By Sope Eweje, For The African-American Athlete,
It’s the most wonderful time of the year ! Christmas Day is always full of high-level NBA games. The way the season has shaped up thus far, this year will not be a disappointment.
Another Christmas brings another Cavs-Warriors matchup. The past two seasons brought exciting games between these perennial Finals contestants, and this year will be no different. Well, there’s one big difference – the Warriors will lack the star power of Steph Curry as he recovers from an ankle injury he sustained last week.
But don’t be fooled. With LeBron James and Kevin Durant both playing at a MVP-caliber, LeBron averaging nearly a triple-double (28.2 PPG, 9.3 APG, 8.3 RPG) and KD (26.3 PPG, 5.3 APG, 7.2 RPG) leading the Warriors’ offense, expect nothing less than the best from these two stars looking to meet (for the fourth straight time) in the NBA finals.
A win would be a great sign for both teams. Isaiah Thomas is soon to make his season debut for the Cavaliers as a much-needed offensive option and ball handler; a Cavs’ win over arguably the best team in the league, sans a two-time All-Star, would be a signal of good things to come for Cleveland.
And the Warriors, after a cringe-worthy 15-point loss to the Nuggets on Saturday, would prove to themselves that their success against the top-tier teams of the NBA is not reliant upon the presence of one of the league’s best shooters – a scary prospect for the rest of the league.
One team that is markedly unfazed by the prowess of the Warriors is the Houston Rockets. According to Rockets GM Daryl Morey, beating the Warriors is “the only thing” the team thinks about.
Free-agent acquisition Chris Paul has brought a new urgency to the Rockets’ race to a title, and their results this season have shown as much – the team sports the best record in the NBA and a 13-game win streak from earlier this season.
The only bearded man Rockets’ fans want something from this Christmas is MVP-frontrunner James Harden. We’ll see if he delivers against the Thunder (more on them later).
Christmas came a little early for Laker fans, although they might not know it. Despite losing 5 of their last 6 games, the Lakers and their young core have looked increasingly confident over this last stretch of games, which included 3 tight loses against the Warriors (twice) and the Cavs, and a win over the Rockets.
The whispers of rookie point guard Lonzo Ball being a bust have certainly been quieted by his recent performance – his 5-of-6 shooting from the 3-point-line against the Warriors on Friday was a far cry from the woeful shooting performances he was ridiculed for during the early season.
The Lakers’ Christmas Day matchup against the Timberwolves, whose stellar play thus far has earned them a 20-13 record and the fourth spot in the West, will be another test for a team learning to compete against the top teams in the NBA.
And if you hadn’t noticed, the Timberwolves are no longer a fledgling team flirting with playoff contention: years of developing players and savvy offseason moves have allowed Minnesota to develop a trio of young stars in Jimmy Butler, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Andrew Wiggins that will certainly make them a playoff contender now, and a championship contender in the not-so-distant future.
Behind 20 points per game from Butler and Towns, the Wolves’ are 5th-ranked in the NBA in offensive efficiency this season. If there was ever a time for this young team to make some noise during the postseason, given the weakness of the Western Conference outside of its top-tier teams (Golden State, Houston, San Antonio), now would be the time.
But the Timberwolves are not the only team looking to upset the current power structure of the west. Offseason moves to acquire Carmelo Anthony and Paul George were thought to be what was needed to reestablish the Oklahoma City Thunder in the upper-echelon of the Western Conference, after the departure of Kevin Durant.
Yet that has not been the outcome so far – the two new stars have shown little offensive rhythm with Russell Westbrook and the team have struggled more than expected to a record just above 0.500. With Carmelo accepting a new offensive role as a lower volume catch-and-shoot option, we’ll see if the Thunder will be able to meet their preseason expectations by season’s end, starting with tomorrow’s game against the Rockets.
The NBA season has brought many surprises – like the terrific performance of the Kyrie Irving-led new-look Boston Celtics (in action against the Wizards tomorrow) – and questions, such as whether this is the season Joel Embiid and the 76ers finally play themselves into playoff relevance (playing tomorrow against the Knicks).
But one thing is without question – looking at the slate of games scheduled for tomorrow, you couldn’t ask Santa to bring you much more for Christmas.