby (DNP – Coach’s Decision) is not.
KG hates taking the last shot
- We’ve known this for over a decade. Kevin Garnett never wants to be the guy that takes the last shot. His most successful teams (’04 Timberwolves, ’08 – current Celtics) had other players – Sam Cassell, Latrell Sprewell, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen – that would gladly take that shot for him. Garnett had a wide open look as time expired against the Knicks. In the first 46 minutes of that game, he makes it easily. With the clock winding down and his team needing a bucket? He missed. Which led to…
KG loves being a bully
- ...his choking of Bill Walker. Garnett is a bully. We’ve known this for over a decade too. Opposing players hate him and it’s not hard to understand why. He’s taken the quiet focus of his youth and turned it into the persona of a barking tormentor that is no longer more athletic than other players so, as a result, tries to intimidate them. He’s a relentless competitor and he single-handedly changed the culture in Boston, but choking a guy for talking smack to you after you’ve talked more shit than anyone else for the past fifteen years? That’s just childish.
LeBron is still incredible
- 37/10/6 and +27. Against the champs. Wow. According to @NBAHistory, LeBron is only the third forward in the last 25 years to record at least 37 and 10 in a season opener (Karl Malone and Charles Barkley were the other two). He is the main reason why…
The Heat are the favorites
- …they are the frontrunners to win it all. They still have James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They experienced disappointment last year. They’ve had a year to gel. They’re committed to defense. Most importantly, the media is no longer following their every move so it no longer feels like a circus. Miami has a new offense (see below) and is poised to have an historically great season and they got off to a strong start on Sunday. Plus, this double alley-oop from James to Wade was just nasty.
Lamar Odom needs a hug
- You get ejected in your first game as a Maverick? After being ejected in your final game as a Laker? Yikes. Get that dude some candy…or some therapy.
Vince Carter is a cancer
- Will teams ever learn? Carter went to a team with amazing chemistry and teamwork (Phoenix) and ruined it. Seriously, if Steve Nash can’t play with you, it’s not them, it’s you. Now he’s in Dallas rocking the McNabb double chin beard and the Mavericks have been routed in their first two games. It’s not a coincidence. He’s a mush. Dirk should put him in the bathroom. If I saw him wearing a Packers hat, I’d immediately start praying for Aaron Rodgers.
The MVP is still improving
- Derrick Rose didn’t have an amazing day statistically (22 points, 5 assists, 1 rebound, 5 turnovers), but he came up big when it counted, making a very tough shot in the lane to seal the win. He may not repeat as MVP this season, but he’s getting better every day.
Defense still rules
- Down 11 with under four minutes to play, Chicago did what carried them to the East’s best record a year ago: they clamped down on defense. The Bulls smothered the Lakers, swarming them at every opportunity and taking them out of their game just enough to steal a victory. Their pressing and trapping defense allowed them to create turnovers and get back into the game.
Kobe still shows his displeasure with teammates (even when it’s his fault)
- He’s been in the league for fifteen years and is the franchise player for one of the league’s two historically great teams, yet he sighs and throws up his arms in defeat whenever something bad happens. In the case of the final turnover against Chicago, it was Kobe's fault (he should’ve taken a foul), yet he still looked at Pau Gasol as though he had missed a dunk on an eight foot rim.
Kobe isn’t getting any younger
- Bryant is 33 years old, but it’s an old 33. He has a ton of mileage on those legs. He has played at least one playoff series in 14 of his 15 seasons and seven times has gone all the way to the NBA Finals. He's played in 208 postseason games, equal to two-and-a-half regular seasons. Add to that the 2008 Olympics and various injuries and it becomes clear that Bryant is no longer “young.” He scored 28 on Christmas, but it took him 23 shots to get it and, in the process, he committed eight turnovers. He has to scrape and claw for almost every point and that will wear a player down, especially in this truncated 66-game season. He hurt his wrist when his dunk was blocked and his last-second shot on Christmas was also blocked. That never happens to 2002 Kobe. At some point the mind can no longer simply will an aging body to overcome a younger one (see Michael Jordan’s Wizards years) and that force of will becomes a detriment to the rest of the team. It’s possible we’re seeing the beginning of that now in Lakerland.
