Christmas is the unofficial start to the NBA season, and while many of you followed along fervently through the first two-plus months of 2017, some don’t get serious about basketball until they escape from their family, watch a handful of marquee matchups and remember, “Hey, this is the best league.” So, here are 10 storylines to tell the family when they ask you why you’ve been on the couch all day.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS at GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (3 p.m. ET)
The Cavaliers and Warriors absolutely do not like Donald Trump.
This one should go over well before Christmas dinner when you’re sitting down as a family for the rematch between the two teams that have met in the NBA Finals for three years running. But it’s true. There’s been an almost league–wide rebuke of the president, but no teams have been more outspoken than the two conference heavyweights — not even Gregg Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs.
Here’s a syllabus of what’s happened between the Warriors, Cavaliers and Trump since last Christmas, which doesn’t even include Golden State coach Steve Kerr saying the day after the election results on Nov. 9, 2016: “The man who’s going to lead you has routinely used racist, misogynist, insulting words.”
• Jan. 23: Warriors forward David West said Trump’s base “bit” on his “infantile, non-decent language.”
• Jan. 24: Kerr cracked an “alternative facts” joke.
• Jan. 30: Kerr called Trump’s Muslim travel ban “a horrible idea.”
• Feb. 8: Warriors superstar Stephen Curry essentially called Trump “an ass.”
• Feb. 8: Cavaliers superstar LeBron James also called Trump’s travel ban un-American.
• Feb. 10: Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said, “I definitely wouldn’t go” to the White House.
• May 17: Kerr called Trump “a blowhard.”
• June 12: The Warriors won the title, and, “hell nah,” Andre Iguodala isn’t going to the White House.
• Aug. 15: LeBron tweeted, “Donald Trump made it fashionable again” to hate in America.
• Aug. 17: Warriors star Kevin Durant said, “I don’t respect who’s in office right now.”
• Aug. 19: Cavs guard J.R. Smith tweeted, “Make America Hate Again is different than making it great!”
• June 30: The Warriors were considering a White House visit “out of respect for the office.”
• Sept. 22: Curry said, “I don’t want to go” to the White House.
• Sept. 23: Trump tweeted, “Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn.”
• Sept. 23: LeBron responded on Twitter: “U bum. Stephen Curry already said he ain’t going.”
• Sept. 24: Kerr wrote in an open letter, “You’re the president. You represent all of us. Don’t divide us.”
• Sept. 25: LeBron said Trump “doesn’t even care about racial issues.”
• Oct. 1: Smith criticized Trump for attending another golf event.
• Oct. 31: Kerr said, “Trump’s rhetoric is exacerbating everything.”
• Nov. 20: Kerr wishes the media would just stop covering Trump.
• Nov. 24: LeBron’s refusal to stay at Trump SoHo hotel fueled an exodus of guests and led to its sale.
• Nov. 27: Kerr said he couldn’t shake Trump’s hand after all the “nasty things” he said about women.
• Dec. 18: LeBron wore EQUALITY shoes in Washington as a repudiation of Trump.
Now, run that list past your uncle in the MAGA hat, and have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Stephen Curry made fun of LeBron James in front of Kyrie Irving at Harrison Barnes’ wedding.
Trust me, your aunt will love the story about how a wedding dance shook up the NBA’s best rivalry.
Cavs-Warriors would undoubtedly be this century’s best NBA rivalry if there weren’t so much respect between them. Even Draymond Green, the guy who got suspended for punching LeBron in the groin, is friends with LeBron. Any self-respecting rivalry needs hate. Just ask Kevin McHale and Kurt Rambis.
So, we needed this 20-second video from ex-Warriors forward Harrison Barnes’ August wedding:
Steph making fun of LeBron's workout video with Kyrie egging him on (via ryanonlyryan/IG) pic.twitter.com/fBj7idGzWA
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) July 30, 2017
That would be Curry mocking LeBron’s mean-mugging workout videos, as a number of NBA players, including then-Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving, laughed along with the two-time MVP sharpshooter. As you may recall, Irving requested a trade from the Cavaliers a month earlier because he no longer wanted to play with LeBron, and James had to deny reports he would “be tempted to beat Kyrie’s ass.”
