CHRISTMAS COMES THIS TIME EACH YEAR. In addition to being perhaps the single dumbest lyric in any holiday song, it also serves as a reminder that the “unofficial” kick-off to the NBA regular season is upon us. And while family, gifts, food, spirits, and Jesus are all well and good, is there truly anything better than celebrating with thirteen straight hours of NBA basketball? [Don’t answer that.]
While the big, shiny gifts under the hoops Christmas tree are well-known to most fans — Giannis vs. Philly’s gargantuan front line, Harden gunning for 50+, LeBron and AD vs. Kawhi and PG — I like to take this opportunity to highlight the tiny accents and special little treats that will round out your holiday viewing experience. Here’s a fun thing or two to watch for in each game:
BOSTON CELTICS AT TORONTO RAPTORS, NOON ET, ESPN
The Champs, Forever Plugging Holes: Toronto’s spirited title defense has been one of the amazing stories of the early season. The Raps are sitting at 21-8, third in the East, with Offensive/Defensive Ratings of 11th and 4th. All of this sounds pretty par for the course for a team coming off a championship, until you factor in all the ways bad luck has attempted to kneecap this team. Kawhi Leonard and Uncle Dennis decamped for L.A. over the summer, as you may have heard. The opening stretch of this season has been littered with injuries, with mainstays Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka missing a combined 26 games. And just as those guys were getting healthy and reintegrated into the rotation, the champs suffered another wave of maladies. Key rotation players Marc Gasol and Norman Powell (in the midst of the best stretch of his career) are both out indefinitely. Worst of all, newly-minted superstar and max contract player Pascal Siakam is also going to miss an extended stretch with a groin injury.
The M.A.S.H. unit in Toronto takes some of the luster off this otherwise juicy matchup, but the silver lining is how it will highlight all of the creative ways head coach Nick Nurse and President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri have found to plug the holes and keep rolling. They continue to pull unheralded guys off the scrap heap and turn them into valuable contributors. Last season, it was Powell and VanVleet, and this year, it’s been Chris Boucher and Terence Davis.
Boucher’s numbers don’t pop off the screen (5.7 PPG and 4.1 RPG in 12 minutes a night), and he’s so painfully skinny it looks like a strong breeze might snap him in half. But then you watch him in action, and the Oregon product just keeps making winning plays. His Go-Go Gadget arms make him a frightening deterrent at the rim, as well as a menace to unsuspecting three-point shooters. He’s averaging 2.3 blocks per-36 minutes, down from a small sample size craziness of 5.3 last season. The analytics paint him as a borderline elite defensive presence (101 individual Defensive Rating and a 1.7 Defensive BPM), and the team has a +8.0 net rating with him on the court (vs. +5.8 when he’s on the bench). Opponents shoot only 54.1% within five feet of the rim with Boucher as the primary defender, a better figure than noted rim protectors such as Mitchell Robinson, Myles Turner, Jarrett Allen, and teammate Gasol. He was absolutely everywhere in Toronto’s epic comeback win over Dallas on Sunday, putting up a 21-and-7 with 4 blocks (and a +24) in only 24 minutes:
Boucher functions primarily as a rim-runner on offense, but he is beginning to diversify his game. He’s attempted 39 threes thus far in ’19-’20, canning them at a semi-respectable 31% rate. Ibaka is likely to continue starting in Gasol’s absence, but with more games like Sunday, it’s going to be damn near impossible for Nick Nurse to keep the 26-year-old Boucher off the floor.
Boucher was a deep cut for sure, but he wasn’t a complete unknown. After playing for some high-end teams at Oregon, he was the G League MVP and Defensive Player of the Year last season, while also appearing in 28 games for the Raptors (and getting himself a big, shiny ring to show for it). The rise of Davis has been a very different animal. The 22-year-old shooting guard had a solid four-year career at Ole Miss, and he was on the draft radar for a number of teams after lighting up the Portsmouth Invitational, the G League Elite camp, and acing the combine. However, teams interested in him wanted to make him a two-way player, and Davis refused these entreaties. He instead went undrafted and signed a deal with Denver for a shot in Summer League. After one dominant performance in Vegas, the Raptors offered Davis a guaranteed contract. His bet on himself paid off.
