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Sunday, December 26, 2021

Notes About the 2021 Christmas Day Quintupleheader

Last year, the NBA's annual Christmas Day quintupleheader was not only the unofficial start to the season, but it happened not long after the actual start of the season due to the schedule being thrown out of whack ever since the league shut down temporarily in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 is still casting a very large shadow over the world, and the NBA in particular had to scramble to keep its biggest single-day revenue bonanza intact because many teams have multiple players who are unavailable due to the health and safety protocols.

Game One: New York Knicks 101, Atlanta Hawks 87 

1) It has been fascinating to read and hear many "experts" declare that everyone in the NBA supposedly knew that Kemba Walker is damaged goods who simply cannot be productive, and then watch Walker score 29, 21, and 44 points in three consecutive games after not playing for 10 straight games from November 27 through December 16. It would be difficult for any player to average 31.3 ppg in a three game stretch after such a protracted period of inactivity, and it defies credulity that a player who is damaged goods could accomplish this.

Is Walker a great defensive player? No. Is Walker a pure point guard? No. Is Walker undersized? Yes.

Guess what? The Knicks knew all three of those things when they signed him; they did not sign him with any reasonable expectation that he would be an elite defender, that he would be an elite playmaker, or that he would grow. The Knicks signed him to be an explosive scorer, and it is evident that Walker is still capable of filling that role. Will he average over 30 ppg for the rest of the season? Almost certainly not, but if he is provided with playing time then he can be a productive offensive player. It is puzzling that Knicks Coach Tom Thibodeau did not merely reduce Walker's minutes but instead completely took him out of the rotation for nearly three weeks--and the "experts" have yet to offer a satisfactory explanation for what Thibodeau did.

2) Walker did not shoot well versus Atlanta, but he played an excellent floor game while notching just the seventh triple double in Christmas Day history, and the first such triple double posted by a Knick. Walker finished with 10 points on 3-12 field goal shooting, 10 rebounds, and a game-high 12 assists. He had a +19 plus/minus number. Julius Randle led the Knicks in scoring (25 points) and rebounds (12). Atlanta's high scorers were John Collins and Delon Wright (20 points each).

3) Atlanta's Trae Young missed the game after being placed in health and safety protocols, but the disappointing Hawks have not been great this season even when he has played, posting a 14-15 record with Young in the lineup.

Game Two: Milwaukee Bucks 117, Boston Celtics 113

1) Giannis Antetokounmpo missed the previous five games due to being placed in health and safety protocols. He looked rusty in the first half, scoring just seven points on 3-8 field goal shooting, and the Celtics led 62-47 at halftime despite missing nine players who are currently placed in health and safety protocols--but Antetokounmpo quickly shook off the rust and he dominated in the second half, finishing with 36 points on 13-23 field goal shooting, plus a team-high 12 rebounds. The Bucks scored a season-high 43 points in the third quarter to cut Boston's lead to 94-90 entering the fourth quarter.

The Bucks were clinging to a 116-113 lead with 8.0 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo met Robert Williams III above the rim and blocked his dunk attempt. The blocked shot bounced out of bounds off of the Celtics, so the Bucks obtained possession. How many players in Antetokounmpo's position on that play would have just "made a business decision" (I hate that phrase and would like for it to be banned from basketball commentary) to avoid being posterized? One player going for the dunk in that situation against a shot blocker who is not afraid to be posterized is a classic example of what Julius Erving calls daring to be great. There is no shame in being dunked on, nor is there shame in having your dunk blocked--the only shame is being afraid to challenge yourself to dare to be great.

Antetokounmpo received solid support from Khris Middleton (17 points), Jrue Holiday (17 points), and Bobby Portis (16 points, 10 rebounds). Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 25 points each.

2) It is always a treat to watch Hubie Brown provide color commentary. I love hearing Brown's words of wisdom, and I enjoy listening to him tell stories about his coaching career, including his time as an assistant coach with the Bucks when the team advanced to the 1974 NBA Finals before losing to the Celtics in seven games. 

Fun fact: Brown was Bernard King's coach when the Knicks' forward set the Christmas Day scoring record: 60 points versus the Nets in 1984 (not so fun fact for Brown and King: the Nets won the game despite King's heroics). 

3) Has there ever been a defending champion flying further underneath the radar than the Milwaukee Bucks? We hear so much about various teams, but who is going to slow down--let alone stop--Antetokounmpo in a seven game series? Why should the Bucks not be on a very short list of legit championship contenders? Assuming that the Bucks are reasonably healthy at playoff time, it will be very difficult to beat them four times in a seven game series.