If ever there were going to be a reconciliation between Irving and James, Kyrie’s laughter in that Curry video may have sealed his fate, and he was traded to the Celtics two weeks later. Curry called it an homage to LeBron, but for the sake of the rivalry, I’ll just assume imitating someone behind his back while the teammate whom he’s openly feuding with laughs alongside you isn’t done out of respect.
Durant also said recently the shot he hit over James to win Game 3 and all but seal Cleveland’s fate in the 2017 NBA Finals felt like a “passing of the torch” moment, so that’s sure to spoil LeBron’s egg nog.
HOUSTON ROCKETS at OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (8 p.m. ET)
The Rockets are a legitimate challenger to the Warriors.
Your father-in-law might actually think you’re smart if you drop this NBA knowledge.
Seriously, even your most diehard basketball family members might not even realize this. Since being traded from the L.A. Clippers this past summer, Chris Paul has won every game he’s finished for the Rockets this season. The nine-time All-Star injured his knee in the season opener (a one-point win over the Warriors), missed a month, returned on Nov. 16, and then left with an adductor strain in the fourth quarter of Wednesday’s six-point loss to the Lakers, which snapped a 14-game win streak.
Even without Paul, the Rockets are pretty darn good, winning 10 of 14 games on the way to a 25-6 record, thanks in large part to another MVP-caliber campaign by James Harden. With Paul, though, Houston has looked like an actual challenger to Golden State’s reign.
During the 14-game win streak, the Rockets outscored their opponents by 16.4 points per 100 possessions — the largest discrepancy in the league during that span by almost five full points. On the entire season, they own the league’s best offensive rating (113.6 points per 100 possessions) and, perhaps even more importantly, a top-10 defense (103 points allowed per 100 possessions).
The defense was an Achilles’ heel a year ago, when the San Antonio Spurs blew their doors off in the Western Conference semifinals, but Paul — a nine-time All-Defensive selection — has helped instill a different mindset, along with the additions of defensive stalwarts P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute.
Most important, though, has been what Paul’s meant to Harden. They have been just fine together, of course, as the Rockets have outscored opponents by double-digits per 100 possessions with the two of them on the floor, but Paul allows the Rockets to almost never play without a Hall of Fame point guard on the floor. Houston has played 183 minutes sans Paul and Harden this season, 90 percent of which came when Paul was injured, and much of the other 10 percent you can bet is garbage time.
That has shored up Houston’s second unit, which ranks as the NBA’s best this season, while just as importantly lightening the offensive load for each of their star point guards with fewer minutes and less pressure to carry the offense — much like Durant did for Curry. The Rockets hope all of this will pay dividends in the playoffs, where both Harden and Paul have come up short in their careers.
Of course, Paul has now suffered a second injury already this season and may not be available for Christmas. This after injuries cut the 32-year-old’s playoffs short in two of the last three years. And despite all of Houston’s success with their 1-2 point guard punch, they still own a net rating almost two points per 100 possessions worse than the Warriors, who trail the Rockets by only a half-game in the standings and have been without Curry for six games (and will continue to be without him through Christmas).
But there’s hope in Houston, and if you can’t have hope on Christmas, then when can you, eh?
The Thunder might be an unnatural disaster.
Just don’t bring the Thunder up around your grandfather. The Titanic is still too fresh in his mind.
If you were like me, you figured the Thunder would be good after adding perennial All-Stars Paul George and Carmelo Anthony to a mix that already included the reigning MVP, Russell Westbrook. Real good. Like, better-than-the-Rockets and a-threat-to-the-Warriors good. That hasn’t been the case.
