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Winners and Losers From the NBA’s Christmas Games

Jayson Tatum’s MVP campaign received a major boost over the holidays. The same can’t be said for the Bucks offense. And we have no idea what to say about the Sixers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA Christmas Day games weren’t, technically speaking, very competitive. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t packed with meaningful moments, memorable performances, and telling results that can help set the stage for the rest of a season that looks remarkably unpredictable. Here are a few winners and losers from Sunday’s action.

Winner: Jayson Tatum’s MVP campaign

In the holiday’s most important clash, a rematch of what can safely be referred to as last postseason’s fiercest series, the best player on the court was Jayson Tatum. He finished with 41 points (including a perfect 10-for-10 at the free throw line), seven rebounds, and five assists, and lit a stick of dynamite on top of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s head:

Tatum was unstoppable throughout the game, but in particular he dominated the third quarter like only someone who may win Most Valuable Player can. Without a minute of rest, Boston’s best player scored 20 points on just 10 field goal attempts. His bag was a cave the Bucks entered without a flashlight.

A couple times, Tatum turned poor Grayson Allen into a mannequin, proceeding to either drive by for a runner or sidestep his way into a 3. He cast a smooth pull-up over Brook Lopez’s drop coverage. He stared Giannis down from 25 feet and punched home a jumper. He posted up Jrue Holiday at the left elbow, took two quick dribbles toward the nail, and drilled a picturesque fallaway. He set a screen for Marcus Smart, forced Pat Connaughton on him in a switch, rolled to the dotted line, lept to retrieve the entry pass, and, in one motion with his back to the basket, spun and lofted a paper towel at the rim. Later, running full speed in the open floor, he turned an absurd bounce pass that was thrown at his knees into a layup that was unaltered by Joe Ingles’s late contest:

Despite one of the best defenses in basketball locked in to slow him down, Tatum had it all and did it all. The MVP race is tight and there are maybe five or six guys who can still conceivably win. But right now, on December 26, it’s Tatum’s to lose. (Unless Nikola Jokic has something to say. More on that later.)

Loser: Milwaukee’s Offense Without Khris Middleton

It’s far too aggressive to say the Celtics have solved Antetokounmpo, who was minus-27 on Sunday and kept at bay against a defense that picked up where it left off in the playoffs, loading behind the ball and persuading him to take jumpers.

The Bucks finished the game with a respectable offensive rating of 113.5. (It’s hard to beat the Celtics when they’re drilling nearly half their 3s and making everything at the rim.) But when Antetokounmpo was on the court, it fell to 109.3, a mark that would rank 25th in the league. For the season, Milwaukee averages 110.7 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor, which would rank 23rd (and is worse than the Magic, Bulls, and Wizards).

It’s an ongoing issue that only a healthy Middleton will solve, as someone who can rescue Milwaukee’s offense with both his midrange finesse and steady pick-and-roll playmaking. But Joe Ingles can also help, as he did by leveraging Giannis’s ball screens on Christmas Day:

There weren’t any real revelations in Milwaukee’s blowout loss. But it should serve as a reminder of just how inept the Bucks have been scoring the ball, and how far they still have to go before Giannis can win another championship (or MVP trophy).

Winner: Dallas’s Relationship With the 3-Point Line

When the Lakers were rolling late in the first quarter—aided by an uncharacteristically slow start from Luka Doncic—I predicted on Twitter that the Mavericks would probably win by double digits. Even down big, Dallas was still generating an open 3 pretty much every time down the floor.

Without Anthony Davis protecting the rim—which forces help defenders off the perimeter—against a team that entered Monday with a 49.9 percent 3-point rate and a bunch of accurate shooters, the law of averages was likely to eventually tilt in Dallas’s favor. And it did!

In the third quarter, the Mavs went 9-for-13 from deep and scored a whopping 51 points. The smaller Lakers kept blitzing Luka, and Christian Wood kept hitting corner shooters on the short roll. LeBron James told Father Time he couldn’t be bothered on Christmas, but he was no match for an offense that can create an open 3 whenever it wants.

Winner (Tentatively): The 76ers

The Sixers won their eighth straight game Sunday behind an unstoppable half-court offense. Joel Embiid scored 35 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and attempted 15 free throws. James Harden logged 29 points, 13 assists, and five 3-pointers. Complementary pieces like Georges Niang and De’Anthony Melton hit big shot after big shot. Sounds like a pretty successful day!

But about an hour before this game tipped off, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted a very strange and unexpected report that nobody asked for on Christmas Day. Beyond drawing attention to the game—which NBA fans were going to watch anyway—the timing here is hard to parse. According to Woj, Harden has interest in going back to the Rockets as a free agent this summer. Um, come again? A lot can change between now and the offseason. The Sixers could win the title. They could also lose in the second round for the 24th straight season.

Due to how fluid this all is, it’s hard to gauge the implications of this report right now. Short of Harden accepting a pay cut and Houston accelerating its rebuild by trading for another All-Star (like Karl-Anthony Towns, Pascal Siakam, or anyone who becomes available over the next six months), why would the Rockets possibly be interested in a reunion? They’re (1) extremely far away from title contention, and (2) a possible sleeping giant, with several prodigious blue-chip prospects, a boatload of first-round picks (thanks, Brooklyn!), and cap space that, in a world suffused by common sense, shouldn’t be reserved for a declining star who will turn 34 in August. (That calculus could change if they land Victor Wembanyama, who, along with Harden, could vault Houston back into the playoffs overnight.)

