Thursday, December 24, 2015

J-Speaks: NBA Takes Center Stage on Christmas Day

In less than 24 hours families and friends will be gathering around the Christmas tree. Gifts will be shared and exchanged followed by I love you and thank you, hugs and kisses and everything in between. Enjoyment will fill rooms and buildings as far as the eye can see. This is also a day where NBA will be front and center with a quintet of five games on ESPN and ABC. There will be stars in each game trying to make a statement through highlight plays and defensive plays and showing us how to play the game on both ends the right way.
New Orleans Pelicans (9-19) vs. Miami Heat (16-11): 12 p.m. on ESPN
The first contest will feature two teams with two top notch All-Star players in Anthony Davis (23.4 ppg-10th NBA, 10.8 rpg-T-6th NBA, 2.7 bpg-2nd NBA) of the Pelicans, who leads the league in 30-plus point and 10-plus rebound games with five and 11-time All-Star guard Dwyane Wade (18.5 ppg-Leads team, 3.9 rpg, 4.4 apg, 45.6 FG%) of the Heat.
This contest also features two teams that have been on the opposite ends on how they have started this season.
The Pelicans had a rough start out of the gates under their new head coach Alvin Gentry, who was brought on this off-season replacing Monty Williams winning just five times out of their first 21 chances.
A big reason for their struggles has been injuries suffer to key players like swingman Tyreke Evans (16.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 6.6 apg) and guards Jrue Holiday (13.1 ppg, 4.5 apg, 41.1 3-Pt.%) and Norris Cole, who combined to miss 40 games in the early stages of this season.
While the Pelicans have been solid offensively in terms of scoring at 102.8 points per contest, which is 7th in the league, their defense has been terrible in points allowed at 107.5, which is 29th in “The Association.” They are 24th in field goal percentage allowed surrendering 46.0 percent; 29th in three-point percentage allowed at 39.3 and even with the great Davis guarding the paint, the Pelicans are 25th in rebounds per contest at 41.7; tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for 25th in rebound differential at -3.7 are 14th in block shots per contest at 5.2.
The one bright spot besides Davis in this season so far for the Pelicans has been the play of understudy guard Ish Smith, who is having a break out season with career-high averages of 8.9 points, 5.7 assists and 3.4 rebounds per contest. Unfortunately, the Pelicans traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers for two second-round picks.
After a 105-101 loss at the Portland Trail Blazers (11-20) on Dec. 14, the Pelicans have won three of their last four games, which began with a 104-94 win at the Utah Jazz (12-15). Forward Ryan Anderson led the come from behind win with 24 points, hitting 13 for 13 from the free throw line. Guard Eric Gordon had 19 points, hitting 4 for 7 from three-point range. Davis had 17 points and 13 rebounds. Holiday had 15 points and Evans had 11 points, five assists, four boards and two steals.
Following a 104-88 loss at the Phoenix Suns 48 hours later, the Pelicans won a shootout at the Denver Nuggets (12-17) 130-125 on Dec. 20 scoring over 30 points in all four quarters.
Despite having flu-like symptoms, Davis led the way with 27 points and four blocks. Evans had 21 points, 10 assists and eight boards. Holiday also had 21 points to go along with five assists off the bench. Gordon had 20 points, connecting on four three-pointers in seven tries and Anderson had 16 points off the bench.
In their most lopsided win of the season so far, the Pelicans in their third opportunity defeated the Trail Blazers 115-89 on Wednesday night and Davis led the way with 28 points, 12 boards and three blocks for the Pelicans, who shot 48.2 percent from the floor and hit 13 three-pointers in 31 tries to win their second straight contest. Evans had 24 points, eight rebounds, nine assists and two steals. Holiday had 19 points and five assists off the bench, connecting on three of five from long range. Anderson had 13 points, hitting three from downtown in seven chances and six rebounds. Gordon had 11 points and six assists.
