As NBA fans around the globe tucked into their Christmas dinners yesterday, a selection of the most famous names in the league kitted up ready to provide some class with A entertainment and even a couple of shock performances.
The Toronto Raptors were first on the floor yesterday but fell short in their lineup with Pascal Siakam, Norman Powell and Marc Gasol all out for Christmas Day with injuries. The visiting Boston Celtics took every chance they could to bury the weakened defending champs and did just that, wrapping up the score at 118-102 by full time and improving their record to 21-7.
Jaylen Brown’s explosive performance led Boston’s tirade and demonstrated a different direction for the forward and his team this season. Brown sank a game-high 30 points, shooting 10 for 13 and 5 for 7 from deep with six rebounds and four assists. The 23-year-old lit up the Scotiabank Arena running three heroic plays in the last two minutes of the game which left Toronto demoralised and reeling.
Looking at the stats, Brown has averaged 20.2 points, seven rebounds and 2.4 assists over 25 games on 60% in the shooting. He has also proved himself indispensable on defence, covering multiple positions, whilst offensively his footwork, ball-handling and footwork have all improved significantly.
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Kemba Walker dropped 22 points and 13 offensive rebounds to push Boston ahead to 22-4 in second-chance points. The 29-year-old put on a stellar performance for the Toronto crowds as he made his first Christmas Day appearance for the Celtics who have made an encouraging environment for the Walker-Brown offensive duo.
Dealing with injuries all season long, the Raptors suffered severely from this latest round with Gasol, Powell and Siakam likely the biggest blow so far. Toronto looked to its bench of Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson to spark a snappy comeback and, although they did, it arrived too late and at too much of a deficit to make a difference.
However, Boucher has proven his worth over the past few games and nothing changed last night as he hit an impressive 24 points and enjoyed more minutes at the expense of the injuries. Fred VanVleet led Toronto with a team-high 27 points, four rebounds and seven assists whilst Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka bagged 12 and 14 points respectively.
Standing at second place in the Eastern Conference and second-best overall, only the Milwaukee Bucks lay in the way of the Celtics for the top spot but, believe me, they are fast approaching that title. Could we be seeing Boston charging into this year’s Championships?
76ers 121, Bucks 109
Over in Philly, the reigning MVP seemed to get his tinsel twisted at points, confronting officials over uncalled fouls as the 76ers obliterated Milwaukee. Philadelphia’s Center Joel Embiid walked onto the court with a presence, reminding the public that he was still here and still relevant.
The 25-year-old took advantage of the Christmas showcase to serve up a reminder of his MVP capabilities on the glass, hitting 31 points and snatching 11 rebounds. It was almost a clash of the titans under the basket as Philly’s big man did all in his power – and stature – to slap the ball from Giannis’ grip and disrupt and flow Milwaukee managed to set up.
Embiid wasn’t the only star to shine for the 76ers last night as Tobias Harris hit five threes in 35 minutes, shooting at 50% from the field and 71% from beyond the arc. Philadelphia lit up the arena with their shot, drilling in three after three to bury the Bucks on a record-tying 21 triples of 44 attempts. Both Josh Richardson and Furkan Korkmaz hit four and even Embiid came to the party sinking three of his own.
Milwaukee just couldn’t keep up with the points flying onto the scoreboard and the festive atmosphere turning intense at the mercy of the highly-anticipated clash. The Bucks were down 21 points at halftime after a harsh performance from Embiid on defence left Antetokounmpo at a disappointing 4-for-14. The pressure seemed too much for the Greek Freak to handle as he walked away with a below-average 18 points whilst Khris Middleton led Milwaukee with 31 points.
The 76ers laid the foundations from the tip, with strong perimeter shooting and a defence that finally pushed Milwaukee over the edge in the second half as they struggled to generate any consistency on offence. By the start of the fourth, Philadelphia held onto a strong 102-73 lead – the largest margin of the game – as the Bucks attempted a comeback that seemed even more rushed and uncoordinated as the rest of their performance.
The lengthy deficit proved too much to bear for Milwaukee as Giannis hung up his crown and accepted defeat. Although still at the top of the leader board, the Bucks fall to 27-5 in the stats as Philly ascends to 23-10.
