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Five Biggest Takeaways From the 2023 NBA Christmas Games

Are the Boston Celtics the NBA’s most balanced team? We break down the best and worst from the holiday slate, including Luka Doncic’s MVP candidacy, the sputtering Milwaukee Bucks, and more.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

The NBA’s Christmas Day slate wasn’t exactly jam-packed with riveting action, but there were plenty of ripple effects to emerge from the marquee games. To break down the holiday slate, The Ringer paneled five NBA writers to examine the biggest takeaways from each Christmas clash, presented below in chronological order.

The New-Look Milwaukee Bucks Still Aren’t There Yet

Zach Kram: We didn’t learn much about the Milwaukee Bucks in their Christmas Day loss in New York. There’s no shame in losing one game, especially when the Bucks had already defeated the Knicks three times this season. The Knicks were due for a win. And more broadly, this matchup fit the pattern of so many Bucks games since they swapped out Jrue Holiday for Damian Lillard. The Bucks scored a lot (122 points) thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo and Lillard (64 combined points on 45 shot attempts), but they couldn’t stop their opponent in transition (23 fast break points for the Knicks) or slow down the best guard on the other team (Jalen Brunson scored 38, bringing his season average to 36 points per game against the Bucks).

The bigger-picture question for Milwaukee is who fits best as the fifth man in closing lineups, alongside the four shoo-ins of Giannis, Dame, Brook Lopez, and Khris Middleton. Starter Malik Beasley probably isn’t the answer: He played only 19 minutes on Christmas and didn’t score a single point, and his limitations as a perimeter defender are readily apparent. Bobby Portis is the Bucks’ sixth man, but coach Adrian Griffin has been reluctant to play the super-big Giannis-Lopez-Portis combination this season. (They’ve all shared the court for only 14 total minutes, per PBP Stats.) Pat Connaughton’s a theoretical fit, but inconsistent. Jae Crowder is injured and 33 years old.

The wild cards are the two youngsters in Milwaukee’s rotation, MarJon Beauchamp and Andre Jackson Jr. The latter has received much more run of late, including 14 minutes on Christmas to Beauchamp’s six. That doesn’t mean Jackson is ready for prime time just yet: The rookie wing was a second-round pick just last summer, after all, and he’s never scored more than 10 points in an NBA game. Like the rest of his teammates, he didn’t give Brunson any trouble on Monday. Yet Jackson’s size and athleticism mean that he might just be the Bucks’ best internal solution to this roster predicament. They have another couple of months to determine whether Jackson—or one of his teammates—is a viable fit next to the big four, or else they’ll need to figure out how to make an upgrade via the trade market despite a paucity of picks they can still include in deals.

The Draymond-Less Golden State Warriors Can Go Only So Far

Seerat Sohi: With apologies to Jusuf Nurkic’s jaw, the Warriors of old were the biggest casualty of their cataclysmic loss to the Suns two weeks ago. Golden State coach Steve Kerr, accepting that inflexibility would only accelerate the finitude of this dynasty, injected youngsters Jonathan Kuminga and Brandin Podziemski into the starting lineup and demoted Andrew Wiggins to the bench.

After Draymond Green hit Nurkic and was suspended indefinitely, the Warriors patched together a five-game winning streak by committee, restoring a semblance of stability and then possibility, with Steph Curry channeling the divine against Boston a little over a week ago. The Nuggets snapped that streak on Christmas with a 120-114 win, while their zippy playmaking, helmed by Nikola Jokic’s skillful organization, reminded the Warriors of an element they’ve missed since Green’s absence: cohesion.

With the Curse of Christmas Curry striking again, and Klay Thompson suffering his first single-digit scoring performance since being benched against Phoenix, there were silver linings and abundant seedlings. Podziemski, the Warriors’ best rookie since Green, led the Dubs in rebounds, assists, and steals against Denver, kicking off the fast break attacks that have sputtered in Green’s absence. Though he gambles a smidge too much, he swipes balls from unsuspecting players and intercepts entry passes with the guile and anticipatory spirit of Andre Iguodala. His outside shot is warming up, and he runs pick-and-rolls with the autonomic processing ability of a guy who has had a lifetime to watch Chris Paul. Fellow rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis’s vertical athleticism gives the offense a new dimension, and he’s emerging as a wheel greaser for the Splash Brothers, averaging 3.5 screen assists per game since Green’s suspension. Kuminga has bullied and exploded over opponents in the paint, scoring in double digits every game since he’s become a starter. Even Wiggins has rediscovered his aggression since being sent to the bench.