In fact, they’re worse this year than they were one third of the way through last season (19-12), and losses to the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks last week and a handful of other lottery-bound teams haven’t inspired too much confidence. There have been some signs of life — a blowout victory over the Warriors and the NBA’s top-rated defense — that suggest all hope is not lost in Oklahoma City.
Then, there’s the offense, which ranks among the league’s worst, barely better than the Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks, who, if you haven’t heard, don’t have three prolific scorers in their starting lineup. Much of the finger-pointing has been directed at Westbrook, who is still forcing shots and doesn’t help the offense move when he doesn’t have the ball.
The rest of the blame has been levied to varying degrees upon Anthony, the Thunder’s lack of depth (Patrick Patterson is still working his way back from knee surgery and hasn’t been nearly the player they thought they were getting) and coach Billy Donovan, whose chemistry lesson has been a failure.
Would moving Anthony to the bench provide some stability to the second unit? Would he even accept that role? Could Westbrook set a single screen for George or Anthony and let them facilitate a little? Can they incorporate Steven Adams into the mix a little more? Try something. Anything. Because what they’re doing now, and what they’ve done in Donovan’s tenure, isn’t working. We expected better.
Surely, George and Anthony did, too. George said he’d be dumb not to stay in OKC if they reached the conference finals, but the Thunder look like a team that might struggle to get out of the first round, and that probably isn’t enough to sway a guy who seems dead-set on heading home to Los Angeles.
Then what? Then you’ve probably got one more year left of Anthony, if he picks up his $27.9 million option, before you rebuild around Westbrook again. Only now you’re doing so without the pieces you dealt to construct this roster — Victor Oladipo (who looks like an All-Star on the Indiana Pacers), Domantas Sabonis and Enes Kanter (both of whom are solid rotational players on their new teams).
This is not good. Not good at all. A win over the Rockets in OKC on Christmas might change our minds. It might be enough to convince us that, when properly motivated, this team can compete with anyone.
And everyone loves a surprise on Christmas.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS at BOSTON CELTICS (5:30 p.m. ET)
Why, yes, Kyrie Irving actually does believe the Earth is flat.
Come Christmas, run all this by your cousin with the bloodshot eyes watching the NBA from the couch.
You’re still not sure whether Irving really thinks the Earth is flat, are you? The guy got into Duke, made one of the most clutch shots in history, and now thrives as an MVP candidate under one of the NBA’s smartest coaches, so it seems like he should know the Earth’s shape. But he also told Stephen A. Smith, “Oh, if you’re very much woke, there’s no such thing as distractions,” so you can’t really be sure.
Well, let me clear this up for you: Kyrie Irving definitely thinks the Earth is flat after doing his own independent “research.” We know this because he’s now said so at least five times on a few podcasts.
But NBA commissioner Adam Silver said then that Irving was just making “a larger comment on the so-called ‘fake news’ debate,” you say? Well, Irving doubled down on his flat-Earth theory in March.
But Irving “claimed he was just trolling with all that flat-Earth nonsense” on a Boston radio station in September, you say? Well, not exactly. Besides, he tripled down on his theory in a conversation with UConn coach Geno Auriemma a month later, when he said, “like, there’s not one real picture of Earth.”
So, here we are in December, and Irving has just released his new Kyrie 4 sneakers through Nike, which, per shoe guru Nick DePaula, feature an “All Seeing Eye” on the tongue “to challenge everyone to seek their own answers beyond the ones that are given to us by books, media, internet, etc.”
The new Kyrie 4 also features an "All Seeing Eye" icon behind the tongue, meant to "challenge everyone to seek their own answers beyond the ones that are given to us by books, media, internet, etc." pic.twitter.com/l4zrOmKJQJ
— Nick DePaula (@NickDePaula) December 15, 2017
It seems Irving is still waiting for all of us to come to the realization that the Earth is flat, too. He also believes the CIA assassinated Bob Marley, he can control his dreams, and movie aliens are based on real aliens. Considering Tuesday’s UFO news, I think we may all have to be prepared for the day Kyrie is proven right, especially if he continues to lead his Celtics ahead of LeBron’s Cavaliers in the East.