For the Heat and head coach Erik Spoelstra, this season has been about getting back to the playoffs after missing out last season, which also ended four straight seasons of making it to The NBA Finals. Seeing four-time NBA MVP LeBron James return to the Cleveland Cavaliers the summer before did not help.
While Wade has been solid this season, the return of perennial All-Star forward/center Chris Bosh (17.6 ppg-2nd team, 7.9 rpg, 45.5 FG%) from blood clot that forced him to miss half of the season a year ago has been a huge boost.
What has also helped the Heat this season has been the continued emergence of starting center Hassan Whiteside (12.8 ppg, 10.9 rpg-4th NBA, 4.0 bpg-Leads NBA, 62.4 FG%-2nd NBA), who has registered 10 double-doubles on the season; has 17 double-digit rebounding games and has on 14 occasions this recorded four or more block shots in a game.
In Miami’s 103-91 loss versus the Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 17, Whiteside became the seventh player in league history to record multiple –points-rebounds-blocks triple doubles when he had 22 points, 14 boards and 10 blocks, which was the second triple-double of his career. He had on last season against the Chicago Bulls on national television off the bench.
Along with the great play of Whiteside, who will definitely be in the spotlight when he guards Davis tomorrow, the likes of swingman Gerald Green (11.8 ppg, 37.4 3-Pt.%), who the Heat signed in free agency this summer, Goran Dragic (11.3 ppg, 5.3 apg), who the Heat re-signed this summer and rookie forward Justise Winslow (5.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg) and guard Tyler Johnson (9.1 ppg, 45.7 3-Pt.%) have been solid compliments to the Heat alongside forward Luol Deng (10.4 ppg).
While the Heat have had strong wins in the month of December beating the likes of Oklahoma City Thunder (97-95) on Dec. 3; versus the Cavs (99-84) on Dec. 5 and Dec. 14 at the Atlanta Hawks (19-12) 100-88; they have had some tough defeats as. They lost three straight games versus the inconsistent Washington Wizards (13-14) 114-103 on Dec. 7; at the Charlotte Hornets (15-13) two days later 99-81 and at the Indiana Pacers (16-12) 96-83.
After three straight wins from Dec. 13 to Dec. 16, the Heat lost at the Toronto Raptors 108-94 on Dec. 18 breaking the 12-game winning streak that Heat had against the Raptors with Bosh in the lineup.
The Heat bounced back with a 116-109 win this past Sunday versus the Portland Trail Blazers (11-20), but suffered a disappointing loss at home versus the Detroit Pistons (17-13) 93-92, in a game where they led by as many as 18 points in the first half.
When these two teams meet at 12 noon tomorrow, the Pelicans will be trying to win their third game in succession for the second time this season, while the Heat will trying to avoid their second straight defeat. The one good thing the Heat have in their favor, they have won their last six games in a row on Christmas Day and in the Wade era are 9-1 on Christmas Day.
Chicago Bulls (15-11) versus Oklahoma City Thunder (20-9) on ABC
The first contest of a double-header on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) will feature two teams right now going in opposite directions.
We have the Bulls, who have been inconsistent in December with a three-game skid from Dec. 5 to Dec. 9, which followed a four-game winning streak from Dec. 10 to Dec. 16 and which has followed a new three-game losing streak.
The team’s third straight loss came at home versus the struggling Brooklyn Nets (8-21) 105-102.
The front end of this three-game slide was versus the Pistons who beat them 147-144 in quadruple overtime, marking the second four overtime game in Bulls history. The only other one came against the Trail Blazers back on March 16, 1984.
While they shot just 41.7 percent from the field and shot better at the foul line (39 for 44) compared to the Pistons (27-46), the Bulls were out-rebounded by the Pistons 64-62; out-assisted 28 to 21 and had 16 turnovers compared to the Pistons 11 miscues.