Warriors 116, Rockets 104
With Steph Curry and Klay Thompson occupying the sideline, a Christmas miracle fell over the Oracle last night as the Houston Rockets suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the worst in the west, Golden State.
The injury-stricken Warriors were revived by Damion Lee who exploded like a Christmas cracker, putting on one of the most surprising performances of the day and sinking a team-high 22 points. The shooting guard bagged 17 of these in the second quarter and even snatched 15 rebounds after averaging just 2.8 since being called to Golden State last season.
D’Angelo Russell and Glenn Robinson III added 20 and 18 points respectively to support the successful comeback effort and end a four-game winning streak for the Rockets. Golden State improves its record to 8-24 whilst Houston fall to 21-10. Lee knocked down all ten of his free throws, as he appeared to step right into Harden’s boots, and nailed both three attempts. The 27-year-old bagged a massive 15 rebounds and a career-high 14 boards.
Veteran player, Draymond Green secured his fourth Christmas Day double-double as he put up 16 points and 11 rebounds and the Warriors followed suit, adapting to his threat as a shooter and playing like a completely revitalised unit.
But what happened to the Harden-Westbrook dynasty? Well, both Russell Westbrook (30 points) and James Harden (24) put on an acceptable performance, but offensively they struggled to counter a stellar defence by Golden State who held the visitors to 37% from the field out of 100 attempts. Westbrook shot 11-for-32 from the field and an abysmal 0-for-8 from three as Harden’s total signalled his lowest total in ten games.
The Warriors enjoy a three-game winning streak, their biggest this season, as the Rockets, fall to 21-10 in the stats.
Clippers 111, Lakers 106
The LA Lakers opened up the doors of the Staples Centre to the Clippers only to have all the festive joy stripped from their hands by Kawhi Leonard and his team. Leonard proved to be the catalyst carrying the Clippers over the finish line as he exploded onto the court to sink a game-high 35 points whilst Lakers All-Star LeBron James experienced a drought missing his first seven field-goal attempts after aggravating a previous groin injury.
James wrapped up the fixture with 23 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds after a late surge, but ultimately, his explosiveness was absent as vital threes were blocked by players half his size. Kyle Kuzma held up his end of the team leading in points with 25 and adding four rebounds, whilst the second-half of James’ duo, Anthony Davis, bagged 24 points, six rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
But we can’t let Kawhi’s glistening performance overshadow the Lakers and speak on behalf of the Clippers as a whole as no other player broke the 20-point barrier. As the story goes, Leonard again did just enough to nudge his team to the top.
Paul George put up 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and three blocks while Montrezl Harrell added 18 points and six rebounds off the bench. But it was obvious where they didn’t shine on offence, they made themselves heard on defence, holding the Lakers to 40.6 percent shooting from the field and 12-of-45 (26.7 percent) from behind the arc.
Yesterday marks the Lakers’ fourth consecutive loss as the team consistently vow to end the streak only to end up in more injury trouble. Kawhi, on the other hand, is experiencing a repeat of last year, only with a different team, as he charges his way to the playoffs with his backup in tow.
Pelicans 112, Nuggets 100
In another December 25 surprise, the New Orleans Pelicans brought the game to Denver as they stunned the Nuggets into submission.
Brandon Ingram dominated with 31 points and seven rebounds for New Orleans as he rained a career-high seven threes to put a devastating end to Denver’s seven-game winning streak. This loss was particularly sore as the Nuggets played at home on Christmas Day for the first time in 25 years.
However, the Pelicans did not put on a faultless performance as their 18 turnovers led to 27 points for the Nuggets, but the long-range shooting of Lonzo Ball and Ingram acted as a saving grace later in the game. They consistently outshot Denver, with a 100% free-throw rate and 41% from beyond the arc, compared to 77% and 32% from the opposition.
Nikola Jokic tallied 23 points and 10 rebounds for Denver, while Jerami Grant had 17.
New Orleans enjoy their first consecutive win for a month and wrap up their four-game road trip on 3-1. They have struggled badly without injured rookie Zion Williamson but seem to find the gaps when playing Denver, despite the Nuggets climbing to one of the top positions in the West.