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December 23, 2010
Christmas Day NBA
Previewing Five Games

by Kevin Pelton


Once again, the NBA is making it possible to entirely ignore your family on Christmas Day with five games covering a combined 12 and a half hours of coverage on ABC and ESPN. Here's a look at what's in store and a breakdown of the teams in action.

All statistics through Dec. 22.

Noon E.T., ESPN - Chicago Bulls (18-9) at New York Knicks (17-12)

Adjusted Point Differential: Chicago 5.3 (5th), New York -0.2 (16th)
Offensive Ratings: Chicago 107.9 (16th), New York 113.0 (6th)
Defensive Ratings: Chicago 101.7 (3rd), New York 110.6 (20th)
Pace: Chicago 91.8 (11th), New York 95.2 (2nd)

It's been a boon for the league to have a competitive team in New York because few arenas respond to good basketball quite like Madison Square Garden. As the numbers above show, the Knicks still have a lot of progress to make before they can truly be counted among the ranks of contenders in the Eastern Conference, but they are good enough to be a challenge on their home court. The arrival of former rivals like the Miami Heat and the Bulls has made games events at MSG once again.

Chicago has gone 2-1 without injured center Joakim Noah, including a 45-point destruction of the Philadelphia 76ers that boosted the Bulls' season numbers substantially. Noah's absence is likely to be felt in this game, however, because of his ability to step out and defend against New York's bread-and-butter pick-and-roll. Neither Taj Gibson nor especially Carlos Boozer is nearly as skilled, which will put pressure on Chicago's help defense to contain Amar'e Stoudemire rolling to the basket. If anyone can overcome that weakness, it's Tom Thibodeau, who has the Bulls among the league's top three defenses.

Of course, the matchups reverse themselves on the other end of the floor. Big men have torched the Knicks all season long, which means Carlos Boozer is likely salivating at the chance to work in the post against the New York frontline. Since returning from the broken bone in his right hand that delayed his Chicago debut, Boozer has been producing at his usual level while using a career-best 27.0 percent of the team's plays.

2:30 E.T., ABC - Boston Celtics (23-4) at Orlando Magic (16-12)

Adjusted Point Differential: Boston 8.9 (1st), Orlando 2.4 (10th)
Offensive Ratings: Boston 111.8 (8th), Orlando 107.9 (15th)
Defensive Ratings: Boston 100.9 (1st), Orlando 103.2 (5th)
Pace: Boston 89.3 (23rd), Orlando 89.7 (20th)

Last year's Eastern Conference Finalists have gone in opposite directions in the last six months. With veteran reinforcements added over the summer, the Celtics have continued to play at the high level from their playoff run despite the fact that Kendrick Perkins has yet to return from a torn ACL and Delonte West has been sidelined much of the season. That makes Boston officially scary. Granting that the Celtics started this well a year ago, their talk about the importance of the regular season and earning home-court advantage appears justified. With home court, a healthy Boston team is going to be difficult to beat in a seven-game series.

Meanwhile, Orlando has slumped badly in the month of December, first because of an illness that went around the team and now because the Magic is trying to incorporate three new players in the top six of its rotation on the fly. It is far, far too early to judge last week's trades, especially since the newcomers had the misfortune of coming on board just in time for a three-game stretch at Atlanta, home against Dallas and San Antonio (tonight) and now against Boston.

Though the diagnosis is not necessarily fatal, Orlando looks nothing like a championship contender right now in terms of the statistics. In particular, the Magic has had a tough time scoring. The trades figure to help that, but Stan Van Gundy must also figure out how to take advantage of Dwight Howard's newfound post skills without making Orlando stagnant offensively and taking away the pick-and-roll that has been so effective for the team in the past.

As for the Celtics, their most impressive accomplishment might be holding the league's top spot in defense despite losing defensive architect Thibodeau and playing without Perkins. The resurgence of a healthy Kevin Garnett is surely a big factor in that defensive success. Garnett is blocking fewer shots this season, but his steal rate is a career high and he's grabbing more defensive rebounds than ever during his Boston career, helping compensate for the loss of Perkins.

5 E.T., ABC - Miami Heat (21-9) at Los Angeles Lakers (21-8)

Adjusted Point Differential: Miami 8.3 (2nd), L.A. Lakers 5.1 (6th)
Offensive Ratings: Miami 113.3 (4th), L.A. Lakers 113.7 (2nd)
Defensive Ratings: Miami 101.4 (2nd), L.A. Lakers 106.2 (11th)
Pace: Miami 89.3 (22nd), L.A. Lakers 92.4 (9th)

While the Celtics are currently the NBA's best defense, the Heat has also laid claim to that spot within the last week. Miami's 12-game winning streak was fueled at the defensive end of the floor, where Erik Spoelstra has the team playing with the same kind of tenacity and crisp rotations it displayed early in the season. Add in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James rounding back into form and the Heat can boast being the only team in the league to rank in the NBA's top five on both ends of the floor. (Ranking second in terms of its weaker unit? The Dallas Mavericks, who are sixth and seventh in offense and defense, respectively.)