The Bulls also wasted a career-high night from All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler, scored 29 of his 43 points in the four quarter and the four overtimes going 14 for 29 from the field and 14 for 16 from the charity stripe with eight boards in 56 minutes. The 2011 MVP Derrick Rose had his best game of this season with 34 points and eight assists. Pau Gasol had 30 points, 15 rebounds, five assists and five blocks on 10 for 23 from the field and 10 for 12 from the free throw line for the Bulls, who for the first time since 1996 had three players register 30 points or more in the same game when Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc did it.
One night later, the Bulls traveled to New York City and lost at the New York Knicks (14-16) 107-91 to drop their second in a row and their first game in their third opportunity on the second night of a back-to-back.
Center Joakim Noah in his first start of the season led the way with 21 points and 10 boards. Rookie forward Bobby Portis had 20 points, 11 rebounds and two steals off the bench. Butler, who had a career night a little over 24 hours ago had just 12 points on 4 for 11 from the floor. Rose had just six points on 3 for 10 shooting. Guard Aaron Brooks was the fourth player in double-figures with 11 points.
In looking at the Bulls this season and their inconsistency, there are three things that jump out. First, they are not the same team, under first-year head coach and former Bull Fred Hoiberg than they have been the past few years under the guy he replaced Tom Thibodeau.
While by the numbers they are a good defensive team leading the league in rebounds per game at 49.0, they are not the suffocating, lock you down everything will be a struggle offensively for you. On top of that they rank just 12th in points allowed at 99.5.
Thibodeau to be honest was the leader of this team. Whenever you saw a Bulls game, you could hear him imploring his team to play hard night, particularly at the defensive end. He was the leader, the voice and the foundation of the Bulls in his five seasons on the bench, despite the fact that Rose was MVP in 2010-11, that Butler was an All-Star a season ago and Noah was like the vocal leader on defense.
The third thing about this team is the question whose team is it? Is it still Rose’s team or is it Butler’s. Ever since Butler emerged as this team’s leading scorer, earning 2015 Most Improved Player Award last season, the question has been who should the offense go through, Butler or Rose?
The Thunder have a new leader on the sideline themselves in former Florida University basketball head coach Billy Donovan, but they have been on an uptick, especially lately  as winners of three straight games and nine of 11 in the month of December.
The All-Star tandem of forward Kevin Durant (26.6 ppg-3rd NBA, 7.7 rpg, 4.3 apg 52.6 FG%, 42.6 3-Pt.%), who has averaged 31.8 points per contest in five games on Christmas Day and Russell Westbrook (25.3 ppg-5th NBA, 6.9 rpg, 9.3 apg-3rd NBA, 46.6 FG%) have returned this season to solid healthy with Durant missing just six games this season.
The two big keys for them and why they have been able to hit their stride has been the ability of both Westbrook and Durant to get the role players involved at the offensive end and the Thunder’s continued improvement at the defensive end of the court.
Only the defending champion Golden State Warriors at 115.5 points per contest score more per game than the Thunder, who average 107.8. The Thunder are third in field goal percentage per game at 47.5 percent; a solid 12th in three-point percentage at 35.5 percent and are eighth in free throw percentage at 79.0 percent.
The only area on offense that the team must progress in is their passing as the Thunder are just 17th in assists per contest at 21.3, which goes back to Westbrook and Durant being to make sure that the core players like starting forward Serge Ibaka (13.6 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.3 bpg-4th NBA), center Enes Kanter (11.3 ppg, 8.0 rpg-Leads team), guard Dion Waiters (10.4 ppg), starting center Steven Adams (6.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg), guards Anthony Morrow and D.J. Augustin get involved during and throughout the game.
The Thunder have really come on this month at the defensive end giving up 100 points just once, which occurred at the Cavaliers on Dec. 17 and they lost 104-100 as they were outscored 58-53 in the second half.
In one of their most complete games of the season, the Thunder blew out the Memphis Grizzlies (16-15) on their home court 125-88 back on Dec. 8.