The Wizards and Celtics want to host each other’s funeral.
Your goth niece is sure to love this story, especially if the C’s wear their black jerseys on Christmas.
This weirdest of NBA rivalries began, I guess, two season ago, when then-Celtics forward Jae Crowder accused then-Wizards coach Randy Wittman of cussing him out for no apparent reason. It continued into last season, when, in their first meeting, Wiz star John Wall leveled C’s guard Marcus Smart in the fourth quarter of a game his team was leading by 20, earning an ejection and a jaw full from Smart.
Then came Crowder’s notorious nose boop of Wall this past January, which resulted in security separating both teams, then-Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas informing the Wizards, “They can’t f*** with a real killer,” and a handful of Boston police officers standing guard between their locker rooms.
“We’ve had some past history the last couple of years with those guys,” Wizards forward Otto Porter Jr. explained to NBC Sports Washington after Boston’s 117-108 win. “They’re a physical team. They try to play dirty. They try to take you out your game. Their whole team. That’s just how they try to play.”
The teams were scheduled to meet a fortnight later, and, on the eve of their rematch, the Wizards announced plans to wear all black for the Celtics’ “funeral.” In a regular-season game. In late January.
Me to John Wall: "All black everything?"
Wall: "A black everything. A fun-er-ral!"
Beal in background: "Yaa."
— Candace Buckner (@CandaceDBuckner) January 24, 2017
Of course, a regular-season “funeral” game is as ridiculous a storyline as ridiculous NBA storylines can get. So, it was fitting, then, that the Celtics tried to return the favor, showing up to Washington in all black for a close-out Game 6 opportunity in the 2017 Eastern Conference semifinals, and then losing.
The Celtics got the last laugh when Kelly Olynyk, who was on the receiving end of Kelly Oubre Jr.’s retaliation for a couple elbows he considered dirty, scored 14 fourth-quarter points to eliminate the Wizards in Game 7, after which Washington’s Bradley Beal announced the Wiz “were the better team.”
Gone are Thomas, Crowder and Olynyk. And, in an interesting wrinkle, in steps new Celtics forward Marcus Morris — identical twin brother of Wizards forward Markieff Morris — who hopes to be healthy enough to play in their game on Christmas. And while Markieff suggested the rivalry might be “a liiiittle bit softer” now, Wall was sure to remind him that there’s still a funeral to plan in Boston:
“I told him, ‘Man, I know that’s your brother and you do everything alike, but he’s our enemy when we play them four games.’ He’s cool with it.”
And nothing says Christmas like two brothers fighting.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES at LOS ANGELES LAKERS (10:30 p.m. ET)
Tom Thibodeau is running his team into the ground again.
We tell this story a lot, like your brother and his marathon training every damn holiday. You can set your clock to Thibodeau’s grind, so we’ll borrow from the last time we told this story, when Wolves star Jimmy Butler said, “We’ve got to talk to Thibs. These 40-minute [games] are starting to add up.”
Thibs built a reputation on running his former Chicago Bulls players into the ground. One of those players was Butler, whose 38.7 minutes per game led the league in 2013-14 and 2014-15. Before that, Bulls forward Luol Deng led the NBA in minutes per game for consecutive seasons. That led to a .647 win percentage in Thibodeau’s five regular seasons in Chicago and a sub-.500 mark in the playoffs.
It’s unclear whether Thibodeau’s coaching style resulted in the early career declines of Deng, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah before their 30th birthdays, but there is ample evidence that limiting minutes and strategically resting players during the season can both improve their performance and prolong their careers. This is precisely why the NBA added two weeks to the NBA calendar this season.
Except, Thibodeau still doesn’t seem to subscribe to sports science. There are 11 players in the league who have already played 1,100 minutes this season, and three of them play for the Timberwolves. Andrew Wiggins ranks second in the NBA with 1,174 minutes, Karl-Anthony Towns is fifth with 1,144 and Butler is eighth, despite missing two games due to illness (32-year-old ex-Bull Taj Gibson is 19th).
