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Thursday, December 26, 2019

Notes About the 2019 Christmas Day Quintupleheader

The Christmas Day quintupleheader enables hoops junkies to see a third of the league in action during a span of 12 hours or so. Both of last year's Finalists competed, though of course the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors look a lot different than they did just a few months ago. We also observed a young and hungry Boston squad, a deep Philadelphia team, the reigning (and future) MVP, a preview of the James Harden Playoff Show, Part II of the Battle of L.A., and a flat performance by the Denver Nuggets, who still have the second best record in the Western Conference even after losing to the New Orleans Pelicans.

Game One: Boston Celtics 118, Toronto Raptors 102

1) Before the season began, I picked Boston to be the third best team in the Eastern Conference, and Toronto to be the sixth best team in the Eastern Conference. Entering this game, Boston had the second best record in the Eastern Conference (20-7), and Toronto had the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference (21-9), but teams two through six were only separated by 1.5 games. After this game, the 21-7 Celtics are three games better than they were last season after 28 games (18-10), while the 21-10 Raptors are two games worse than they were last season after 31 games (23-8).

Milwaukee is the class of the East--five games ahead of the pack before the Christmas Day games--while the seventh seeded Brooklyn Nets began Christmas Day four games behind the sixth seed. So, with almost two thirds of the season to go it is too soon to say how the Boston-Toronto-Miami-Philadelphia-Indiana jumble will sort out for seeds two through six.

The Celtics lack size, but their chemistry and overall health is better than it was last season. The Raptors miss Kawhi Leonard, but the team is well-run, well-coached, and still has most of the players who made key contributions en route to winning the 2018 championship. The Heat play hard, and they are benefiting from the addition of Jimmy Butler. The 76ers may have the most talented starting lineup in the league, but they lack mental toughness, as can be seen when they repeatedly fold down the stretch; they miss Jimmy Butler, because neither Joel Embiid nor Ben Simmons have demonstrated the ability to consistently perform well in the fourth quarters of close games. The Pacers have hung tough without the injured Victor Oladipo, and it will be interesting to see just how good they can be after he returns.

2) Toronto jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter lead versus Boston, but that success was not sustainable for the short-handed Raptors, who did not have the services of the injured Pascal Siakam, who won the Most Improved Player award last season, and is a serious contender to win the award this season. Siakam is averaging 25.1 ppg this season after averaging 4.2 ppg, 7.3 ppg and 16.9 ppg in the first three seasons of his career. Starting center Marc Gasol and Norman Powell (who has started 16 of his 27 games played this season) also sat out due to injury.

Game Two: Philadelphia 76ers 121, Milwaukee Bucks 109

1) Milwaukee has been the best team in the league thus far, but they started very slowly in this game and they never recovered, trailing 38-30 after the first quarter, and falling behind by 21 points, 69-48, by halftime. Joel Embiid had a tremendous first half (23 points on 8-11 field goal shooting, plus seven rebounds and three assists). Ben Simmons had six points and eight assists in the first half. The 76ers shot 11-22 from three point range in the first half, and that is an anomaly--the most three pointers that they have made in a half this season. The 76ers finished with 21 three pointers made, tying the franchise's single game record. This season the 76ers rank just 24th in the league in three pointers made, though they are ninth in three point field goal percentage. Meanwhile, Giannis Antetokounmpo produced 10 points, eight rebounds and five assists in the first half, but he shot just 4-14 from the field.

2) The 76ers led 100-73 by the end of the third quarter. The Bucks did not seriously threaten for most of the second half, although they made a late burst that resulted in a deceptively close final score. Embiid finished with 31 points on 11-21 field goal shooting, plus 11 rebounds and three assists. Simmons added 15 points, 14 assists, and seven rebounds. All five Philadelphia starters scored in double figures, and Furkan Korkmaz added 16 points off of the bench. Antetokoumpo had a subpar game by his standards: 18 points on 8-27 field goal shooting, 14 rebounds, seven assists. Khris Middleton led Milwaukee with 31 points, tying Embiid for game-high scoring honors.

3) The Bucks still own the league's best record, and they are on pace to go 69-13, which would rank among the best single season marks in NBA history, tying the 1972 Lakers and the 1997 Bulls, while trailing only the 2016 Warriors (73-10) and the 1996 Bulls (72-10). Was this a one game aberration for one or both of these teams, or is it a sign of things to come? It should be obvious that such a question can only be answered definitively during the playoffs, not now.

