The NBA officially started its 2020-21 regular season on Tuesday, but Christmas Day unofficially serves as opening night for many fans. With five marquee games on the schedule, the NBA did its best this year to give everyone the holiday presents they wanted. We’ll be recapping all five Christmas clashes today, so be sure to check back.
The Clippers Don’t Fold Against the Nuggets This Time
Matt Dollinger: The NBA gift-wrapped five fancy-looking marquee games for fans this Christmas, but in the end, each game turned out to be just another stupid sweater. Midway through the second quarter and seventh gingerbread cookie late Friday night, it became pretty clear that we would go a perfect five-for-five on Christmas Day blowouts this year. No, the Clippers would not crumble again. This isn’t the same Clippers team that blew a 3-1 lead just three months ago, and this isn’t the same Nuggets squad that pulled off the biggest upset of the postseason.
Los Angeles built a double-digit lead early and never relinquished its dominant upper hand, pulling out a 121-108 victory. It would have been a relatively ho-hum night if not for a scary scene late in the fourth quarter, when Kawhi Leonard was struck by an inadvertent elbow from teammate Serge Ibaka when going up for a rebound:
Serge Ibaka caught Kawhi with an elbow on the way up pic.twitter.com/D8UomXD8nb— CJ Fogler #BlackLivesMatter (@cjzero) December 26, 2020
A bloody Leonard lay on the court for several minutes before being helped off and walking to the locker room. He eventually had to get eight stitches to treat the mouth laceration. The Nuggets would make a late charge against the shorthanded Clippers, but couldn’t whittle the lead down to single digits.
In both their opening-night win over the Lakers and Friday’s victory over the Nuggets, the Clippers have looked like a more fortified squad compared to last year’s team. Newcomers Ibaka and Nicolas Batum are paying immediate dividends, stretching the floor on offense and suffocating opponents on the other end. Against Denver, they combined to shoot 11-of-17 from the field for 28 points while totaling 12 rebounds and six assists. Neither veteran is looking to do more than what it takes to win, leading to a more unselfish brand of basketball and more efficiency all around.
The Nuggets, meanwhile, don’t have the benefit of new faces, but rather the pain of missing old ones. Michael Porter Jr. and Paul Millsap, two players on opposite sides of the career spectrum, haven’t been able to fill the void left by Jerami Grant. Nikola Jokic finished one rebound shy of a triple-double and Jamal Murray scored 23 points on Friday, but Denver needs more from its wings to hang in the West. MPJ (10 points on 4-of-9 shooting, three rebounds) and Millsap (eight points, one rebound) didn’t provide much against the Clippers, but they’ll ultimately need to overachieve for their team to do the same.
The Mavs Fail to Measure Up to the Reigning Champs
Dan Devine: There was a moment, after Luka Doncic rumbled into the paint for a runner to make it a five-point game late in the second quarter, when I thought Friday’s primetime matchup might finally give us our first legitimately good Christmas game. The Lakers, alas, weren’t interested in that. They ended the quarter on a 14-7 run, took a 12-point lead into halftime, and essentially held the Mavs at arm’s length for the entire second half on their way to a 138-115 win, secured through adherence to that tried and true adage: size matters.
Dallas scored 113.9 points per 100 possessions on Friday, according to Cleaning the Glass—a rate of offensive efficiency that falls short of the Mavs’ league-leading and record-setting 2019-20 attack, but still would’ve finished fourth in the NBA last season. And they still got smoked, because they absolutely, positively could not keep the Lakers from getting to the basket—L.A. shot 20-for-21 at the rim—or from getting whatever they wanted elsewhere. The only time Dallas even got within hailing distance after halftime was early in the fourth quarter, when Rick Carlisle finally got sick of seeing his team pounded in the paint and decided to dust off the mammoth Boban Marjanovic so he could go to work against the smaller Montrezl Harrell and finally create a size mismatch to exploit. But even then, the Mavs could only get within nine before the Lakers bulldozed them past the finish line.