But despite promising individual performances, the new starting lineup has a net rating of minus-8.2. Of the 20 lineups Kerr tried against the Nuggets on Monday, only six had a positive impact, and much of it came against Denver’s porous bench. Most of the Warriors’ combinations either gave up too much size or lacked shooting and playmaking. It was a night when Green, the skeleton key that unlocks their lineup versatility, was sorely missed.

They missed the way he can grease the playmaking wheels when Curry is trapped. In a fourth quarter when they mystifyingly stopped spamming blisteringly effective Wiggins postups in favor of contested 3s, they missed Green’s affinity for exploiting the court’s ripest spots. They missed, against a frontcourt designed to punish switches, Green’s communication, help, and size, the way he can box out Aaron Gordon, cordon off Jokic’s drives, and tip his lob passes.

Green, of course, won’t and shouldn’t be back until he, the NBA, and the Warriors decide he is in the right mental headspace. But if and when that day comes, it’ll be his ability to recognize, organize, and fuse the pieces of a disparate roster that the Warriors will be most grateful for.

The Boston Celtics Are the NBA’s Most Balanced Team

Michael Pina: The Celtics launched 42 3s in their 11-point win against the Lakers on Christmas. That output came on the heels of a rout over the Clippers just two days prior in which Boston went 25-for-53 behind the arc. This level of volume is wildly impressive and also very unsurprising. A league-high 48 percent of all Boston’s field goal attempts are 3s.

But despite being 23-6 overall and having a top-three offense, the Celtics are occasionally criticized for embracing such an analytically sound, potentially erratic shot profile. Some of the concern is lightly warranted. Variance is always nice. But most of it’s silly. For one, three is more than two. Also: context. All those 3s aren’t being launched in a vacuum. They are backed by one of the best defenses in the league, with the Celtics deploying a strategy that allows a ton of above-the-break 3s but shuts down the corner (resulting in a plus-5.6 3s per game differential). The Celtics rank first in opposing free throw rate, too. So unlike the Pacers, Mavericks, or Kings, their 3-point barrage creates a mathematical advantage that’s fortified on the other end.

Yes, the 3-point shot is volatile. But Boston currently ranks in the top third in 3-point accuracy and makes a whopping 40.1 percent of its catch-and-shoot tries. This roster is loaded with elite spot-up threats complemented by ball handlers who can blow past their man, force a rotation, and then kick out to an open teammate. Or they can post up, draw two defenders, and take advantage of the help. Just 38.4 percent of their points are scored in the paint (second lowest in the league).

At the same time, when all those shooters dot the perimeter, the Celtics aren’t dumb enough to ignore the space it affords inside. They screen, cut, share the ball, and know how to put pressure on the rim. Here’s the Celtics’ shot chart from the second half of their Christmas Day win. Note that there are more makes in the restricted area than attempts above the break.

On its face, Boston’s 3-point-heavy strategy isn’t incongruous with championship aspirations. In 2022, 40.2 percent of the Warriors’ points came from the paint. In 2021, the Bucks finished the regular season at 40.2 percent. And in 2018, the Warriors, again, were down at 38.9 percent. All marks were near the bottom of the league. The 3-point line isn’t Boston’s identity. It’s just one ingredient that makes it the NBA’s best team right now.

Jaime Jaquez Jr. Is That Dude

Matt Dollinger: It was brutally obvious from the start that Jaime Jaquez Jr. was destined to be on the Miami Heat. Multiple mock drafts (including ours) had him projected to be picked by the Heat last summer. Everything about the hard-nosed, 6-foot-6 small forward from UCLA seemed to be a perfect fit for Heat culture. He was fundamentally sound, played with ferocious effort, defended tenaciously, and was generally disliked by any and all opponents. In other words, he was basically a ChatGPT version of Westwood Jimmy Butler.