Here are some things that we know, or can at least be reasonably certain about: Giannis Antetokounmpo is the best player in the league, but Joel Embiid and Al Horford can pose problems for him defensively. The Bucks are a more consistent team than the 76ers, but the 76ers have more overall talent. The 76ers are a very good team at home, but they have not proven that they can win close games down the stretch, or that they can win tough playoff games on the road.

Here are some things that we do not know: Is Antetokounmpo capable of imposing his will during an entire championship run? Is Embiid capable of staying healthy enough to lead a team to a title?

I believe that Antetokounmpo is a Pantheon-level talent, and that he is both more talented and more durable than Embiid. The 76ers are better than the Bucks on paper looking at players 2-12, but in the playoffs the superstars generally rule the day (unless they have absolutely no help), so I stand by my preseason prediction that Milwaukee will win the Eastern Conference.

Game Three: Golden State Warriors 116, Houston Rockets 104

1) Russell Westbrook played very aggressively from the start of the game, scoring a season-high 12 first quarter points on 3-10 field goal shooting while also grabbing four rebounds. His activity and energy are vital for Houston to be successful. The Rockets led 29-28 after the first quarter.

2) The Rockets led 68-64 at halftime. Westbrook had 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the first half, but he shot just 6-17 from the field. James Harden led both teams with 19 points on 7-12 field goal shooting, and he also had three rebounds and six assists. Damion Lee paced the Warriors with 17 points and 11 rebounds.

3) The Rockets lost their lead in the third quarter after suffering a scoring drought that lasted more than five minutes. Westbrook ended that run with a couple of field goals late in the quarter, but the Warriors still led 92-87 heading into the final stanza. The two-fold problem with the Rockets--and this has been true throughout the Daryl Morey/Mike D'Antoni/James Harden era--is that (1) the Rockets play a high variance offense that is prone to droughts and (2) the Rockets do not have the ability to string stops together when their offense falls off of the rails.

4) The Warriors used a 10-0 fourth quarter run to take a 106-97 lead; again, the Rockets' high variance offense is prone to droughts, and they do not have the necessary defensive mindset to overcome those droughts, even against a sub-.500 team like the Warriors. A Harden layup trimmed the margin to 106-99 at the 4:24 mark of the fourth quarter, but the Warriors sealed the deal with a 9-0 run. The Rockets lost this game during the three second half scoring droughts mentioned above.

Lee led the Warriors with 22 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. Draymond Green added 20 points and 11 rebounds, while D'Angelo Russell had 20 points.

5) The Rockets' issues predated Russell Westbrook's arrival in Houston, but, without question, the media narrative about this game will focus on Westbrook's 11-32 field goal shooting, including 0-8 from three point range. When considered in a vacuum, Westbrook should probably shoot fewer three pointers, but Houston's offense is designed to generate open three pointers, and seven of the nine Rockets who played attempted at least three pointers each. Only centers Clint Capela and Tyson Chandler did not attempt a three point shot.

Westbrook scored a game-high 30 points, and he had a team-high 12 rebounds, plus five assists. Harden posted efficient individual numbers--24 points on 9-18 field goal shooting, plus a game-high 11 assists--yet the Rockets were outscored by 18 points during Harden's 38 minutes while they were outscored by nine points during Westbrook's 40 minutes. Westbrook had the best plus/minus number of any Rockets' starter.

The Warriors often defended the Rockets by trapping Harden just before or just after he advanced past the midcourt line. Too often, the Rockets did not efficiently exploit the resulting four on three advantage. The Rockets should be able to generate a parade of layups against such a defense, but they prefer to shoot the first open three pointer, and the Warriors tried to ensure that Westbrook was the first open three point shooter.

Harden did not attempt a free throw until the 7:59 mark of the fourth quarter. When the referees do not fall for Harden's flopping act, and the Rockets shoot poorly from three point range--16-51 in this game--the Rockets do not have an answer. Unless the Rockets change their approach--and they appear to be far too stubborn to consider doing that--look for the Rockets' last game of the playoffs to very much resemble this loss to the Warriors.

Game Four: L.A. Clippers 111, L.A. Lakers 106
1) The Clippers--without the injured Paul George--defeated the Lakers 112-102 on opening night, the first of four regular season meetings between these teams this season. Kawhi Leonard scored a game-high 30 points on 10-19 field goal shooting in 32 minutes in that game.

George played in this game, so it was natural to expect the Clippers to win again. Leonard guarded LeBron James at the start of the game, while James conserved energy by guarding Patrick Patterson (the Clippers threw several different defenders at James during the course of the first half). Leonard scored 14 points on 6-8 field goal shooting in the first quarter, while James had two points on 0-4 field goal shooting, but Kyle Kuzma scored 15 first quarter points and the Lakers led 33-31.