Mike Brown can’t coach
- To be fair, it has to be tough to go from Phil Jackson to Mike Brown and as the season rolls along, Lakers fans will realize what almost everyone else knows: Brown can’t coach. There’s an even bigger problem than that, if you can believe it: Brown can’t coach superstars. LeBron James tuned him out during their time in Cleveland and, let’s be honest, James has bit more respect for authority than Bryant. I give it a month until Kobe gives an interview to Stephen A. Smith and demands that Mike Brown be traded for Dwight Howard.
Oklahoma City is the favorite in the West
- The Thunder made it to the Western Conference Finals last season before falling to the eventual champs. In the NBA, you need to lose a few times before finally realizing what it takes to get over the hump. Magic, Jordan, Shaq, Kobe, Garnett, Dirk all suffered heartbreaking (yet mentally strengthening) defeats in the postseason before finally winning the chip. The Bulls and Thunder each experienced their lumps last year and both feel that they are ready to take the next step. I think Oklahoma City will do just that, if only because Chicago plays in the other conference with Miami. As long as Kevin Durant (30/5/6) continues to get the ball and Russell Westbrook doesn't shoot too much, I expect to see the Thunder playing in the Finals.
Dwight Howard and the rest of the Orlando Magic are distracted
- Howard put up a double-double (11 points and 15 rebounds), but that’s not really impressive for him, especially when considering that he went 4-for-12. The length between he and the rim at any given time is about the length of a beer pong table, yet he shot 33% from the field. Sorry, Orlando, he’s just not that into you. It’s best to trade him now because, at this point, they’d just be keeping an underachieving player and they already have enough of those.
Lob City is fun
- The Clippers are as advertised. They may be the most exciting team in the open floor, even more so than Miami. They don’t play a ton of defense and they’re young but they remind me of the Fab Five at Michigan – far from fundamentally sound but fun and effective. We’ll if that will translate to wins.
Chauncey still thinks it’s 2004
- Not everyone on the Clippers is young. Chauncey Billups is 35. He was upset when the Clippers claimed him, wondering why they would get in his way. He’s made the best of the situation and has promised to play hard, but there’s still an issue that remains: Chauncey still thinks of himself as “Mr. Big Shot” and doesn’t realize that 2004 was a looooooong time ago. He took 19 shots on Christmas, more than any other Clipper. He shot too much in Denver and, unless he begins sharing the rock, it looks like he’ll shoot too much in L.A. as well. Keep an eye on this, because Billups could be the anchor that slows down Lob City.
Those things just proved what we had already suspected. What new insights can we glean from the Christmas Day marathon?
Paul Pierce is no longer the Celtics’ best player
- I couldn’t decide if this should go in the above category but I heard someone on TV say, “The Celtics are without their best player, Paul Pierce, today,” so I guess it’s considered a new lesson. Paul Pierce is no longer the C’s top player. He may be their leader, their heart, their soul, and their go-to guy, but he’s not the best. That distinction that belongs solely to Rajon Rondo. Rondo has been getting better every single year and the fact that he has been so spectacular while being the fourth option on this team is staggering. Unlike Derrick Rose, Rondo is handling the point on an aging team and, as a result, hasn’t been given the chance to grow with time. He’s handled the responsibility extremely well (even considering his struggles in last year’s playoffs) and now he’s ready to be their first option. Here were his numbers against the Knicks: 31 points (11-19 FG), 13 assists, 5 steals, 5 turnovers. It should have been Rondo, not Garnett, taking that final shot.
Brandon Bass can play in Boston
- Some fans were unhappy when Boston decided to trade Glen “Big Baby” Davis to Orlando for Brandon Bass. I’m sure they’re probably pretty happy now. Bass will be a great sub for when Garnett needs a rest (or is suspended or arrested or whatever) and he didn’t disappoint in this Celtics debut, putting up 20 and 11 in 27 minutes. Early indications are that Danny Ainge should be praised for this move.