Thirty games into his rookie season, Jaquez has proved he’s more than just a logical addition for the Heat: He’s indispensable. The 22-year-old is averaging 13.7 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and a steal in 28.9 minutes per game while hitting 37.9 percent of his triples and providing an immediate two-way impact. As my colleague Michael Pina wrote last week, “Jaime Jaquez Jr. would win Rookie of the Year if Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren didn’t exist.”

With Butler battling a calf injury, Jaquez was inserted into the starting lineup last week and has responded with a more than passable Jimmy Buckets impression. He saved his best performance yet for Christmas Day, scoring a career-high 31 points on 11-of-15 shooting and adding 10 rebounds in Miami’s 119-113 win over Philadelphia. Jaquez did a little bit of everything to boost the Heat’s offense, posting, cutting, driving, hell, even willing his way to those 31 points. With Butler and Joel Embiid both out, this game was desperate for someone to seize control. Jaquez responded by looking like Playoff Jimmy reincarnate:

Jaquez’s ahead-of-schedule arrival has helped the Heat jump out to an 18-12 start this season, a subtle surprise after they lost their starting backcourt this summer and Tyler Herro, Bam Adebayo, and Butler all missed time this season. J. Kyle Mann has Jaquez ranked as the third-best rookie in this class so far, and you’ve got to imagine the Heat can’t believe a potential franchise player who’s so remarkably on brand for them fell into their laps with the 18th pick. It’s unclear whether Miami can muster another unbelievable postseason run like it did last spring, but one thing is for certain: With Jaquez in tow, Heat Culture isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

This Is the Best Luka Yet

Isaac Levy-Rubinett: Luka Doncic must have been very good this year, because he got absolutely everything he wanted on Christmas night in Phoenix. Doncic dismantled the Suns from the opening tip with herky-jerky jaunts to the rim, leaning skip passes wielded with precision, and feathery deep balls. On the night he became the second-quickest player to score 10,000 career points, Doncic also became just the fourth player in NBA history to drop 50 points on Christmas Day. As he commanded the Mavs offense throughout their 128-114 victory, Luka looked like a sculptor examining his work from various angles, searching for cracks and probing weak spots with an air of amusement.

On one hand, it’s easy to forget that Doncic—who has been so dominant for so long—is still just 24 years old. On the other, Monday’s performance—just the latest in a string of superb outings that have vaulted Doncic into the MVP conversation—was a reminder of all the ways Luka continues to grow. He shot 8-of-16 from beyond the arc, continuing the best 3-point shooting season of his career. His 50 points and 15 assists will further raise his per-game averages in those categories, which were already at career-high levels. And his four steals and three blocks reflect an improved commitment on that less glamorous side of the ball.

Considering his all-encompassing talent, building around Luka has been a surprisingly tricky endeavor for Dallas. The tension between empowering their best player and supporting him has threatened to snap the Mavs in recent years—should they cover for Doncic by surrounding him with stout defenders, or should they diversify their approach by pairing him with additional ball handlers? Dallas still hasn’t found the optimal balance: After trading for Kyrie Irving last season, this year’s reconfigured Mavs have a top-10 offense, but they also possess an unserious defense that ranks 23rd in the league.

Meanwhile, as the Mavericks have toggled the supporting cast around him, Doncic has just kept improving. Now, he is better than ever, and this recent run without Irving may yet turn previous skeptics of heliocentric Luka-ball into believers. How will anyone stop this guy? On a micro level, Doncic can handle every defensive coverage in the book. On a macro one, he can slow games, generate a quality look each trip down, and dictate every possession.

Let’s not overreact to a victory against the reeling Suns, the only team to play on Christmas that currently sits outside the playoff picture. (Kevin Durant was reportedly frustrated before Monday’s game, in which he and Devin Booker struggled and Grayson Allen and Chimezie Metu led the team in scoring.) But Luka’s growth this season could change the equation for the Mavericks as they seek to upgrade their defense between now and the trade deadline. The more Doncic can do offensively, the more the Mavs can prioritize defense around him. And sure, we’ve seen the limits of that approach in seasons past, but we’ve never seen Luka quite like this before.