‘Tis the season for Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks and Steph Curry 3-pointers. Here are the winners and losers from the NBA’s Christmas Day slate.
Loser: LeBron James, the Lakers, and the NBA
LeBron James’s streak of 156 straight games played may be in jeopardy. In the third quarter of Tuesday’s matchup against the Golden State Warriors, LeBron scrambled for a loose ball and injured his left groin. Replays showed him grimacing and telling trainers what appeared to be “I felt it pop,” before going back to the locker room. He was eventually ruled out for the game, and Yahoo Sports reported that an initial exam revealed only a “slight” strain. James told ESPN that the muscle is “intact,” and he is expected to undergo an MRI on Wednesday.
Beyond the shock of watching the machine bleed, the other major takeaway is that an extended absence for LeBron would put the Lakers in dire straits. The scrappy bunch blew Golden State out, 127-101 (more on that in a bit), but LeBron’s teams haven’t fared well in the few times he’s missed games (LeBron’s longest absence due to injury is eight games, back in 2014-15). In James’s second run in Cleveland, the Cavaliers were 4-23 without their star, according to the Washington Post’s Ben Golliver.
The long-term ramifications could be felt down the road, too. Despite climbing to fourth in the Western Conference and having now won nine of their past 14 games, the Lakers are a team that’s still finding itself. Rajon Rondo can only carry them for so long. —Paolo Uggetti
Winner: The LeBron-Less Lakers (Against Golden State)
Ivica Zubac is your God now. With JaVale McGee out the past three games because of illness, Zubac has stepped up from the deep end of the bench and made a sizeable impact. On Tuesday, he was the Warriors’ kryptonite, exposing their lack of talent and depth inside. The 21-year-old finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds; overall, the Lakers scored 58 points in the paint and outrebounded the Warriors by 12.
It wasn’t just Zubac who powered the LeBron-less Lakers past Golden State. Rondo entered in the second half and keyed L.A.’s offensive attack like it was the 2012 playoffs and LeBron was his opponent, not his teammate. Rondo finished with 15 points and 10 assists, while Lance Stephenson added an electric 11 points in 11 minutes off the bench. In total, seven different Lakers scored in double figures and Kyle Kuzma led them all with 19. The balanced attack was buoyed by a perfect defensive gameplan. Kevin Durant got his 21 points and Andre Iguodala added a season-high 23 off the bench, but no other Warrior scored more than 15 points. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson shot a combined 7-for-24 from the field.
It is often said that the NBA season does not truly begin until after the slate of Christmas Day games. If that’s the case, then the Lakers have made quite the opening statement. —Uggetti
Winner: Untucked Jersey Kyrie Irving
As the game slowed down and the margin slimmed, Tuesday’s clash of two East teams with high aspirations became a one-on-one duel between Kyrie Irving and Jimmy Butler. By the end of crunch time, only Irving was left standing, as the Celtics guard put the finishing touches on a dazzling performance: 40 points, 10 rebounds, three assists, 5-of-10 from deep. It was a masterpiece that included a game-tying, off-balance shot in regulation and the dagger 3 in overtime that sealed the 121-114 Boston win.
Uncle Drew sends it to OT!!! pic.twitter.com/sWcFYQ2MwW— Boston Celtics (@celtics) December 26, 2018
Irving’s reputation as a prolific scorer doesn’t do the myriad ways in which he gets those points justice. The Celtics point guard is not quite Harden-level when it comes to creating space, but he is an expert at contorting for a layup or pulling up off a screen faster than a defender can call out for help. Just ask Butler, who, despite putting on a defensive clinic for most of the game, couldn’t stifle his fiery counterpart.
This Celtics season has been marked by inconsistency, a lack of offensive cohesion (Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Gordon Hayward combined to shoot 8-for-31 on Tuesday), and an emboldened Irving speaking publicly about what he perceives to be issues within the team. Irving isn’t just talking like he’s the team’s leader; he’s proving it in situations such as when he was caught during Tuesday’s game coaching from the bench. But unlike his more, uh, questionable statements, it’s hard to argue with what he’s saying and doing this season (well, most of it). Irving has been the best player on the Celtics—full stop. And as Tuesday’s performance showed, he can take this team to great heights if Boston’s star-studded roster keeps following his lead. —Uggetti
Winner: Giannis’s MVP campaign
Beating the Knicks by 14 is hardly cause of celebration, but it was a day for the decades for Milwaukee. This was the Bucks’ first time playing on Christmas Day in 41 years, and Giannis’s 30 points was the most for any Buck on December 25 since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972.
The MVP field is wide, stretching from LeBron James to the likes of Paul George, but it’s not wide open. At this point in the season, Giannis is the frontrunner, a claim supported by his team’s success—only Toronto has a record better than Milwaukee’s 23-10, and Kawhi Leonard still isn’t playing back-to-backs. Even in a game Milwaukee was destined to win, Giannis hit the marks he was supposed to: a big win, an impressive line (in addition to his gaudy point total, he had 14 rebounds, three assists, four steals, two blocks), and a signature play:
Just another stop on the campaign trail. —Haley O’Shaughnessy
Winner and Loser: James Harden
No matter what state the Rockets are in—currently, they’re seventh in the Western Conference—coach Mike D’Antoni still has James Harden. Chris Paul was out for the 113-109 win against the Thunder with a hamstring injury, leaving Harden with only Eric Gordon—who continued his season-long funk, scoring 17 points on 18 shots—new addition Austin Rivers, and Gerald Green in the backcourt.