Butler is seeing the worst of it, having played 40 or more minutes in Minnesota’s first six games this month. He was great, averaging 27.3 points (on 50 percent shooting), 5.8 rebounds and 5.3 assists. Yet, the Wolves finished 3-3 in those games, and they could be paying with more losses down the line.
Minnesota’s starting lineup is playing 24.7 minutes per game together. The next-most commonly used lineup that’s played double-digit games together? The Indiana Pacers’ starters at 16.9 minutes a night. That means the Wolves’ starters are grinding almost 50 percent more often than any other unit.
This is the product of a coach who is known for living and breathing basketball, watching tape at all hours of the night, running through game plans on a few hours sleep, and, apparently, treating early December games as if they’re the playoffs. We can only hope that history doesn’t repeat itself in Minnesota after a once-promising Chicago team slowly broke down before it reached its peak.
The Wolves are working hard in the frozen north and it’s paying dividends, and are seemingly bound for their first playoff berth since 2004. Let’s hope Thibodeau can find them some rest between now and then. Even Santa gives his reindeer a break after Christmas, right?
LaVar Ball has made life hell on his son, Lonzo.
Just give your dad a death stare as you read him this one on Christmas.
LaVar spent Lonzo’s freshman year at UCLA announcing his son was already better than Stephen Curry and would win more championships than Michael Jordan and whatever other dumb things he said.
You’ll be shocked to learn that none of his ludicrous projections are remotely true, except for the part about Lonzo being drafted to the Lakers — second overall, no less. That’s no small conceit. Not good enough for LaVar, though, who has spent the first several months of his son’s rookie year complaining about how Lakers coach Luke Walton isn’t putting Lonzo in position to succeed. Ah, the irony of it all.
As a result, L.A. Clippers guard Patrick Beverley bullied Lonzo in his debut, and the rest of the NBA lined up to embarrass the 19-year-old as a means to making his father appear even more absurd. The media is equally happy to point out that Lonzo’s career is off to a historically poor shooting start.
The Lakers have since installed a gag order of sorts, the so-called “LaVar Ball rule,” and kindly asked Lonzo’s dad to tone down his ridiculous rhetoric, advice LaVar promptly ignored. Shocking, I know.
Had LaVar not pinned a bull’s-eye on his son’s back, in a sense making him the donkey, we might be more willing to look beyond those shooting numbers and see that his averages — 9.6 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game — put him in elite company. Only two rookies ever matched those averages over a full season: Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson. Lonzo and Philadelphia 76ers rookie Ben Simmons are both in line to do it this season, and Simmons can’t shoot, either.
Instead, we’re still measuring Lonzo against LaVar’s dumb projections, even though we knew they were dumb at the time. This is all exponentially dumb. But the Lakers didn’t do the rook any favors anointing him the heir to Kobe Bryant’s throne at his introductory press conference. This is the world they’ve constructed around Lonzo, and pointing out the flaws in that world is just our human nature.
At least that’s what we like to tell ourselves. The tale only gets sadder from there. The younger Ball injured his shoulder in the Lakers’ loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday night and will miss a week, including this Christmas Day tilt against the Timberwolves.
Still, there will be plenty of talk about the Balls during the broadcast and you can bet the camera will pan on Lonzo plenty. That’s just the way things are. Maybe he can fulfill his father’s promise. And maybe it’s time we start believing in Santa Claus again.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS at NEW YORK KNICKS (noon ET)
Michael Beasley is here to put you in a mind pretzel.
The niece who just informed you she’s into the Grateful Dead now will dig this riddle on Christmas.
Here’s what new Knicks forward and puzzling NBA veteran Michael Beasley told SNY.TV in September:
“You can research the human brain and all that. It says that we are only capable of using 10 percent of our brain, right? You believe that? So, it’s the consensus scientifically. So, who was the guy that used 11 that made it OK to say that everybody’s just using 10?”
