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NBA Christmas Day Takeaways: Giannis States MVP Case, Lakers Frustrate (Again) – Sports Illustrated

A few thoughts on some of the Christmas games in the NBA…

Knicks 101, Hawks 87

This game was largely a snoozer, having lost most of its luster once Trae Young entered the health and safety protocols. Young was unable to rile up the Madison Square Garden crowd, and both teams entered the contest under .500, having so far not recreated the magic each had last season.

New York ultimately took care of a depleted Atlanta squad, though it should be noted the Knicks were also without Derrick Rose and Immanuel Quickley. Kemba Walker continued to take advantage of the absences, playing a Thibsian 40 minutes and recording a triple double, with 10 points, 12 assists, and 10 rebounds, though he shot only 3-of-12 from the field.

The most encouraging sign for the Knicks was probably Julius Randle’s three-point shooting. Randle finished with 25 points and hit 6-of-9 from deep. Randle is shooting only 32% on threes this season, a steep drop from the 41.1% mark he posted in 2021. It was probably unfair to expect Randle’s outside shooting to maintain—he was a prime candidate for regression—but Randle desperately needs to find efficient offense. Nearly every one of his baskets is a grind, and his true shooting percentage is its lowest since 2016. Maybe Randle finally found his shot on Christmas. Even if he only splits the difference between his three-point percentage from last season compared to this one so far, New York would be in much better shape.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) drives for the basket between Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton (22) and guard George Hill (3) during the fourth quarter at Fiserv Forum.

Jayson Tatum scored 25 points on an inefficient 7-of-20 mark from the floor during Boston’s loss to Milwaukee.

Bucks 117, Celtics 113

Props to Boston for putting up a hell of a fight with Dennis Schroder, Al Horford, Josh Richardson, and Grant Williams all sidelined. The Celtics are likely kicking themselves after blowing a 13-point lead with 5:28 to go.

This was just a really classic performance from the Bucks, who are now operating at near full strength (with apologies to Brook Lopez). Giannis Antetokounmpo played only 30 minutes and still put up a 36-12-5 stat line. Boston shot 45 threes as Milwaukee walled off the paint, perhaps best illustrated by Giannis himself in the game’s final seconds, when he rotated into the lane to prevent a Jayson Tatum layup, then blocked a Rob Williams dunk after Tatum dumped the ball off. The Bucks are a well-oiled machine, and the Greek Freak is threatening to win his third MVP.

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And don’t sleep on Wes Matthews! The midseason pickup closed the game, and hit the go-ahead three with 30 seconds to go. Matthews isn’t quite P.J. Tucker, but if you squint, he can help Milwaukee with some of what Tucker contributed during the summer’s Finals run. In the playoffs, the Bucks will basically need at least one of Matthews, Grayson Allen, Donte DiVincenzo, or Pat Connaughton to hit a big shot or two and compete on the perimeter defensively. Saturday was a reminder of how scary the Bucks can be when they lock in. And now they seem to have more options than ever on the wing.

As for Boston, the Celtics should be encouraged. This team can compete with anyone when Tatum and Jaylen Brown are healthy, and Williams continues to show he belongs on the floor in high-leverage moments. Any takes that persist about splitting up Tatum and Brown are foolish. Boston should be going all in around them and Williams. If Boston is really looking for trade candidates, Marcus Smart’s defensive intensity may not be as valuable as bringing in a more natural point guard to help settle things down in close games.

Warriors 116, Suns 107

This was a Christmas heavyweight fight between the two of the best teams in the NBA. Golden State is now up 2-1 in the season series, and every win will count between these two teams if they end up meeting the playoffs and the series goes to a Game 7. The Suns can look at this game and still believe they’re in good shape. Jae Crowder missed a couple important threes down the stretch, and Devin Booker doesn’t put up many 13-point games on 5-of-19 shooting. Phoenix is still very much legit.

The Warriors’ depth was the story of this game, however. Without Jordan Poole, Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and James Wiseman, Golden State beat a Phoenix team at full strength. Gary Payton II’s defense was ferocious as always, and he sunk a couple of triples to boot. Meanwhile Otto Porter was also fantastic, scoring 19 points, including some clutch buckets in the fourth. Rookie Jonathan Kuminga also played 21 minutes and looked unfazed in the playoff atmosphere, chipping in 12 points to go along with his physical defense. 

Golden State is frightening. They are already winning at a high rate, Klay is waiting in the wings, and a bunch of players are stepping up whenever anyone goes down. The experience gained by guys like GPII, Kuminga, and Juan Toscano-Anderson now could pay huge dividends come playoff time, especially when they contribute against the best competition. For all the talk about how the Warriors are trying to build for the future and win now at the same time, they appear to have an embarrassment of useful role players to slot in next to one of the all-time great trios in Steph, Klay, and Draymond Green.

Nets 122, Lakers 115

I wonder how many cigarettes have been smoked because of the Lakers this season, because this team is infuriating. The Lakers’ season has been almost entirely comprised of brief moments of competence surrounded by sadness, neatly captured in their loss to the Nets on Saturday. L.A. was bad for much of the day, went on a solid run in the second and a huge run in the fourth, and then couldn’t complete the comeback thanks to some mind-numbing defensive lapses and difficult offense. (The win was nice for the Nets, who were missing Kevin Durant, Joe Harris, and Kyrie Irving. James Harden had a 36-10-10 triple double in his first game in 15 days.)

The Lakers have obviously been hit hard by the health and safety protocols—yes, that was Darren Collison playing his first NBA game in two years with the “S” on his jersey peeling off—but it’s fair to expect more from them when at least two of their stars are healthy. Russell Westbrook was inefficient offensively and losing players defensively. Dwight Howard played six minutes, which is six minutes too many for this team to be playing a traditional center. Talen Horton-Tucker cramps the team’s spacing. And LeBron—though spectacular—played a big role in the flawed construction of this roster. Everybody deserves blame. 

Hammering the Lakers is a broken record at this point. Many people were skeptical of this team’s depth, which was compromised in large part because of the Westbrook trade. The Lakers were defiant about this “narrative” before the season, but they need more from the likes of Russ, THT, or even Wayne Ellington right now, particularly when facing another depleted squad. The Lakers can’t continue to lean on excuses. They need to start figuring out solutions. 

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