Anthony Davis utterly disregarded Dwight Powell and Maxi Kleber on his way to 28 points on 10-for-16 shooting with eight rebounds and five assists in 30 minutes. Harrell (22 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes off the bench) led a charge that saw the Lakers snare 17 offensive boards and run up an obscene 35-0 advantage on second-chance points. Porous perimeter defense and a total lack of rim protection—a certain injured 7-foot-3 Latvian might’ve come in handy—allowed L.A. to penetrate at will, with Dennis Schröder slashing his way to 18 points on 11 shots with six dimes, and LeBron James barely needing to move past second gear to roll up 22 points, 10 helpers, and seven rebounds, scoring or assisting on 47 points in his 31 minutes of work.
A couple of James’s buckets came directly in the mug of Luka Doncic, who fought through early-game struggles to finish with 27 points and seven assists, but who didn’t have much of an answer when LeBron went to a couple of moves that might’ve looked fairly familiar to Mavs fans:
LeBron busting out Dirk’s one-legged fade and the double stepback that Luka borrowed from He Who Shall Not Be Named offered a tidy reminder of where he and the Lakers stand in the race for Western Conference primacy, even after an opening-night loss: they’re strong enough and talented enough to beat you with their game and at your own. LeBron, AD, and the rest of the Lakers create big problems. If you don’t have big answers ... well, then you’re in big trouble.
Kevin Durant’s Return May Put Jayson Tatum’s Coming of Age on Hold
Justin Verrier: Now that Jayson Tatum is too old to be excelling beyond his teen years, his workout with Kobe Bryant has quickly become the go-to anecdote of his young career—a tale narrated ad nauseam by the Mark Joneses of the world as the 22-year-old marches his way to another superstar performance. But there are times when the influence of the Kobe System is genuinely unmistakable, like when Tatum drilled a buzzer-beating turnaround 3 in the second quarter on Friday and gave former teammate Kyrie Irving a loving tap on the tuchus …
Tatum even hit him with the friendly butt slap after this. pic.twitter.com/NIumkuyIir— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) December 25, 2020
… evoking Bryant’s cheeky smack in the 2010 Western Conference finals:
In most cases, the Tatum clip would be the one you’d be seeing over and over again in the aftermath of the Celtics’ Christmas Day matchup with the visiting Nets—another example of Tatum as an emerging force in the Eastern Conference. But Kevin Durant now patrols the same conference, and the suddenly healthy former MVP would have none of that.
The Nets were down three at half, with Durant opening a modest 2-for-6 from the floor. But then KD made a conscious decision to take over in the third quarter, playing all 12 minutes, scoring 16 of his eventual 29 points on near-perfect shooting (6-for-7), and doing most of the work in limiting Tatum to just six points as Brooklyn took control and ultimately shut down the game. The Nets starters (minus DeAndre Jordan) needed to log just four minutes in the fourth to polish off a 123-95 win, marking the second straight dominant Nets performance to kick off the KD-Kyrie era in earnest.
Irving was also scintillating, setting a franchise record for points (37) on Christmas Day to go along with eight assists and six rebounds. But Durant was the difference. All of the hallmarks of a classic KD takeover were on display in the third. He drilled pull-ups over the top of overmatched defenders. He used his size and made quick hesitations—off his surgically repaired leg—to scurry his way past defenders on the perimeter. And he used his craftiness to put the fourth fouls on both Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. He was also locked in on defense, and his length noticeably flustered Tatum on more than one play.
The Nets were the great unknown entering the season, with most acknowledging their immense potential but deferring to the basketball gods and folks with medical degrees on their fate. Through two games, Durant not only looks spry and healthy following his Achilles tear, he looks like the best player in the NBA. If that holds true for the rest of this turbulent 2020-21 season, all of the concurrent coming-to-forms across the East—whether they be Tatum’s or even the reigning conference champion Heat’s—may be on hold.