2) James missed his first seven field goal attempts, one short of his personal worst 0-8 start to a 2005 game (per a statistic provided by Mike Breen during the telecast). However, James made three of his next four field goal attempts, and he finished the first half with eight points, seven rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers extended their lead to 63-51. Kuzma scored 19 first half points, and Anthony Davis added 14 points. Leonard, with 18 points, was the only Clipper with more than seven first half points.

3) The Clippers methodically chipped away at the Lakers' lead during the third quarter, and the score was tied 86-86 entering the fourth quarter. After outscoring the Lakers 35-23 in the third quarter, the Clippers outscored the Lakers 25-20 in the fourth quarter--including 10-3 in the final five minutes--to outlast the Lakers. That 60-43 second half advantage with both teams at full strength is a powerful testament to just how good the Clippers are. I hate the load management trend that Leonard has popularized, and I would not trust George as the best player on a contending team, but with Leonard leading the way bolstered by George as the second option, and a supporting cast of players who are both scrappy and talented, the Clippers look like the best team in the league.

The Clippers took the lead for good when Lou Williams stole the ball from Anthony Davis and then converted two free throws after Davis fouled Williams on a breakaway layup attempt. Those free throws put the Clippers up 105-103. Leonard scored the Clippers' next four points by making all of his free throws after drawing fouls on his former teammate Danny Green on consecutive possessions. In between Leonard's two sets of free throws, Davis hit a jump shot.

James made one out of two free throws to trim the Clippers' lead to 109-106 with 41.9 seconds left. After Williams missed a jump shot, Patrick Beverley stripped the ball away from LeBron James with before James could attempt a tying three point shot with 3.6 seconds remaining.

After the game, Lisa Salters asked Leonard what this game means for the L.A. rivalry, and Leonard replied that neither team is going to win the "L.A. championship" and that both teams have a bigger goal in mind.

Leonard can minimize the intracity rivalry as much as he wants, but it is significant that he outplayed James overall and down the stretch, leading both teams in scoring (35 points on 11-19 field goal shooting) and rebounds (12) while posting a +13 plus/minus number. Montrezl Harrell added 18 points and six rebounds. George contributed 17 points, five rebounds and three assists while playing good defense, but he shot just 5-18 from the field and he had a -8 plus/minus number in a game that his team won by five points.

Davis led the Lakers with 24 points, but he only shot 8-17 from the field--which is not good enough considering the size advantage he enjoyed over the players who guarded him--and the 6-10 Davis had just six rebounds, three fewer than the 6-1 Beverley had. James scored 23 points on 9-24 field goal shooting, but he had 10 assists and nine rebounds, and his plus/minus number was +3. Of course, down the stretch when the game was up for grabs James did not grab it, but the media narrative about the game will likely be that James does not have enough help.

Game Five: New Orleans Pelicans 112, Denver Nuggets 100
1) One of the main reasons that this game made it to the Christmas Day schedule is all of the hype about 2019 number one overall selection Zion Williamson, who has yet to play a regular season game for the Pelicans due to a knee injury that initially was only expected to sideline him for six to eight weeks. Now, it is not certain when or if Williamson will play this season.

It is way too soon to speculate how good Williamson might become--we do not even know if he can stay healthy enough to have a productive NBA career. Many players have shown flashes of greatness at the collegiate level that they were not able to match at the professional level.

2) The general popular perception seems to be that Denver is having a disappointing season, but even after this loss the Nuggets have the second best record in the Western Conference and are on pace to win 57 games, three more than they won last season. Did anyone realistically expect the Nuggets to be doing better than they have done thus far? Before the season, I ranked the Nuggets as the third best team in the Western Conference.

3) The Pelicans led 29-26 at the end of the first quarter, 58-55 at halftime, and 84-80 after the third quarter. I thought that the Nuggets--riding a seven game winning streak--would wake up at some point and find a way to win, but the Pelicans finished the game in style with timely three point shots and defensive stops. The Pelicans are not a very good basketball team, but they usually play hard and they have been somewhat competitive in their recent games: the Pelicans won two of their three games prior to playing Denver, with the victories sandwiched around a four point loss to Golden State. The Denver game was their fourth straight road contest.

Analysis of Previous Christmas Day Quintupleheaders:

Several Stars Shine During Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2018)

Christmas Day Quintupleheader Recap (2012)

Comments and Notes About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2011)

Thoughts and Observations About the Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2010)

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:18 AM



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