The Lakers had won five in a row before sleepwalking their way through a home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday (fresh on the heels of Milwaukee losing by 26 at Portland the night before), but adjusting for strength of schedule takes a lot of air out of that run. The Lakers are now sixth in adjusted differential, behind three East teams, Dallas and San Antonio. They trail the Mavericks and the Spurs, the elite teams who have Christmas off, in the real standings despite playing the league's third-easiest schedule to date (San Antonio does rank fourth in those terms). This might be the year where home losses like Tuesday's cost the Lakers in terms of postseason seeding.

The focus in this matchup will be on the wings, where superstars will have to work on both ends of the floor. With Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant, the Lakers are the rare team that can comfortably match up with James and Wade, but Bryant--and whichever Heat player defends him at the other end, presumably Wade--will have to expend far more energy than they would like on defense.

8 E.T., ESPN - Denver Nuggets (16-11) at Oklahoma City Thunder (20-10)

Adjusted Point Differential: Denver 3.1 (9th), Oklahoma City 2.2 (11th)
Offensive Ratings: Denver 113.0 (5th), Oklahoma City 111.1 (9th)
Defensive Ratings: Denver 111.0 (22nd), Oklahoma City 108.4 (17th)
Pace: Denver 94.8 (3rd), Oklahoma City 91.8 (12th)

In a normal season, we'd point to the Nuggets holding their own against the second-toughest schedule in the league to date despite being banged up in the frontcourt as evidence they could be a sleeper down the road. Instead, the impending certainty of a Carmelo Anthony trade means Denver cannot really dream of another trip to the Western Conference Finals. It's more a matter of whether the Nuggets enter full-on rebuilding or not.

Alas, Denver will be without Anthony on Christmas Day for tragic reasons: His sister passed away Tuesday, and Anthony has left the team to be with his family in Baltimore.

A 10-2 record in games decided by five points or fewer has helped Oklahoma City mask an up-and-down start to the season. The Thunder is currently fifth in the Western Conference standings, but ranks seventh in adjusted point differential and cannot truly be considered a serious contender in the West at this point.

While the Celtics have maintained their defensive prowess without Thibodeau, Oklahoma City appears to miss assistant coach Ron Adams, who left to join Thibodeau's coaching staff in Chicago after spearheading the Thunder's improvement on defense a year ago. Oklahoma City's defense has been much better since stalwart Nick Collison returned to the lineup after missing the first month of the season, but the Thunder has still been less potent on that end than in 2009-10. Despite Kevin Durant taking a slight step back in his fourth year, Oklahoma City's offense has improved thanks to the phenomenal play of Russell Westbrook, so it is the defense that is holding the Thunder back right now.

10:30 E.T., ESPN - Portland Trail Blazers (15-14) at Golden State Warriors (10-18)

Adjusted Point Differential: Portland 1.0 (12th), Golden State -4.1 (21st)
Offensive Ratings: Portland 108.1 (14th), Golden State 107.5 (17th)
Defensive Ratings: Portland 107.8 (14th), Golden State 113.2 (27th)
Pace: Portland 87.6 (30th), Golden State 94.0 (4th)

Even without Brandon Roy, who remains sidelined indefinitely by soreness in his troublesome left knee, the Blazers have shown the ability to consistently beat up on lesser teams. During Portland's current three-game winning streak, two players in particular have stepped up. LaMarcus Aldridge's hot streak dates back to the Blazers' previous game in Dallas. He's recorded four consecutive double-doubles, averaging 29.3 points on 61.8 percent shooting in that span. All that stretch has done to Aldridge's season numbers is to get them back to their pre-2010-11 levels, so any All-Star talk is silly (Aldridge currently ranks 13th among West big men in WARP), but it is encouraging to see him demonstrate the ability to be a go-to guy in the post over a stretch of multiple games.

For the first time since his rookie season, Rudy Fernandez is playing with the joie de vivre that made him such a scintillating player internationally. Allowed to play in the open court with a young, quick Portland second unit helmed by Patty Mills at the point, Fernandez is knocking down threes and making plays off the dribble (he's handed out 19 assists in the last three games, doubling his previous rate on a per-minute basis).

For the Warriors, whether Andris Biedrins and Stephen Curry are able to return from sprained ankles will be crucial. Golden State's lineup breakdown on BasketballValue.com is fascinating and bizarre. The Warriors' starters have outscored opponents by 13.5 points per 100 possessions, making them one of the league's best starting fives (if we rank all teams by the rating differential of their most-used lineup, Golden State ranks eighth). Take out just one starter, however, and the Warriors get outscored by 15.3 points per 100 possessions. That's how fragile Golden State's depth has been this season.

Things should get better from here on out, with Louis Amundson and Ekpe Udoh having returned from injuries and Acie Law stepped in as a backup point guard. Reggie Williams has been terrific in place of Curry in the starting lineup, allowing the Warriors to win two of the six games Curry has missed with his most recent ankle sprain. Still, Golden State will be a much more formidable opponent when at full strength.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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