This might be a case of Harden using his former team as leverage to get the long-term max contract Philly may be hesitant to offer. But it could also be a legitimate threat from someone who regrets leaving the city where he became a superstar and got to do his own thing. If the Sixers actually lose Harden for nothing, it could range anywhere from an unmitigated disaster to a blessing in disguise. Daryl Morey, who did everything in his power to land Harden for a second time, may not recover.

But assuming Embiid doesn’t demand a trade this summer (a big if, should the Sixers flame out in the postseason), there would be no long-term money on Philly’s books besides their star center’s $196 million extension, Tyrese Maxey’s looming max, and P.J. Tucker at the mid-level exception. (Tobias Harris’s never-ending contract finally expires after next season.) Morey could rebuild on the fly with real cap flexibility. But time wouldn’t be on the Sixers’ side, and losing someone as good as Harden for absolutely nothing would not be great. Things are never boring in Philadelphia.

Loser: People Who Thought RJ Barrett Turned a Corner

In his past 10 games coming into Christmas Day, Barrett averaged 24.8 points and 6.0 rebounds on 48.6/43.9/73.1 shooting splits. There was a 44-point masterpiece against the Bulls, and five straight games during New York’s eight-game win streak in which he scored at least 22 points. After a slow start, it seemed like Barrett was beginning to take meaningful strides as the third option on a winning team.

But then, against the Sixers on Sunday, Barrett fell off a cliff. After hitting a couple tricky floaters and spot-up 3s, he finished 6-for-21 from the floor, including 1-for-8 in the fourth quarter. It was ugly stuff. Just watch Immanuel Quickley’s frustration in the play below, as he points to an open Quentin Grimes before Barrett bricks the midrange pull-up:

Barrett went on to miss a less egregious floater a few minutes later—he finished 1-for-7 in the restricted area—but once again the better play might’ve been to make a pass and get a better look:

The Knicks lost the game. It happens. But that result is particularly disappointing considering how they did it, after Julius Randle enjoyed a dominant first half, Jalen Brunson (who left with an apparent hip injury) picked Philly apart in the paint, and everyone else feasted on the offensive glass.

Loser: The Grizzlies

I realize that after getting absolutely demolished in New York by the Knicks and Nets, the prideful Warriors came home fired up, hosting the Grizzlies in a building that’s very difficult to leave with a win. But Steph Curry still didn’t play. Andrew Wiggins didn’t play. And James Wiseman did play!

But the Grizzlies also entered Sunday’s contest intent on proving a point. Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. were back in the starting five. Ja Morant was debuting his signature shoe. And this was the first Christmas Day game the Grizzlies organization had ever played. So what happened? They flopped.

JJJ couldn’t stay out of foul trouble (he played about 15 competitive minutes). Bane couldn’t make any shots (he missed all seven of his 3s). Memphis’s normally stout defense was shredded defending the 3-point line. Dillon Brooks was punked by Klay Thompson. Ty Jerome and Anthony Lamb combined to score 25 points. It was all so disappointing for a Grizzlies team that loves to tell anyone who asks that they’re the best team in the Western Conference.

Fingers crossed we’ll see them get a chance to prove it in a seven-game series against Golden State a few months from now.

Winner: Everyone Who Stayed Awake to Watch Nuggets-Suns

In our preview of the Christmas games, I wrote: “There’s a real chance the official campaign for Jokic’s third-straight MVP award is announced on Christmas Day, in front of a national audience, coming off several eye-popping performances (including a Wilt Chamberlain–esque 40-27-10 game) that make him a real force in those conversations. Again: Nobody is better at basketball.”

Then on Sunday, in an overtime classic that saw Aaron Gordon dunk Landry Shamet into oblivion for what was pretty much the game-winning and-1, Jokic finished with a staggering 41 points, 15 rebounds, and 15 assists on 64 percent shooting. ICYMI: Nobody is better at basketball.

If/when Jokic wins his third straight MVP, Christmas should be remembered as an important stepping stone in his campaign.

The numbers just don’t compute. But what’s far more important is what Jokic does to ensure victory. Look at his hustle on this play near the end of the game. With Denver down three, he sprints (you heard me) to the block and wedges Deandre Ayton out of position, then follows Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s drive so he can tip in the miss.

One play later, he stole the ball. Then, on Jamal Murray’s game-tying dunk, his gravity in a dribble handoff pulled Ayton out of the paint just long enough for Denver to score.

This game was great. Gordon was a beast. Chris Paul was a maestro (who missed one too many shots). For the second straight game, Shamet’s entire body went up in flames. But Jokic was the story because Jokic should pretty much always be the story. He’s the most dominant, and unselfish, superstar in the NBA. The Nuggets are in first place. Jokic being on the team is reasons nos. 1 through 47 as to why that is.

Winner: This Beautiful Sequence by the Suns

It’d be rude to call this sequence by the Suns a Christmas miracle, but it also made me believe in Santa Claus for the first time in 25 years:

Eight passes. Everyone touched the ball. A corner 3 was made by Shamet. No Devin Booker. No Chris Paul. No Mikal Bridges. No problem.