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The Winners and Losers of NBA Christmas

Kawhi and Pat Bev got their way in L.A., the 76ers earned a statement win, and the no-name Warriors dealt James Harden and the Rockets another embarrassing defeat in the spotlight. Here’s all the good and bad from the holiday slate.

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Dunk the halls. The marquee showcase of the NBA’s five-game holiday slate lived up to the hype, with Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers outdueling LeBron James and the Lakers in a star-studded thriller and potential Western Conference finals preview. Here are our winners and losers from the NBA’s Christmas Day extravaganza.

Winner: Kawhi Leonard, King of L.A.

Paolo Uggetti: The theatrics and decorations were different this time around, but the result was more or less the same. On opening night, the Clippers hosted and edged out the Lakers, thanks to Kawhi Leonard’s 31 points. On Christmas, the Lakers played host and watched Kawhi go for 35 points to take a 111-106 victory. For all the downplaying these two teams do in public to minimize the “rivalry” everyone wants to foist on them, Kawhi has been the only player who has played in both games with the kind of intensity you would expect to see in such matchups. He doesn’t do it with brute force or even with artful panache; it still simply looks like him going about his business.

Kawhi began the night by putting up 14 points on eight shots in the first quarter. He then receded from the limelight for a bit, allowing the Lakers to amass a lead as big as 15 points. But these two teams are so evenly matched that any kind of blowout would be a surprise; so the game pin-balled back and forth until Kawhi poured in 11 points in the fourth. It was the kind of performance that reminds us that when the stakes are at their highest, Kawhi is at his best. The Lakers—who entered the game boasting one of the best defenses in the league and plenty of elite defenders like LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Danny Green—had no response. And even though it was the second such statement Kawhi has made since the season began, he won’t be the one to say anything. His game was loud enough.

Winner: Patrick Beverley, a Glorious Nuisance

Uggetti: No one makes motion around a basketball court more thrilling and heart-pounding than Beverley. Watching him requires an oxygen mask, and afterward, you almost feel like you need to take a shower. It’s grimy, but you get the sense he wouldn’t have it any other way, especially when it wins basketball games. Kawhi may have set the table for Wednesday’s win, but it was the diminutive guard who sealed it by stripping none other than LeBron as the Lakers star tried to rise up for a game-tying 3 with four seconds left. The ball appeared to be off Beverley, but the super-slow-motion replay (more on that in a bit) showed it was off LeBron. Game over.

As Davis said repeatedly after the game, the Lakers felt like they gave the game away. While that may have been true, you still need someone to take it from you. Pat Bev was more than a willing participant; he was a forceful one.

As the buzzer sounded and Beverley pranced around the court, shouting, celebrating, and raising his arms, LeBron glared at him as he walked off. Neither he nor Davis shook hands with any of the Clippers. Happy holidays.

Winner: The Sixers’ Offense

Haley O’Shaughnessy: Before diving into Philly’s narrative-altering 121-109 win against Milwaukee, the franchise with the best record in the league, I’d like to make something clear: The Sixers did need to figure out their offense. The doubts raised about their scattered system and appropriate roles and the—I’m going to say it because I change my address every few months so you all can’t find me—FIT between Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid were all legitimate concerns. I say this despite what Philly Twitter would like you to believe after the Sixers’ shooters came alive and Embiid turned back into Embiid in a lacerating of the Bucks.

But this offensive performance, the Sixers’ best of the season, showed what they’re capable of—even if it all but dissolved for most of the fourth quarter. (Though Al Horford did managed one more 3-pointer with 43 seconds left to finish off the Bucks.) Philadelphia tied a franchise record with 21 made 3s; Embiid dropped 23 points in the first half alone, a personal high for a half this season; and the looks were open, the cuts were purposeful, and the effort was at its peak.

It’s unlikely Philadelphia hits this many deep shots again because it averaged 10.8 made 3s entering the contest, and because the franchise has hit as many 3s only once in the 40 years since the 3-point shot has counted. But there’s now proof that this can happen. Here’s to the possibility of greatness.

Winner: Joel Embiid

O’Shaughnessy: The standard for what qualifies as “being in a funk” is higher with Embiid. That’s the burden of superstar talent. (The benefit is a max contract, so still kind of worth it.) But after a struggling start to the season, Embiid tore Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to shreds, tallying 31 points, 11 rebounds, three assists, and two blocks. He also deserves credit for his share of restraining the reigning MVP (and the current MVP favorite): Giannis was held to 18 points on 8-for-27 shooting.

Embiid’s average points, assists, rebounds, blocks, and free throw attempts are all down this season compared to last, which shrunk his confidence to such a degree that he said Charles Barkley and Shaq’s criticism of him was fair. No one ever thinks Barkley and Shaq are fair! But this performance could be a turning point, even if it was just 28 minutes long.