Game Three: Golden State Warriors 116, Phoenix Suns 107

1) Golden State won a tightly contested game that may turn out to be a Western Conference Finals preview. Phoenix led 62-58 at halftime thanks to strong performances by Chris Paul (16 points on 5-7 field goal shooting, four assists, +14 plus/minus number) and Deandre Ayton (14 points on 6-7 field goal shooting). The Suns shot .512 from the field. Stephen Curry had 17 points and four assists in the first half, but he shot just 5-15 from the field.

2) Much like the Bucks-Celtics game, this game was a tale of two halves: the Warriors outscored the Suns 58-45 in the second half. Curry only shot marginally better from the field in the second half (5-12) than he did in the first half, but he shot frequently enough to amass a game-high 33 points. Surprisingly, this is Curry's first 20 point game in nine Christmas Day appearances.

Naturally, the commentators could not stop gushing about his "gravity"--Curry may soon be officially classified as our solar system's ninth planet due to his tremendous gravitational pull. Does Curry attract extra defensive attention that creates open shot opportunities for his teammates? Absolutely. Does he possess or create some kind of unique basketball gravity that has never been seen before? No. Do you remember whose "gravity" pulled two championships into Golden State's orbit? Kevin Durant is the answer, in case you forgot. Curry was a wonderful second option behind Durant, after previously being the first option--but not Finals MVP--for a very talented ensemble cast that won one championship.

The story of this game is not Curry's "gravity," but rather that Golden State played much better defensively in the second half than they did in the first half. Also, Otto Porter Jr. added 19 points on 8-13 field goal shooting, including 13 points in the fourth quarter.

Paul faded into oblivion in the second half, scoring just five points on 2-7 field goal shooting to finish with 21 points on 7-14 field goal shooting--a great example of how numbers can be misleading: Paul played so well in the first half that his second act disappearing act is not apparent to anyone who just looks at his game totals. Any "stat guru" can give you a proprietary number purporting to measure Paul's "impact" or "efficiency" or how many "wins" he produced, but only someone who watched the game with an intelligent eye understands that Paul played very well to help Phoenix build an early lead but that he was ineffective in the second half after the Warriors played better defensively.

Ayton also disappeared in the second half (four points on 2-3 field goal shooting), ending up with 18 points on 8-10 field goal shooting. Devin Booker struggled throughout the game, and he had just 13 points on 5-19 field goal shooting. Mikal Bridges tried to pick up the slack with 17 points.

3) I will not judge a team based on one half. Overall, the Suns have played very well this season, and if they stay healthy--which has been a bigger challenge than usual for every team during the past two years--then they will be a serious championship contender.

The Warriors are better than I expected. Klay Thompson will reportedly return to action soon, and his contributions not only as a shooter but also as a defender could be significant, assuming that he has completely recovered from his two serious injuries.

Game Four: Brooklyn Nets 122, L.A. Lakers 115

1) The Lakers' main highlight/bright spot from this game is that LeBron James broke the Christmas Day career scoring record, previously held by Kobe Bryant. James scored 22 first half points on 7-11 field goal shooting en route to posting a game-high and season-high 39 points on 14-25 field goal shooting. He also had nine rebounds and seven assists. James' career has already been remarkable, but his ability to consistently play at an MVP caliber level as a 19 year veteran who will turn 37 on December 31 is only matched by the post-35 year old success of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan. 

James Harden had 23 first half points on 8-15 field goal shooting, plus six rebounds and six assists. Patty Mills, apparently not listed on the Lakers' pregame scouting report considering how often their players lost track of his whereabouts, scored 19 first half points on 6-9 field goal shooting as the Nets led 66-62 at intermission. Mills finished with 34 points on 11-17 field goal shooting (including 8-13 from three point range).

2) The Lakers overcame early first half struggles to cut the margin to four by halftime, and they even briefly took the lead early in the second half, but then the Nets pulled away to lead 102-82 by the end of the third quarter. The Lakers' decision to go small in the third quarter backfired in a big way, as the Lakers had no paint presence defensively. 

It looked like the Nets would cruise to victory, but at the 8:44 mark of the fourth quarter, Harden committed an offensive foul by striking Talen Horton-Tucker in the groin. Upon review, the officials upgraded Harden's foul to a flagrant foul 1, but the way that the league classifies such plays is very subjective, and it is reasonable to suggest that if a player who is not considered a superstar and/or has a "bad" reputation did the exact same thing that Harden did then that player would have been assessed a flagrant foul 2, resulting in automatic ejection. 

