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Christmas Day Recap

Christmas Day featured five games, 10 teams, and eight postseason contenders. What did we learn, if anything?

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As Douglas Farmer explained Tuesday, Christmas Day often marks the true start of the NBA season – the NFL regular season is ending, college bowl season has arrived, and professional basketball is 25-30 games in, the perfect sample to be confident in a team’s identity. The more casual fans can dive right into the NBA waters, sure of what they see in terms of record and individual numbers.

It’s December 26th, and the Christmas slate has come and gone. It featured two Eastern Conference blowouts, two big surprises and an awesome battle in LA. Here are four things we learned.

Pascal Siakam is legitimately in the MVP conversation

Siakam has missed the last four games with an injured groin. Toronto was able to win in his first two absences, defeating Davis Bertans’ Wizards (he’s been so fun that we’re letting Washington be his team for a moment) and the Luka-less Mavericks. They dropped the second two games, however, including yesterday’s Christmas-opener against Boston.

After getting out to a 10-0 lead to start the game, Toronto was thoroughly outplayed and overmatched the rest of the way. They struggled to produce offense outside of Fred VanVleet and Chris Boucher (!!!) and were unable to slow down Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker.

Siakam’s emergence as a primary threat is the main reason the Raptors were 19-8 prior to his injury. Having him on the floor mitigates both the lack of offensive firepower and the inability to stop opposing scorers (Kemba) and wings (Brown). Brown was fantastic yesterday, but it’s likely he would have had a little more trouble if Siakam would have been available to defend him.

Toronto has been a welcome and pleasant surprise this season after Kawhi Leonard’s departure. Siakam’s rise to MVP-candidacy has definitely been the biggest reason – here’s to him returning soon.

Philadelphia will be a problem in May

This isn’t a shocking take – many experts had Philadelphia as the East’s representative in the Finals at the end of the year. But the nagging questions of Philly’s lack of go-to pick-and-roll playmaker in crunch time, their fourth quarter offensive ineptitude, and Ben Simmons’ continued nonexistent shooting were only magnified by their uneven start to the season.

Christmas served as a reminder that no matter those issues, the 76ers are still a contender, and maybe still the favorites in the Eastern Conference.

The rub with Philly in 2019-20 is that despite their offensive problems, they had a chance to be special defensively. All-time type special. Their starting lineup’s size and length can swallow opponents, and that’s without mentioning Matisse Thybulle who, even as a rookie, could be the team’s best defender outside Joel Embiid.

Their defensive proficiency shined yesterday. Yes, they gave up 109 points, but much of that can be explained away by losing 36-21 in the fourth quarter due to the blowout. Philadelphia was up 27 after three, and really just needed to avoid a complete implosion to hold on in the fourth,

Most impressively, they held the Bucks’ MVP to 8-27 shooting. Giannis averages 18 points per game in the paint this year. Yesterday he had 18 points total. Philadelphia began the game with Embiid on him, forcing him to shoot threes. While that part of his game has improved, they weren’t falling – and he couldn’t easily use his all-world frame against the Sixers size inside.

The offensive problems aren’t going away, and it may not matter. Records aside, at the end of the season, the East may still run through Philadelphia.

Houston will have problems in May

Look, we get it. It was one game. One game does not a season make. But Golden State was 7-24 and features one of the worst defenses in the NBA. Houston should not have lost this game.

Unfortunately for them, they did, 116-104. Looking at just the score, one would assume D’Angelo Russell went off. He’d scored over 25 three-straight games, and he must have done so again, right? Wrong. Russell put up 20 on a pedestrian 8-19 shooting, and an abysmal 1-10 from three.

Then what happened? Draymond Green scored 20 himself. Green is famously an unprolific scorer, but he is a star. Maybe that makes this acceptable. But what isn’t acceptable, especially for a team with championship aspirations, is giving up 40 points on 11-22 shooting to Glenn Robinson and Damion Lee. Lee was especially great, needing only 9 shots to score 22 and adding 15 rebounds for good measure. Houston couldn’t stop in.

More accurately, Houston couldn’t stop all of Golden State. They were trounced in the second half, losing by 16 and failing to get stops or make plays down the stretch.

Offensively, Westbrook was 11-32. Harden only took 18 shots and missed his lone free throw. That won’t win Houston many games – in fact, it’s how you lose what was a surefire win on paper like this one. The Rockets had won four in a row prior to this one – they’re still 21-10, and will be dangerous in the playoffs.

But their Christmas performance was a window into how flawed they still are and to what could plague them in the postseason.

The Westbrook trade was a win-now move, and the Rockets have another move to make over the next month and a half. They’d better hope the move is a big one – otherwise, they may be in trouble.

The NBA will be praying for an LA vs. LA playoff showdown

The stars were out on Christmas Day in Los Angeles.

Kawhi had 35/12/5 for the Clippers. Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 24. Paul George and LeBron struggled, but George still netted 17 and LeBron finished with 23/9/10.

The Lakers led throughout, but the Clippers clawed their way back to a three-point lead with under 20 seconds remaining.

LeBron got his switch onto Patrick Beverly and made his move for a step-back three. Beverly swiped once and whiffed, then swiped again and knocked the ball out of bounds.

Replay showed he hadn’t just stymied a game-tying attempt from the King – he’d hit it off LeBron’s hand as well. Ball game.

The Clippers are 2-0 against the Lakers this season. They will play two more times, once in January and once in March.

That was fun. So fun, that we bet the NBA wouldn’t mind seeing it again outside of the regular season. In fact, maybe seven more times – in the Western Conference Finals, with a trip to the championship on the line.

Drew Mays is a basketball writer currently based in Louisville, Kentucky. Find him on Twitter @dmays0

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