Winners: The Scrappy, Charming Warriors

Uggetti: Nothing makes you relatable and lovable again like showing vulnerability. Just ask Tiger Woods. The Warriors have gone from dynastic juggernauts to one of the worst teams in the league, cherishing every regular-season win like it’s the first one they’ve ever collected. And while pitying the banged-up Dubs is where some have drawn the line (they did win three titles in four years), this collection of players, on paper, is pretty bleak. Even the usually proud Draymond Green jokingly asked this week if the NBA was still going to let Golden State keep the ABC prime-time game given its drain of talent and number of debilitating injuries. The answer was yes, so Green and Co. turned it into their own Finals and upset the Rockets like it was Game 7 all over again.

With Steph Curry and Klay Thompson in blue suits on the sideline, the Warriors You’ve Probably Never Heard Of put up some of the best games of their lives. Damion Lee didn’t just score 22 points; the 6-foot-5 guard also had a game-high 15 rebounds (shame on you, Clint Capela). Jacob Evans and Alec Burks added eight points each off the bench, and Willie Cauley-Stein, of all people, was a game-high plus-29.

The Warriors didn’t even need a voluminous game from D’Angelo Russell, who shot a terrible 1-of-10 from 3. Green stepped up and knocked down two clutch 3s down the stretch, and the rest of the team bludgeoned Houston in the paint for 54 points. Even Ky Bowman, who had just been called up from the G League, had a highlight moment:

You could tell no one enjoyed the Christmas present of beating a fully healthy Rockets team 116-104 with this makeshift squad more than Green, who is having to endure a lost season during the prime of his career. And while Golden State’s and Houston’s seasons are headed in opposite directions, for one night, the Warriors still maintained the same terrorizing bragging rights they’ve held over the Rockets the past few seasons. And this time, they got to do it as lovable underdogs. What a difference a season makes.

Loser: Sad Giannis

O’Shaughnessy: The other day I wondered on Twitter whether there was anything about Giannis Antetokounmpo that was unlikable. The answers were mostly “no” or “he doesn’t play for my team :(“ or racist, so the answer is a definitive no. That’s what made Sad Giannis so devastatingly sad on the bench during the loss to the Sixers. Antetokounmpo has done everything you could ask of him this season—including shoot the 3 and not be a coward. (He’s hitting 44.4 percent over the 10 games before this one. Like I said, lovable.)

The Sixers borrowed the Bucks’ strategy of taking 3s and making 3s and used it against Giannis and Milwaukee’s top-ranked defense. Giannis missed all seven of his 3-point attempts. Also, he got poked in the eye:

It’s not as if one game ruins Milwaukee’s chances, or that Embiid winning the matchup has “exposed” Giannis. He still had highlights. But the margin between the Bucks and the rest of the East suddenly looks slimmer, and that should worry the Bucks. Us, too. I’m not sure I can take more sad Giannis.

Winner: Jaylen Brown

O’Shaughnessy: After four seasons and six losses, Jaylen Brown finally won in Toronto. He called the Celtics’ 118-102 victory, his first on the road against the Raptors, the “perfect present” after the game. I can’t decide if that’s (a) a sign he’s dedicated to the craft; (b) indicative that he has a low bar for gift-giving; (c) a hint of some secret hatred for the Raptors and/or Toronto that we’re unaware of; or (d) just something nice to say in a Christmas Day postgame interview. Let’s go with C.

Brown has played on the holiday before, but never this well: He finished with 30 points, six rebounds, and four assists, and didn’t miss once in his 16-point third quarter (he was 5-for-5 from the field in the third, 10-for-13 overall). I am well aware of how annoying it must be for small-market franchises to see the Celtics on yet another Christmas Day slate, but it was a spotlight for this Jaylen Brown—the full-beard, low-cut, borderline All-Star, TWO-FOR-ONE SPIN MOVE Jaylen Brown:

After signing a four-year, $115 million contract extension in October, the criticism levied against Brown—which over his career has ranged from “he’s a bust” to “he should be traded” to “he should bring back the flat top”—shifted to “he’s overpaid.” Yet Brown’s spent the 2019-20 season showing his importance to the Celtics, and Wednesday was a taste of that. He was efficient and flashy, in sync with Kemba Walker (who had 22 points himself), able to cover for Jayson Tatum through a rough shooting performance, and showing off his newly refined handle:

After Tatum’s breakthrough rookie season and Gordon Hayward’s signing, Brown was projected to be a third contributor or a trade piece. Now, he’s irreplaceable: Boston is 14-1 when Brown scores 20 or more points.

