NBA Christmas

 

Merry Christmas. With the holiday comes one of the biggest days in the NBA regular season, featuring a quintuple header of basketball games. This year’s lineup includes two potential conference finals previews in Bucks-76ers and Lakers-Clippers. Another potential playoff matchup, Celtics-Raptors, unfortunately features two injury-riddled teams. The other two games (Rockets-Warriors and Nuggets-Pelicans) only feature one playoff team, but the atmosphere should still be exciting for both. Here’s a quick look at the matchups.

 

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Who wins? 

 

I’m taking the Celtics, 117-106.

 

Who wins a potential playoff series between the two?

 

I like the Celtics in a series too. 

 

Where will each team finish this year?

 

Both teams, at full health, will have a chance to win a series or two in the playoffs, but Boston is better than Toronto. Right now, the Celtics are playing like the second best team in the East, and I think they beat out the Heat and Sixers for the 2 seed unless Philadelphia makes a late charge. The only problem for Boston is that they’re 0-2 against the 76ers. If that’s the 2-3 series, they might have a hard time making it to the conference finals. The Raptors, with their health issues, could drop to the 5-6 seed range and might even become sellers at the deadline. I think winning one series is the best case scenario for Toronto, especially if that second series is against the Bucks. 

 

What decides the Christmas game?

 

Probably health. Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norm Powell are all out for the Raptors. They’ve dealt with injuries all season, but Siakam is their best player and Gasol is their best defender. These injuries are a little different. The Celtics, on the other hand, are missing Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart. Hayward might play on Christmas; Smart probably won’t. Either way, Boston is healthier than Toronto, and Hayward’s return from a minor foot injury would given them an even bigger edge. That should be enough to push this one towards the Celtics. 

 

What decides the potential playoff series between the two?

 

Both teams have elite defenses, but the Celtics have an edge offensively. Heading into the week, they are just outside of the top 5 in offensive rating while the Raptors are just outside of the top 10. At the end of the day, Boston’s group of playmakers (Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Hayward) will likely outshine Toronto’s (Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Powell) over 7 games if they meet in the postseason.

 

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Who wins?

 

The Bucks are winning this one, 125-112. 

 

Who wins a playoff series between the two?

 

I’m taking the Bucks here too. 

 

Where will each team finish this year?

 

The Bucks will take the overall top seed and win the Finals. They’re the best and most complete team in the league, and they have to be the favorites. It’s a little harder to see where the Sixers will end up. They’re probably the second best team in the East by talent, but that hasn’t fully translated to the court so far. I still think they end up with a 2 or 3 seed and are a serious threat to make it to the conference finals. Grabbing a top 3 seed will be key, as the 4th or 5th seed means going through Milwaukee in the second round. It’s not going to be easy to finish ahead of Boston or Miami, but it would likely be a major disappointment for the Sixers if they don’t. 

 

What decides the Christmas game?

 

Four things. The first is Joel Embiid. If he isn’t able to step up as a star and match Giannis in production, this one might be over quickly. The second is Philadelphia’s shooting. The Bucks set up their defense to avoid shots at the rim at all costs, and they have the Lopez twins setting up a no fly zone in the paint if opponents do manage to get the ball there. That leaves the door slightly open for threes, which, even though they are often contested by the hustling Bucks, are the best way to score with Milwaukee. The Sixers aren’t the best shooting team in the world, which might mean a tough time for their offense. The third thing to watch is Philadelphia’s defense. Will they attempt to wall up and triple team Giannis like last year’s Raptors? If they do, how will he and the rest of the Bucks respond? With Eric Bledsoe injured, the playmaking margin for error is lower. Lastly, the Bucks have a clear edge in depth against the top-heavy Sixers. If they dominate the bench minutes, this game probably won’t be close. 

 

What decides the playoff series between the two?