The Warriors Might Not Be Who We Thought They Were
Paolo Uggetti: You have to periodically remind yourself that you’re not in an alternate reality when watching the Warriors these days. How else to explain the short circuit in your brain as you watch Steph Curry initiate Golden State’s offense, like you’ve seen a million times, only to have his passes and gravity create a wide open shot for … Marquese Chriss that ends in an air ball? That should be a shot for Klay Thompson or Kevin Durant, but it isn’t, and so there’s no real mystery as to why the Warriors have been blown out by Durant’s current team on opening night and by the Bucks, 138-99, on Christmas Day.
There was little aesthetically pleasing about the matchup in Milwaukee on Friday afternoon. The white Warriors uniforms clashed with the Bucks’ Nickelodeon-blue kits, which clashed with the Bucks’ dark green court. The basketball did not help, either. Aside from a signature Khris Middleton performance—and by signature I mean extremely effective (10-for-15, 31 points in 26 minutes) and the antithesis of flashy—the matchup lacked thrill. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Steph both had subpar games by their standards, and the only flicker of positivity for Golden State was James Wiseman once again looking like he belongs, hitting three 3s and making a few standout defensive plays.
Nice block from Wiseman immediately coming over after Wiggins bites on the pump fake. Augustin has go to to put that one on the glass though. pic.twitter.com/oS9dLUhhx6— Mo Dakhil (@MoDakhil_NBA) December 25, 2020
Through two games, the Warriors look a lot closer to the Western Conference’s floor than its ceiling. Draymond Green has yet to play a minute, and the sample size is miniscule, but in a season when the West will be a gauntlet and there are 10 fewer regular-season games, the frustration and harsh reality could settle in for Curry, Steve Kerr, and Joe Lacob faster than expected. As they play more games, the Warriors may come to realize that even though Steph is still their cornerstone, leader, and face of the franchise, the team is spiritually closer to what Wiseman is now—young and full of potential, but also in need of growth. Sure, the Steph effect is still real, but it cannot single-handedly develop young players, make role players convert shots, or turn a team in transition into a contender.
The Heat Show No Signs of a Finals Hangover in Pelicans Rout
Rob Mahoney: It was an inspired choice for the NBA to commemorate the season of giving with an appearance by the Heat, who got the best of the Pelicans by treating every possession as some sort of extra-pass Olympics. A drive for Miami was never just a drive; it was an excuse for the swashbuckling Goran Dragic to steal the attention of the defense for a moment before flipping a pass to Andre Iguodala, only for him to then zip the ball to the opposite corner, where it skipped back up the wing and into the hands of one the Heat’s dangerous and expectant shooters. In all, Miami set up 76 percent of its field goals in its 111-98 win by way of an assist—enough to leave the Pelicans gesticulating wildly to one another when they weren’t shaking their heads in knowing frustration. If you looked closely (perhaps with the aid of ESPN’s zoomed-in broadcast angle), you could see Stan Van Gundy’s hair graying in real time.
Grinding out long, patient possessions was clearly more work than New Orleans wanted to put in on a holiday. There’s something deeply admirable about the way Miami, just two months removed from the marathon that was the 2020 playoffs, can show up with the kind of energy and rhythm that suggests their run hasn’t really ended. Jimmy Butler bowed out of this game at halftime due to an ankle injury, and it didn’t matter. Bam Adebayo subbed out with almost eight minutes remaining, and it didn’t matter. Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram combined to score 60 points for the Pelicans, and it didn’t matter. The Heat just keep churning through sensible passes and defensive rotations until even their newest additions—like Avery Bradley, Maurice Harkless, and rookie standout Precious Achiuwa—settle comfortably into the machine. The Pelicans’ attempt at a late-game run was turned away by the same sort of collective will that won Miami the East last season. I’d call it heartwarming, but part of what makes the Heat special is the sort of screw-you defiance that isn’t exactly in the Christmas spirit. Celebrate them anyway, as much for the sugar as the spice.