Harden was Houston’s offense Tuesday, lighting up Oklahoma City’s second-ranked defense for 41 points, seven assists, and five 3s. It was ironic watching Harden carry the struggling Rockets solo against Russell Westbrook, the iconic “do everything myself” point guard of this generation. Westbrook is slowly shedding that reputation as he defers more to Paul George. But with injury issues mounting in Houston, it could become Harden’s reputation this season. —O’Shaughnessy
Loser: The Sixers’ Crunch-Time Offense
Here’s the good news: Ben Simmons made the longest jump shot of his career, launching the ball from 22 feet out to beat the shot-clock buzzer. It looked smooth and it swished in. Here’s the bad news: With the Sixers down four and less than a minute left in overtime, Simmons pushed the ball, attacked the rim—or at least tried to—and put up a running layup attempt. Unlike the aforementioned jumper, the ball careened off the backboard and never touched rim.
Simmons was 0-for-3 in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime, missing one free throw and turning the ball over once along the way. He was worse than a non-factor. But it wasn’t just Simmons—the Sixers’ whole offense stalled when the game got tight. Philly vacillated between identities late. On some possessions, it let Butler go isolation; on others, it tried to force-feed Joel Embiid in the post, only to watch him get double-teamed and flummoxed. Simmons would have been more useful had they picked up the pace, as is so often the case these days.
For a bit, it almost looked like Butler was primed to save the Sixers with some Kyrie-like shotmaking of his own, even after starting the game 1-for-7. But Butler missed two 3s in overtime, and Embiid, who played 40 minutes, ran out of steam. That’s where the Sixers’ biggest problem lies post-Butler trade. They don’t have enough depth or spacing, and it hurts not only their bottom line, but also highlights Simmons’ weakness. Simmons won’t take a long-range shot, so the defense won’t defend him. All it does is put pressure on everyone else, and over time, that’ll break them. —Uggetti
Winner: Emmanuel Mudiay
Mudiay is best known for playing in China rather than in college before he was draft eligible. He was drafted in the lottery by the Nuggets in the 2015, and last February, after a forgettable run in Denver, he was traded to the Knicks. He landed on a roster that already had a number of point guard projects to develop. Despite that, Mudiay became David Fizdale’s starter in mid-November after recovering from an early season ankle injury.
Mudiay has become a name worth knowing again. He was dogged by shooting struggles early in his career, but his jumpe is finally dropping. In three of New York’s past five games coming into Tuesday’s game against Milwaukee, Mudiay scored 32 or more points. Even though he struggled against the Bucks (11 points on 5-for-14 shooting), the starting spot is his job to lose. (For all the Frank Ntilikina stans out there—at least your guy doesn’t have to work on Christmas! Ntilikina was a DNP yet again Tuesday, though Fizdale said afterward that it’s not a “permanent thing.”)
The same can be said about Noah Vonleh, who Fizdale calls the Knicks’ “most complete player.” (Let’s assume he meant active players.) The former ninth overall pick was all over the floor Tuesday, protecting the rim, taking shots from the perimeter, and pushing the ball down the court off his own rebound. He finished with 14 points and 15 rebounds.
I am thoroughly enjoying the Noah Vonleh experience this season. It has taken a long time to get here, but Vonleh is beginning to look like the versatile two-way big man that many expected him to be as the third-youngest player in the 2014 NBA Draft class. pic.twitter.com/u9t0gtJ19Z— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) December 25, 2018
It might seem like forever since you’ve heard the names, but Mudiay is still just 22, and Vonleh 23. —O’Shaughnessy
Winner: Austin Rivers
Two teams desperate for change right about now are the Washington Wizards, where Rivers started the season, and the Houston Rockets, where he is now. The Rockets signed Rivers on Christmas Eve, one week after Phoenix. Houston picked him up because of his playmaking and shooting, but Rivers’s career has been messy, including the Clippers’ divorce from Rivers’s former and current teammate Chris Paul. Was messy what the Rockets needed?
In Rivers’s debut, he committed more fouls (five) than he made shots (3-for-6 from the field). But D’Antoni left him in the lineup late in the fourth, and Rivers responded by hitting two 3s with less than four minutes left in the game. With 15 seconds left in the game, Rivers fouled Westbrook to send him to the line. Eight seconds after that, he missed one of his two crunch-time free throws. With Rivers, you take the good with the bad. For Game 1, thanks to two crucial 3s, Rivers is a winner. —O’Shaughnessy
Loser: Both the Thunder and Rockets Benches
After slogging through the Melo era, OKC’s starting lineup works. Finally there’s an answer to whether Westbrook will ever bend to accommodate another star teammate (yes), if he’ll give up shots in crunch time (sometimes), and if George can be a no. 1 option next to another All-Star (yes). Now the Thunder has a new question facing the team: Can their bench click? Against Houston, the OKC reserves offered little resistance
Thunder coach Billy Donovan didn’t reach for any reserve other than Dennis Schröder for long. While Schröder played 34 minutes, no other backup played more than 13 minutes. With Alex Abrines out, the reserves had no shooting luck: The OKC bench went 0-for-6 from deep, and aside from Schröder’s contributions, scored 10 points as a unit.
As for the Rockets, D’Antoni employed only three bench players, including the aforementioned Rivers and Gerald Green, who had the worst shooting night (1-for-7 from deep) in the entire game. —O’Shaughnessy