Loser: The Raptors Injury List

O’Shaughnessy: I love Fred VanVleet. I will fight for Fred VanVleet. But Fred VanVleet can’t be The Guy against a team with Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker set ablaze with the Christmas spirit. VanVleet led the Raptors with 27 points; Kyle Lowry threw in 14 points; the rest of the starting lineup combined for 19. The Raptors were missing three members of their six-man rotation: Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell.

Toronto’s been the fun surprise of the season to everyone except Toronto fans, who will tell you that it’s not a surprise, and that you should have listened to them this summer. The Raptors have survived patches of injury issues, including missing Lowry for 11 games, to amass a 21-10 record, because they win by committee. Six Raptors average double-digit scoring. VanVleet is the team’s third-leading scorer; it’s not that his 27-point performance is abnormal, it’s just not enough on its own.

Loser: James Harden on a Big Stage

Uggetti: I’m not going to lie, the only appeal this game had for me was whether Harden would use the national spotlight to go off against one of the worst teams in the league and score 60, 70, maybe even 80? But shame on me for expecting Harden to come through against the Warriors, superstars or no superstars. Harden wasn’t bad, per se. He still had 24 points, made six 3s, and led the team with 11 assists—but he looked listless for most of the first half and ended up taking only 18 shots (he averages 24.7). It was the kind of performance that raises questions, especially when you consider that the shots Harden didn’t take went to—yep, you guessed it—Russell Westbrook.

The Westbrook-Harden experiment has been a mild success so far, but this game showed how the Rockets’ usual recipe for success (let Harden dominate) simply doesn’t apply to Westbrook. Russ took a whopping 32 shots, missed all eight of his 3s—Lord, grant me the confidence to be able to miss seven straight and think the next will go in—and shot just 34.3 percent from the floor. It’s hard to fully blame him, though, because Harden bizarrely deferred so much. Who else is going to take those shots? Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore? No thanks.

Now, I don’t know if the pull of the San Francisco nightlife is that strong, or if the Warriors [puts on Stephen A. Smith mask] just wanted it more, but this is an eyesore that only perpetuates the narrative that Harden and the Rockets can’t come through in big games, especially against the Warriors. Luckily for them, they probably won’t have to deal with Damion Lee in the postseason.

Loser: The Lakers’ Equity

Uggetti: Starting the season with a 24-3 record buys you nothing but respect, no matter the schedule or how you racked up the wins. The Lakers had been rolling and looking like a juggernaut led by a two-headed monster. Then came consecutive losses against the Pacers, Bucks, Nuggets, and now, Clippers, which brings them full circle after losing to the Clips on opening night. Suddenly, the Lakers are 5-6 against teams above .500 and carrying a four-game losing streak with two glaring black eyes from the Clippers to boot.

Even on bad nights from Paul George and Lou Williams (combined 6-of-24 from the field), the Lakers couldn’t hit enough open shots or get enough stops down the stretch to overcome LeBron’s slow start (just 10 points in the first three quarters) and a number of lineups that didn’t work. Although their defense (still top 10 in the league) has been their calling card this season, the Lakers lost the game in the first and third quarters, when they allowed 31 and 35 points, respectively.

There was too much Dwight Howard at one point, and especially too much Rajon Rondo at others—the latter highlighting that the Lakers don’t have another quality creator not named LeBron or AD. If this rough stretch has been a wake-up call, then the Clippers delivered the decisive waking blow—I mean, they even had Danny Green referring to himself in the third person after the game. There’s no doubt the Lakers have a meteoric ceiling with Davis and LeBron in tow, but to assure themselves something closer to a foolproof roster for the postseason, changes are in order.

Loser: Instant Replay, Again

Uggetti: Let’s talk about everyone’s favorite Christmas topic: instant replay. On the floor, Beverley’s strip-block of LeBron at the end of the game was called out on Beverley. It was a bang-bang call that felt right to everyone in the arena and likely everyone watching at home too. It would have also allowed for the possibility of a LeBron game-tying 3 and overtime. Instead, there was a signal for a replay review and the most exciting play in basketball—referees rushing to a small monitor at half court—ensued. The slow-mo video revealed a different result: The ball did touch LeBron before going out of bounds even though Beverley was the one that knocked it out. The play was overturned. The arena was deflated. The game was over.

Now, of course, making the right call is always important. And while this wasn’t a judgment call like a block or a charge, it helped expose the problem with replay in that it so often both needlessly halts a game’s rhythm and stifles the viewing experience. This was a fantastic game that had the NBA’s biggest stars dueling back and forth. Beverley made a hell of a play, but without replay no one would have noticed it was technically off LeBron because Beverley was the one who swiped the ball. We may have been in for a legendary shot and even more of a game that had been riveting. Instead, we’re left with a result that is technically correct but leaves us discussing replays almost as much as the performances from Beverley and Kawhi. On the bright side, at least there wasn’t a challenge involved with this one.