Tucker made both free throws, part of a 17-0 Lakers' run that cut the Nets' lead to 107-101. Mills ended the run by nailing a three pointer at the 5:20 mark to put the Nets up, 110-101. The Lakers played hard, if not very efficiently, down the stretch, and pulled within 112-110 with 1:55 remaining in the fourth quarter. Mills nailed another three pointer, but James countered by hitting from long distance to keep the margin at two points, and after Harden missed a long step back jumper James hit a cutting Malik Monk for a layup that tied the score at 115. Nic Claxton posterized James off of a feed from Harden. James fouled Claxton while contesting the dunk--full credit to both players for daring to be great--and Claxton's free throw put the Nets up, 118-115. Russell Westbrook drove to the hoop for a left handed dunk, but he came up short as his attempt bounced off of the rim. Harden closed out the scoring by connecting on four straight free throws.

Westbrook posted a triple double (13 points, 12 rebounds, 11 assists), but he shot just 4-20 from the field. Westbrook is a polarizing player who media members and fans either love or hate, with a very sparsely inhabited middle ground. Prior to this game, his season averages were 19.8 ppg, 8.0 apg (seventh in the league), and 7.8 apg with shooting splits of .460/.311/.650. Westbrook is posting the second highest field goal percentage of his career, a stat that I have yet to hear a single critic mention, but I have read and heard plenty of commentary suggesting that Westbrook shoots too much, shoots too inefficiently, turns over the ball too frequently, blah, blah, blah. Westbrook is still a great passer and a great rebounder. He is still able to score prolifically, but he has willingly reduced his shot attempts (third lowest per game average of his career) so that the Lakers can feature James and Anthony Davis. Westbrook is not the Lakers' main problem, but you can bet that he will be the main scapegoat for any of the Lakers' real or perceived failures.

3) Right now, the Lakers are not a very good basketball team. That is obvious and indisputable. James, Davis, and Westbrook have been on the court together this season for less than 300 minutes, and the Lakers only have two different three player combinations that have played together for at least 300 minutes. In contrast, the Phoenix Suns have 10 different three player combinations that have logged at least 300 minutes; nine of those 10 have a point differential of at least 5.0, and four of those have a point differential of at least 10.0. The Lakers' "Big Three" has a point differential of 2.6; the problem is not that they have not meshed well together--contrary to the narrative stuffed down our throats 24 hours per day by "experts"--but rather that they have not played together enough, mostly due to injuries suffered by James and Davis. Seven of the eight Lakers' three man lineups that have a positive point differential feature Westbrook; James is featured in four of those eight lineups. The Lakers' eight five man lineups that have a point differential of at least 10.0 have one name in common: Westbrook (James is featured in two of those lineups).

It is interesting that the people who most strenuously insist that they view the game analytically are often very selective in which numbers they cite, because I have yet to read, see, or hear anyone mention the numbers cited above that do not support the widely accepted anti-Westbrook narrative.

Is Westbrook having a flawless season? Of course not. Is Westbrook playing the best basketball of his career? No. Is Westbrook the reason that the Lakers have a sub-.500 record? No. The Lakers' main problems are health in general, and the health of James and Davis in particular. If the Lakers ever get healthy enough for their "Big Three" to log significant playing time together then their size, talent, and skill will be hard to match. That being said, it is a fair question to wonder if the Lakers--considering James' age and Davis' injury history--will ever be healthy enough to maximize their potential.

4) This game did not change my opinion about Harden not being able to win a championship as the number one option, but there is no doubt that he played very well (36 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists, though he shot 10-25 from the field and had the worst plus/minus number of the team's five starters). He is very comfortable having the ball in his hands a lot in regular season games against struggling teams, but that has nothing to do with being productive and efficient in high pressure playoff series versus elite teams; Harden has an extensive--and poor--resume in high pressure playoff series versus elite teams.

5) Brooklyn's Kevin Durant missed the game after being placed in health and safety protocols. The Lakers' Anthony Davis missed this game and is expected to be out for at least four weeks because of a knee injury.

Game Five: Utah Jazz 120, Dallas Mavericks 116

1) Entering Christmas Day, the Jazz had the same record (22-9) as the East-leading Nets, and the Jazz were securely nestled in third place in the West trailing only the Warriors and Suns. The Jazz ranked first in scoring (115.8 ppg), first in rebounding (47.4 rpg), first in field goal percentage (.478), tied for first in point differential (10.4 ppg, matching the Warriors), eighth in defensive field goal percentage (.442), and eighth in points allowed (105.4 ppg). The Jazz led the league in three pointers made and three pointers attempted last season, and they lead the league in both categories this season as well--and the Jazz ranked fourth in three point field goal percentage both last season and thus far this season, so they are not just randomly jacking up long range shots.

The Jazz have made the playoffs for five straight seasons, but they have lost in the first round twice and the second round three times; that lack of elite level postseason success may explain why there is not much national buzz about the Jazz, but this team is deep and well-balanced. The Jazz have yet to face either the Warriors or the Suns this season, and those games will be very interesting to watch.