Durant had a strong game of 32 points, 10 boards, six assists and three steals going 11 for 14 from the field, including 4 for 5 from downtown. Westbrook was great with 13 points on 5 for 7 from the floor and 16 assists. Ibaka had 17 points. Augustin had 13 points off the bench, including three triples in five tries. Waiters had 12 points off the pine and starting shooting guard Andre Roberson had 10 points.
The Grizzlies were held to 40.7 percent from the field; were out-rebounded 46-33; had 16 turnovers that resulted in 24 Thunder points and the Thunder had 31 assists compared to 14 by the Grizzlies.
Just ask the Los Angeles Lakers (5-24) how good the Thunder have been on both ends. They were taken to the cleaners at the Thunder five days ago 118-78, being outscored 35-15 in the first quarter.
Durant led seven players in double-figures with 22 points on 7 for 13 from the field and eight boards. Kanter had 19 points and 14 rebounds off the bench. Westbrook had 13 points and 11 assists on 5 for 11 from the field. Ibaka had 12 points and seven boards. Waiters had 11 points and six boards off the pine and Morrow and Adams had 10 points each.
The Thunder held the Lakers to 34.9 percent shooting; out-rebounded them 56-32, including 12 to 8 on the offensive glass; outscored them in the paint 50-25 and 14-7 in fast break points and recorded 28 assists to the Lakers 14.
The Thunder took to the Lakers in front of their fans at Staples Center in L.A. 96 hours later as the Lakers ran them out of their own gym 120-85 thanks to a 36-2 run bridging the 2nd and 3rd quarters.
This time, it was Westbrook who led five Thunder players in double-digit scoring with 23 points going 10 for 19 from the field with eight boards, eight assists and two steals.
Durant had 21 points going 7 for 9 from the floor with seven rebounds, five assists and two block shots. Ibaka had 17 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. Kanter had 16 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks off the bench and Roberson had 15 points, seven boards, three assists, two steals and four blocks.
The Thunder outplayed the Lakers again, holding them to 36 percent from the field; out-rebounded them 61-35, including 19-12 on the offensive glass; registered 13 blocks; outscored them in the paint 76 to 32 and 27 to 7 in fast break points and recorded 23 assists to the Lakers 19.
This is the worst time to be facing the Thunder and if the Bulls cannot put it together, they will be in for a rough Christmas afternoon.
Cleveland Cavaliers (19-7) versus Golden State Warriors (27-1) 5 p.m. on ABC
The back end of ABC’s twin bill features not just the current Central Division and Pacific Division champs, but the defending Eastern Conference champions against the team that denied their dreams of an NBA title last June and these defending champions have not looked back this season.
Unless you have been under a rock the first two and a half months of the 2015-16 NBA campaign, the Golden State Warriors have been great, spectacular, stunning, marvelous and every adjective to describe how good they have been.
To put their season into perspective, their 24-0 beginning this season not only was the best start to a season in NBA history, but the greatest start in the history of North American professional sports (NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL).
Lead guard and reigning MVP Stephen Curry (31.2 ppg-Leads NBA, 6.3 apg, 5.4 rpg, 51.6 FG%, 44.8 3-Pt.%-6th NBA) has been unstoppable from the start of the season until now. It has gotten to the point that whether it is at home or on the road, fans come to see him warm up for games.
His fellow backcourt mate, a.k.a. “Splash Brother” Klay Thompson (19.3 ppg, 46.8 FG%, 43.9 3-Pt.%) has been solid and has been off the charts in the last three games.
He scored 27 of his season-high 43 points on 15 for 22, including 8 for 13 from three-point range in the Warriors’ 128-103 win versus the Suns on Dec. 16, which followed their first loss of the season that prior Saturday at the Milwaukee Bucks (12-18) 108-95 back on Dec. 12.
Like last season, the Warriors have shot up to the top of the West thanks to the emergence of their role players and one player who role player who has really risen has been All-Star lock for the 2016 exhibition in Toronto this February Draymond Green.