And he did it while looking like this:
Considering we may be forced to watch a game between the Kristaps Porzingis-less Knicks and Joel Embiid-free 76ers (one has a bum knee and the other a bad back), we need more reasons to get the whole family into this game beyond Philadelphia’s natural hatred for New York. Hi, Michael Beasley.
The 28-year-old Beasley arrived in New York this September, announcing 1) his plans to play until he’s 43, 2) “I still think I have a chance to be one of the best in the NBA,” 3) he will be one of four 25-point scorers on the Knicks this year and 4) “I’m literally just Carmelo [Anthony] on the left side of the floor.”
This prompted ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith to question whether Beasley was “smoking something,” which caught the attention of Beasley’s kids and left him lamenting, “I have to explain to children what weed is.” This was well after his many marijuana-related run-ins, just before his human brain riddle and well before he twisted his ankle 36 seconds into his Knicks career and still called for the damn ball.
So, yeah, the Knicks are fun again, even in Porzingis’ absence. They have Enes Kanter, who mocks LeBron at every turn, and Kyle O’Quinn, a.k.a. the “Bar Mitzvah Man” of New York, and rookie Frank Ntilikina, a.k.a. The Frenchise, a.k.a. The French Prince, a.k.a. Frankie Nicotine, a.k.a. Frankie Smokes.
And, for one night at least, Beasley was “the best in the NBA,” a 25-point scorer and “Melo on the left side of the floor,” scoring 28 of his 32 points in the second half, including 18 in the fourth quarter, to almost singlehandedly beat the first-place Celtics on Thursday night, as Madison Square Garden showered him with MVP chants. Maybe, after 10 years and six teams, this was just the beginning.
Michael Beasley on when he started feeling the hot hand: "January 9, 1989."
— Al Iannazzone (@Al_Iannazzone) December 22, 2017
The Knicks are battling for a playoff spot in the East. Did we mention that Beasley also predicted they would “be not only a playoff team but a 5-, 6-seed team if we do it right”? Who’s the guy using 11 percent of his brain now?
Come to think of it. Don’t bother with presents. Give everyone the gift of SuperCoolBeas this year.
Joel Embiid is the largest troll.
His trolling knows no bounds:
• He roasted Heat center Hassan Whiteside, and then tagged him as “BBQ Chicken” on Instagram.
• He told fellow up-and-er Karl-Anthony Towns that the grainy picture he posted of himself Euro-stepping around the Wolves star and “raising the cat” was “better quality than your defense.”
• He said Andre Drummond “can’t shoot” and “doesn’t play any defense,” fouled him out of their next game, waved him goodbye and tabbed himself “the James Harden of bigs” for his ability to draw fouls.
Drummond fouls out and Embiid let him know pic.twitter.com/HM1cTiQKfD
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 3, 2017
• He blocked Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell, told him to “get that [stuff] out of here,” flopped when Mitchell shoved him, and then copped to the flop afterward.
• He asked Grizzlies forward Chandler Parsons on Instagram, “Are you a virgin?”
• He clowned Clippers backup center Willie Reed, called him “what’s his name,” stared down Blake Griffin after a dunk and told DeAndre Jordan, “You can’t f***ing stop me,” all in one game.
• He asked teammate Ben Simmons to “please dunk on [Lonzo] so hard that his daddy runs on the court to save him,” got fined for saying, “Man, f*** LaVar Ball,” submitted a historic domination of the Lakers (two nights after he mocked the Clips), and then trolled both Lonzo and LaVar on Instagram.
• He thanked the Warriors for teaching him a valuable lesson about blowing a big lead.
• He made fun of Kevin Durant for having a burner Twitter account.
Speaking of which, there’s another NBA storyline everyone can relate to on Christmas. Teach your kids about the dangers of social media when they open that iPhone, or risk them trashing their friends online. Really, there’s no reason not to watch the NBA on Christmas. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
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