2) The Mavericks are a slow-paced and inefficient offensive team that ranked 27th in scoring and 23rd in field goal percentage entering Christmas Day. They ranked fifth in points allowed, but that number is deceptive because they play so slowly; the Mavericks ranked just 23rd in defensive field goal percentage, which indicates that their opponents score very efficiently against them. Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis have each missed about a third of the team's games, and that is obviously not a prescription for sustained success. The Mavericks will struggle to win more than half of their games unless/until their stars can stay healthy so that the team can be more efficient offensively and (hopefully) become more connected defensively.

3) The Jazz started this game very sluggishly, trailing by as many as 16 points in the first quarter before cutting the margin to 34-25 at the end of the initial stanza. Not surprisingly, the Mavericks could not maintain that scoring pace or that lead, and Utah enjoyed a 65-63 edge heading into halftime. Dallas led by as many as nine points in the third quarter, but heading into the fourth quarter the score was tied, 90-90. After Rudy Gobert's dunk gave Utah a 107-97 lead with 5:05 remaining, it seemed as if the Mavericks might collapse, but a quick 7-2 Dallas run cut Utah's advantage to 109-107. The Mavericks kept battling the rest of the way, but the Jazz hung on for a four point win.

4) Donovan Mitchell led Utah's attack with a game-high 33 points on 11-26 field goal shooting. Bojan Bogdanovic added 25 points on 9-14 field goal shooting, including 4-8 from three point range, and Mike Conley contributed 22 points plus five assists. 

Doncic did not play for Dallas. He is nursing an ankle injury, and he has also been placed in health and safety protocols. Porzingis and Jalen Brunson each scored 27 points. 

Analysis of Previous Christmas Day Quintupleheaders:

Notes About the 2020 Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2020)

Notes About the 2019 Christmas Day Quintupleheader (2019)

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 @ 1:39 AM



At Monday, January 10, 2022 3:50:00 AM, Blogger DDC said...

The biggest issue for Westbrook is the turnovers and poor off ball defense. Just a bad trade in retrospect. He's a poor fit and with Davis not having the constitution to play more than a handful of games without being injured, the Lakers are 1st round fodder

At Monday, January 10, 2022 11:56:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Westbrook's turnovers this year are in line with his career averages per minute and per game. The narrative that he is just throwing the ball all over the place is not supported by facts. He has always averaged around 4 turnovers per game.

Here is an interesting list; see if you can guess what this list describes:

1) LeBron James
2) Karl Malone
3) Moses Malone
4) John Stockton
5) Russell Westbrook
6) Kobe Bryant
7) Jason Kidd
8) Julius Erving
9) Artis Gilmore
10) Isiah Thomas

Would you agree that those are 10 great players? Would you agree that, other than Karl Malone, Moses Malone, and Artis Gilmore, those are elite playmakers? If you are not sure about that statement, note that other than the Malones and Gilmore each was the primary playmaker for his team at some point during his career.

That list is the 10 players in ABA/NBA history who have committed the most career regular season turnovers.

Do turnovers matter? Of course.

Do live ball careless turnovers that result in fast breaks for the opposing team matter? Of course--those are the worst turnovers.

Do team turnovers matter more than individual turnovers? Yes. If one player is handling the ball most of the time and "absorbing" turnovers per game but he is also running the offense well and the team turnovers are not high than that player's individual turnovers do not matter as much as the team's overall turnover numbers.

The Lakers rank 26th in turnovers this season, which obviously is not good--but they ranked 28th last year without Westbrook, and they ranked 22nd in 2020 when they won the "bubble" title. The addition of Westbrook has not made the Lakers a much more turnover prone team.

The "Westbrook is a turnover machine" narrative is a distraction/deflection from the Lakers' real problems, namely (1) injuries, (2) Davis' toxic combination of often being hurt and rarely playing hard since the Lakers' won the "bubble" title, and (3) lack of consistently productive depth (which is at least in part connected to the injuries, which inevitably result in lower caliber players receiving more minutes).

This season, Westbrook is in the top 30 in scoring, rebounding, and assists. The only other players this season who are in the top 30 in each of those categories are Jokic (reigning MVP), Giannis (two-time MVP, reigning Finals MVP), and Harden (who is shooting worse than Westbrook and averaging slightly more turnovers).

The Lakers are 12th in rebounding after ranking 16th last season. The Wizards, Westbrook's previous team, are 19th in rebounding this season after ranking 8th last season. So, Westbook has had a demonstrable impact on team rebounding in favor of his new team and not in favor of his old team.

As is often the case, the media-driven anti-Westbrook narrative--like many media-driven narratives--has little tangible connection to reality.


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