After having a break out season a year ago, the 2012 second round pick out of Michigan State is posting even better numbers this season with 14.7 points, 8.8 boards, 7.1 assists (T-6th NBA) and 1.5 blocks per contest. He is also having a career-year in terms of shooting from the floor (46.0 percent), three-point range (37.9 percent) and the foul line (71.6 percent).
Green has recorded five triple-doubles this season and has come close on many other occasions. In the aforementioned 25-point win versus the Suns, Green had 16 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists and five steals.
One other player who has emerged this season for the Warriors has been the other starting forward alongside Green Harrison Barnes (13.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 50.0 FG%, 38.9 3-Pt.), but has been on the shelf the last 12 games because of a sprained ankle.
His absence has shown going 11-1 in this span the depth of the Warriors and how they are more than just a three-man show of Curry, Thompson and Green.  
Guard Brandon Rush, who started in place of Barnes on Nov. 28 versus the Sacramento Kings (12-17) had 16 points, hitting 4 of 5 three-pointers as the Kings won 120 to 101. Other roles players like backup center Festus Ezeli played well of the bench with 11 points and 11 rebounds. Forward/Center Marreese Speights had 13 points and five boards. Swingman Andre Igoudala had nine points off the bench; guards Ian Clark had eight points and Shaun Livingston had seven off the pine.
The one great thing that has been wonderful to see from the Warriors is that they embrace being champions. They do not shy away from the fact that whoever they have faced this season at home or on the road, they play with a vigor, swagger and focus that you have to play at a high level or they have to have an off night to beat them.
That is what happened a mentioned earlier at the Bucks two weeks ago when they lost their first game of the season.
Since then, they have won their last three and the middle game of this current winning streak really showed their mental toughness to win a game.
They have done all of this without their head coach Steve Kerr on the sideline, who is still recovering from back surgery he had late this off-season. Steadying this ship has been the son of Hall of Famer and NBA champion Bill Walton, Luke Walton, who without question will be a head coach down the road.
In the rematch versus the Bucks, this time at Oracle Arena, the Warriors trailed 93-85 heading into the fourth quarter and trailed at one point in the final stanza 100-89.
The Warriors outscored the Bucks 32-12 and won the game 121-112. In the fourth period, the Warriors outscored the Bucks 36-19. Shot 10 for 20 from the field and 14 for 18 from the free throw line; hit 2 of their 5 triples in the period and had 11 fast break points. The league leaders in assists per contest with 28.8 per had 31 assists on the evening.
Defensively, the Bucks went just 9 for 28 from the field in the final quarter; went to the foul line just once making that chance; had just two fast break points and went 0 for 2 from downtown.
“We came and tried to make it about ourselves individually and no it’s never about us, it’s about the team. We got back to the team concept in the second half and we looked like ourselves,” Ezeli, who had 14 points and 10 boards said to Comcast Sportsnet Bay Area’s Ros Gold-Onwude after the game.
One streak that is still intact is the Warriors home winning streak, which was extended to 31 games after a 103-85 versus the Jazz on Wednesday night. The streak is the 8th longest in NBA history. On top of that, they will enter their matchup with the Cavs with the best record on Christmas Day, beating the old mark of 27-2 by the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics of 2008-09. The eventual champion Bulls of 1995-96 enter Christmas Day at 23-2. The eventual 1993-94 champion Houston Rockets came in at 22-2 and the eventual 1971-72 Lakers entered this day at 33-3.
That is what the Cleveland Cavaliers will be trying to put a halt to on Friday afternoon as well as get above .500 on the road, where they stand just 6-6, compared to a 13-1 home record.
While the Cavs have been the team head and shoulders above all the other teams in the East, they have been doing so not at full strength as last season’s starting back court of Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert have been on the shelf recovering from a knee and wrist injuries respectably.
Both have returned in recent days along with guard Mo Williams from a sprained thumb and the Cavs are finally whole, even though Irving has been on a minute’s restriction.