Tyson Chandler is a little rusty
- I love Tyson Chandler’s game. I’ve been a fan of his for years. When he landed in New Orleans after everyone had written him off, I knew that playing with Chris Paul would be a godsend for him. Similarly, he fit perfectly with the Mavericks and was a major reason for their march to the title. With the Knicks, it may take some time. Chandler had only 7 points and 3 rebounds in 36 minutes against the Celtics, but he did block 6 shots and, more importantly, he gives New York that inside advantage that they lose when Amar’e moves out of the paint on offense. He didn’t look very comfortable, but I still think that Chandler will bring much needed toughness and defense to a Knicks team that lacks both.
Dallas looks old
- Chandler’s old team just looks old. I’ll let Dirk explain: “We look old and slow and out of shape — a bad combination.” I’m sure the Mavericks will turn it around and I can’t imagine them missing the playoffs, but it’s not going to be easy. They’ll miss Chandler (and they’ll regret bringing in Carter).
Erik Spoelstra should have visited Chip Kelly last June
- Coach Spo visited the Oregon Ducks football team and asked himself, “Could a no-huddle spread offense work in the NBA?” Spoelstra decided to bring the up-tempo offense back to Miami and, if their game against Dallas was any indication, it works: “The Heat had shown glimpses of this new high-octane offense in the preseason, but that was preseason. In their regular season debut, the Heat looked like they were playing in fast forward while the Mavericks were stuck in normal play mode. As a product of their blitzkrieg offense, the Heat racked up 101 possessions in Sunday’s win, which was seven possessions more than they typically produced last season according to ESPN Stats and Info. When the scrubs came in with about three minutes remaining, the Heat had already scored their 105 points. The damage was done.”
Metta World Peace fell off
- The player formerly known as Ron Artest played just over half the game on Sunday. In that time, he scored 4 points and grabbed two rebounds. However, the Lakers didn’t acquire him for his offense and that’s the problem – he’s no longer an elite defender. Forget his days with the Pacers, he’s not even nearly the same player he was when he was harassing Kobe in the playoffs as a member of the Houston Rockets. He’s making $6.79 million this year – not an astronomical amount, but I think it’s too much for a guy giving you mediocre results.
Lob City is Turnover City?
GSW can score but can’t defend
- Like the Clips, the Warriors have a young, exciting team with some talent – Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry make for a potent backcourt duo and David Lee, Dorrell Wright, and Andris Biedrins are capable up front. However, Golden State plays very little defense and, unlike some other teams, they don’t have quite enough firepower to outscore most teams in a shootout. That’s not a good combination. As a result, they will be forced to find other ways to try to win…
- …like this. I thought Hack-A-Shaq was dead. Apparently not. Career 41% free throw shooter DeAndre Jordan was intentionally fouled four times by the Warriors. He missed five of the eight shots (including one airball) and called it “annoying.” I agree. I understand the idea that you exploit the other team’s weakness, but slowing down the game by putting an atrocious free throw shooter on the line only makes the game tougher to watch.
No more “hand down, man down” or “Mama, there goes that man!”
- Mark Jackson is no longer calling games on TV. Instead, he’s a head coach that is ruining the NBA on television by purposely fouling a poor foul shooter. At least we don’t have to hear his catch phrases any more.
This year’s Christmas kicks were hideous
- Christmas Day is a showcase not only for the NBA, but for Nike as well. Look at those shoes. None of them look appealing to me. I understand that a lot of time and effort went into them, but that doesn’t mean I have to like them. On the bright side, I can’t imagine any of these shoes causing riots in fifteen years.
If Christmas is any indication, it’s going to be a very, very fun season.
Pierzy writes a weekly NBA column during the season, as well as columns revolving around other sports, hip-hop, movies, TV shows, food, beer, marriage, and many other topics. You can follow him on Twitter here.