 

The same things. The Sixers will need Embiid to step up and compete on Giannis’s level to have a chance. They will need to find ways to get threes in the basket, and a way to get Ben Simmons going against a defense that is set up to eliminate his strengths. They will need production from their bench. For the Bucks, Giannis being able to thrive while body after body is thrown at him will be the key. The shooters and supporting cast around him will be big, with the offense that Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton can create by themselves being especially important. 

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Who wins?

 

The Rockets win, 131-111. 

 

Where will each team finish this year?

 

The Warriors are all but guaranteed to have a top 5 pick. Even if Steph and Klay come back this year, it’s hard to see things ending differently. For the Rockets, the goal is obviously the Finals. They’re far from perfect right now, especially when James Harden sits, but the eventual return of Eric Gordon should give this team an all-around boost. The Lakers and the Clippers probably have a slight edge on the rest of the West (Dallas, Houston, Denver, Utah?), but I don’t think that edge is all that big. If the supporting cast steps up in Houston, led by a return to last year’s form from Gordon in his return, the Rockets will be right in the thick of the Finals race. 

 

What decides the Christmas game?

 

The Rockets have a top 3 offense, and the Warriors have a bottom 10 defense. Golden State’s offense has been among the worst in the league as well, so they’re not going to be taking advantage of Houston’s mediocre defense. The Warriors are bad. The Rockets are pretty good. This one isn’t too complicated. It would take a major upset for Golden State to win. 

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Who wins?

 

Assuming that Lebron plays, I’m taking the Lakers, 113-108. 

 

Who wins a playoff series between the two?

 

This would be a lot of fun. I’ll give the Lakers a slight edge for now.

 

Where will each team finish this year?

 

The Lakers and the Clippers have been the best two teams in the West so far. It’s far from a guarantee, but they’re the favorites to meet in the conference finals if they stay on opposite sides of the bracket. LeBron, if he stays healthy, is my bet to make it out of the West, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see either team in the Finals. 

 

What decides the Christmas game?

 

LeBron’s health. If James doesn’t play, the Clippers are the superior team by far. For all the talk about Anthony Davis, LeBron, and his ability to make plays for others, is the key for the Lakers. Davis dominates defensively and as an individual scorer, but he just doesn’t lift a team the way that true superstars do. If LeBron plays, as is expected, this should be a barn burner. If he doesn’t, the Clippers should win rather easily with their full team available. 

 

What decides the playoff series between the two?

 

Kawhi vs. LeBron will have a big impact. Sometimes it’s as simple as two great players going at each other. The ability of Paul George and Anthony Davis, two guys who have never played deep in the playoffs, to be that true second star when it matters will be something to watch as well. There’s also the battle between the rest of the rotations. Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams are better than anyone the Lakers have beyond James and Davis with Kyle Kuzma scuffling, but the Lakers have an underrated group of impactful veterans. Vintage LeBron wins this series. Anything less might not be enough. 

 

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Who wins?

 

I’m taking the Nuggets, 114-105. 

 

Where will each team finish this year?

 

The Pelicans are spiraling right now, with a series of injuries and poor play leaving them well over 5 games out of the playoffs. It’s really hard to see them closing that gap based on how things have gone so far. New Orleans fans should just be hoping that Zion can get and stay healthy at this point. The Nuggets are in a similar situation to the Rockets. Houston’s big issue has been playing without Harden, while Denver’s issues have centered around an offensively challenged Nikola Jokic and a struggling bench. If they can get one or both of those things back on track, they could be right in the thick of things come the summer. However, those ifs mean they’re falling short of the conference finals if the playoffs started today. 

 

What decides the Christmas game?

 

The Nuggets are a lot better. It’s a good thing that this is the late game because it’s probably one to skip. The Nuggets, with their elite defense and mediocre offense, aren’t all that thrilling, especially with Jokic’s struggle to show his playmaking ability. The Pelicans have a bottom ten defense and offense and haven’t been much better than the Warriors this season. There’s plenty of potential excitement on the court (Jokic, Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday, Jamal Murray, JJ Redick, etc.), but it’s not looking like that potential will become reality here. 

 

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