In his first game of the season this past Sunday, he had 12 points and four assists on 5 for 12 from the floor in 17 minutes as the Cavs won versus the Philadelphia 76ers (1-30) 108-86, their fifth straight win.
“Felt amazing. Just getting back on the court there with my brothers,” Irving said to FOX Sports Ohio’s Allie Clifton after the win.
“The minutes restriction kind of took away my aggressiveness a little bit… Just knocking off the rust. A lot of emotions built up this game. I’m glad I got the first one out the way.
What has allowed the Cavs to be where they are without the second leading scorer on the team a season ago is that LeBron James (26.4 ppg-4th NBA, 7.6 rpg-2nd on team; 6.3 apg-Leads team, 1.5 spg-Leads team), who has averaged 27.2 points per game on Christmas Day, second behind Durant has played like his MVP self; Kevin Love (17.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg-8th NBA, 37.0 3-Pt.%) has been utilized more in the low post and not as just a three-point shooter; role players like Mo Williams (12.5 ppg, 3.9 apg, 34.7 3-Pt.%), J.R. Smith (10.6 ppg, 35.6 3-Pt.%), Matthew Dellavedova (8.9 ppg, 5.4 apg, 45.0 3-Pt.%), Tristan Thompson (7.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg), Richard Jefferson (6.9 ppg, 37.0 3-Pt.%) and Timofey Mozgov (7.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) have played well in stretches.
With the team now whole, we can finally get a gage at where they are against the elite and this game, which will be the seventh matchup between two teams that played in The NBA Finals the season before will tell a lot about if the Cavs are really hitting their stride or is their more progress to be made.

James, who has averaged the most points per contest on Christmas Day on the road at 28.8 will for sure be motivated and prepared with this being his 10th appearance on Christmas Day and his 7th on the road. In those seven games with the Cavs and Heat, James is 4-2 on the road.

In the case of the Warriors, they will be battling against history as the defending champ is just 2-4 in the rematch against the team they beat in The Finals the year before according to Elias Sports Bureau. 
San Antonio Spurs (25-5) versus Houston Rockets (15-15) 8 p.m. on ESPN
The quartet of NBA action will feature Southwest Division and state rivals where one team has quietly stayed in stride with the defending champion Warriors while the other is trying to find some sort of consistency and chemistry on both ends.
While the Warriors have been the headline grabbers of the league, the five-time champion Spurs without anyone looking have been playing just as well either at home or on the road.
In the month of December, they have gone 11-1 so far, winning seven in a row and a big reason for that has been their stellar defense. On only two occasions, the Spurs have surrendered 100-plus points, On Dec. 5 versus the Boston Celtics (16-13) and Dec. 18 versus the Clippers. The Spurs won both games 108-105 and 115-107 respectably.
They surrendered just 68 points at the 76ers on Dec 7, blowing them out of their gym 119-68, beating them for the 10th consecutive time and handed them their fifth worst loss in franchise history.
Along with the fantastic defense, the Spurs winning ways this season have been in large part to not the eventual Hall of Fame champion trio of Tim Duncan (8.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 1.5 bpg-Leads team), Manu Ginobili (10.3 ppg, 3.5 apg, 36.5 3-Pt.%) and Tony Parker (13.1 ppg, 5.0 apg, 56.0 FG%), but by the career-year of 201 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (21.0 ppg-Leads team, 7.4 rpg, 2.0 spg-T-8th NBA) and prized free agent LaMarcus Aldridge (15.7 ppg, 8.8 rpg).
There has not been a better defender on the perimeter this season than Leonard, who has put the clamps on some of the best in the league on the outside.
He held Pacers swingman Paul George to just seven points on 1 for 14 shooting and scored 24 points on 10 for 19 from the floor with six rebounds five assists and three steals as the Spurs beat the Pacers 106-92 this past Monday night, to run their home record to 16-0 and a franchise record 25th straight home dating back to last season.
Two nights later, Leonard scored 19 points with six boards, two steals and two blocks as the Spurs won their seventh game in a row at the Minnesota Timberwolves (11-18) 108-83.
Leonard held last season’s Rookie of the Year and T’Wolves top scorer Andrew Wiggins to just 10 points on 2 for 11 shooting. Rookie center Karly Anthony-Towns had 10 points and 11 boards, but was just for 12 from the field as the team shot just 41.7 percent from the field.
Parker had 14 points and six assists. David West had 13 points off the bench and five boards. Aldridge had 12 points and eight boards. Green had 11 points, hitting 3 for 4 from long distance and seven rebounds. Kyle Anderson had 10 points off the pine and five rebounds.
It is the solid play from “the others” like Anderson, Green, West, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw, Jonathon Simmons that Spurs can win games by 20-plus points and Duncan can have just two points on 1 for 6 shooting.
Why is that? It is because for the Spurs, Warriors it is about team and winning and not about the individual. Also they believe in getting a better shot at the offensive end for one another, which is why they are second in assists per game at 25.2.
Last season’s West runner-up the Rockets on the other hand have looked nothing of the team that fell three wins shy of making it to the NBA Finals.
Their last contest at the Orlando Magic is a microcosm of why they stand at the .500 mark right now. They fell behind in the game by double-digits, but thanks to All-Star James Harden, who had 31 points and seven assists to lead the way, the Rockets roared back to lead in the closing moments of the fourth.
Magic swingman Evan Fournier, who scored 17 points hit a bank shot with 14.2 seconds left to give the Magic the lead back at 102-101. Two free throws by Tobias Harris, who had 19 points and eight boards that gave the Magic a 104-101 lead.
Marcus Thornton triple attempt at the horn was short and the Rockets’ three-game win streak came to a close.
Another glaring issue in this game has been the play of center Dwight Howard, who had just 12 points and seven boards in the loss on Wednesday night.
While his rebounding has been consistent at 11.5 per contest leading the team, Howard’s scoring average per contest is the lowest since his rookie year.
It has not helped that the Rockets have not utilized him consistently whether is giving the ball to him on the block or going to him off of the pick and roll.
Another big issue for the Rockets has been their play at the defensive end. Last season, they were one of the best in the league. Despite leading the league in steals per contest at 10.2 and ranking ninth in blocks per contest at 5.5, the Rockets are 27th in points allowed at 105.6; tied for 27th in opponent’s field goal percentage at 46.4 percent; 20th in rebounds per contest at 43.6 and 22nd in rebound differential at -1.7.
If the Rockets have any chance of stopping the Spurs on Friday evening, the tandem of Howard and Harden must play well on both ends. Role players like Trevor Ariza (11.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg), Thornton (11.0 ppg, 36.9 3-Pt.%), Terrence Jones (10.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 40.9 3-pt.%), Patrick Beverly (8.4 ppg, 38.4 3-Pt.%), Clint Capela (7.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg) Corey Brewer (7.1 ppg) Donatas Motiejunas and Ty Lawson must play well throughout the game.
While they have won nine out of 14 after a 6-10 start and are 11-7 since assistant head coach took the place of fired head coach Kevin McHale, the Rockets are in major need of a big time win to get back on track. The question is, will they put four quarters together against the Spurs, who are just 1-4 on Christmas Day in franchise history?
Los Angeles Clippers (16-13) versus Los Angeles Lakers (5-24) 10:30 p.m. on ESPN
The nightcap of the Christmas Day quintet will be in Hollywood where a battle will take place between younger brother that is trying to find their stride versus a team with an aging superstar in his final season and trying to string some wins together.
Coming into this season, the Clippers had high expectations of finally making it to the Western Conference Finals and The NBA Finals and winning the team’s first title.
Unfortunately to this point the off-season additions of Josh Smith (5.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg), Lance Stephenson (4.6 ppg), Wesley Johnson (5.5 ppg) and Paul Pierce (4.1 ppg) to alongside All-Stars Blake Griffin (23.6 ppg-9th NBA, 8.6 rpg, 4.9 apg) and Chris Paul (17.5 ppg, 9.0 apg-4th NBA, 2.0 spg-8th NBA), J.J. Redick (15.2 ppg, 46.1 3-Pt.%), DeAndre Jordan (11.0 ppg, 13.1 rpg-2nd NBA, 2.4 bpg-3rd NBA, 70.6 FG%-Leads NBA) and Sixth Man extraordinaire Jamal Crawford (11.4 ppg) has not produced at the high rate Head Coach/GM Glenn “Doc” Rivers and owner Steve Balmer had hoped.
To bring this into focus, the Clippers are 1-5 against the defending champion Warriors, Spurs, Mavericks and Thunder this season, the Top 4 in the West.
While this is one of the top offensive teams in the league and one of the most exciting, they still have a weak bench and defensively they are inconsistent.
Throughout their careers, Jordan and Griffin are the most gifted athletically than any two frontcourt players in the NBA. With that being said Griffin has still an unrefined game in the low-post and Jordan has no offensive game inside and is terrible at the free throw line. It is those unresolved issues that have and will continue to keep the Clippers from becoming champions unless those two decide to tackle them head on.
As good as Paul has been in his career both with the now Pelicans formally the Hornets and with the Clippers, is he the only Clipper with any kind of mental toughness in the closing moments of games?
With that being said, they should take care of business in the first of four meetings with their co-tenants of the Staples Center and who they have beaten a franchise record seven straight times.
While it has been a special moment in seeing the farewell tour of five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant (17.4 ppg-Leads team, 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg-Leads team), who is without question a first ballot Hall of Famer, it has been a tough season for one of the flagship franchises in the NBA as they will miss the playoffs for the third straight year, which is unthinkable.
Unlike the past couple of season’s, there is some hope in the fact that they do have some players to build around for the future in rookies D”Angelo Russell (11.9 ppg), Julius Randle (11.5 ppg, 9.5 rpg) and Larry Nance, Jr. and second-year guard Jordan Clarkson (14.9 ppg-2nd team, 45.8 FG%, 36.0 3-Pt.%).
Veterans Louis Williams (13.7 ppg), Nick Young (9.0 ppg), Roy Hibbert (7.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.8 bpg-Leads team), Brandon Bass (5.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and Metta World Peace have been solid players for the young guys to learn from, but except for Williams, all the other are just hole fillers for better days ahead, where the hope that LSU Brandon Simmons is in their future.
The hope for Lakers head coach Byron Scott, a three-time champion with the “Showtime” Lakers in the 1980s is that his team comes to compete, like they did at the Denver Nuggets winning 111-107 to get their first victory against a Western Conference opponent this season in 16 chances.
Prior to that victory, a 113-95 win versus the Bucks on Dec. 15 and a 123-122 overtime setback at the T’Wolves on Dec. 9, the Lakers last five losses have been by 20 points or more.
If anything that should get the Lakers upbeat for this game on Friday is that this will be the last game on Christmas for Bryant, whose 383 points scored in 15 appearance on Christmas Day are the most all-time, just six points ahead of Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. If that does not get them going, nothing will. 
Information, quotations and statistics are courtesy of; 12/19/15 2 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” presented by State Farm with Rick Kamla, Steve Smith and Dennis Scott; 12/21/15 12 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” with Vince Cellini, Rick Fox and Brent Barry; 12/23/15 2:30 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” presented by KIA with Ernie Johnson, Greg Anthony and Chris Webber; 12/14/15 1:30 a.m. edition of “NBA Tonight” on ESPN with Cassidy Hubbarth and Bruce Bowen; 12/24/15 6 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” presented by KIA with Matt Winer, Dennis Scott and Greg Anthony; 12/25/15 11 a.m. edition of ESPN's "Sportscenter" with Linda Cohn and Jaymee Sire.   

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