Yet again, the Raptors appear to have conjured up an NBA rotation player out of thin air. His role has been limited thus far (15.8 minutes a game), but Davis is making the most out of it, with a line of 6.4/ 2.8/ 1.9 on outstanding 47/42/96 shooting splits. He’s quickly adapted to his role as an efficient 3-and-D wing who can also provide some supplemental playmaking juice when needed. His minutes have bounced around some, but with the injury to Powell, Davis may have an opportunity to move up the depth chart and perhaps stay there. The skill set is evident:
After the Raptors followed a similar blueprint in unearthing VanVleet (and in turning Siakam into one of the most out-of-nowhere superstars in history), it’s getting hard not to conclude that Ujiri and the Toronto brass have the magic touch when it comes to finding these diamonds in the rough. The short-handed Raps may have a tough time hanging with a really good Celtics team in the matinee on Wednesday, but it will be a treat to see these lesser-known guys get some shine in front of a national audience. Hark, the unheralded angels sing!
MILWAUKEE BUCKS AT PHILADELPHIA 76ERS, 2:30 PM ET, ABC
Donte DiVincenzo Looks Like a Future Star: Draftniks in every sport make the same mistake year after year — they overlook obvious strengths to highlight perceived weaknesses. The NBA is no exception, and there is no shortage of examples. Portland chose Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in part because KD was so skinny and couldn’t bench press 185 pounds, even though he had just spent the season at Texas looking every bit like the historically great scorer he would eventually become. [By the way, he also weighs 240 pounds now.] The Pistons selected Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, AND Dwyane Wade for reasons that made no sense at the time and never will. Further down the board, we have ample evidence showing that if a team can nab a player with one elite, translatable skill, they should do it every time. Defense is one such skill.
[Note: this is where I was getting ready to talk about the Sixers’ Matisse Thybulle, until he injured his knee on Saturday. He will be re-evaluated in two weeks, so obviously he will not play on Christmas. Curses. Point is, he should never have gone as low as no. 20 in the draft because he might already be the best on-ball defender in the league, and could eventually be one of the best ever. He averages 4.6 “stocks” (steals + blocks) per-36 minutes, and the eye test and analytics both paint the picture of an elite stopper with the most active hands you’ll ever see. He’s a clunky offensive player, but he is shooting 46% from three (on only 67 attempts, but still), and if he makes strides on that side of the ball over the next 2-3 years, we’ll be talking about an indispensable player. OK, let’s move on.]
The 6-4 DiVincenzo “jumped” to no. 17 in the 2018 draft on the strength of dominating the 2018 National Championship game off the bench to the tune of 31 points and being the named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. He was considered a good defensive prospect, and the fact he rose to the occasion on the biggest stage should have been a good sign. He was knocked for being a bench player (albeit on a loaded Villanova team) and for perhaps not having the upside of other top prospects after playing three solid-but-unspectacular seasons in college. Scouts and teams resist the urge to exaggerate the import of a single performance, no matter how impressive, but in this case, it was a sign of things to come for DiVincenzo.
As a rookie, Donte played only 411 regular season minutes while fighting injuries and an ultra-deep rotation on a championship contender. He showed flashes here and there, but it was mostly a redshirt year. This season, with the departure of Malcolm Brogdon and injuries to Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe, DiVincenzo has gotten the opportunity for real rotation minutes, and he is running with it. Again, the counting stats don’t scream superstar: 8.5/ 4.5/ 2.2 on 43/34/78 shooting in 22 MPG. Everyone is ultimately a supporting player on the Giannis Rampage Tour, but the tape shows a guy who executes his role perfectly, filling in all the interstitial gaps and consistently making heady plays with anticipation and effort.
He’s joined the starting lineup again in the absence of Bledsoe, and it’s crazy to say, but head coach Mike Budenholzer will have some decisions to make upon Bled’s return. The Bucks have been dominant, of course, but even more so with The Big Ragu in the lineup. Milwaukee is a staggering +19.1 points per 100 possessions with DiVincenzo on the floor, as opposed to a mere historically good +9.6 when he sits. [Yes, Giannis remains a big driver of these numbers. Donte and Giannis have shared the floor for 416 of DiVincenzo’s 617 total minutes, and the Bucks have a +22.7 net rating in those minutes.] Even if the analytics can be squishy, what we’re watching backs them up. He was a spark plug against Cleveland last week:
And against the Lakers, he showed the instincts — and courage — to insert himself into the middle of an Anthony Davis alley-oop and knock it away:
DiVincenzo is not yet the player Malcolm Brogdon is, neither in volume nor polish. But he is by no means a one-hit wonder. This is a real NBA player, and the Bucks got themselves yet another steal in the mid/late first round. If his game continues to blossom as his role expands, the Bucks could very well steamroll their way to a 70-win campaign.
HOUSTON ROCKETS AT GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS, 5 PM ET, ABC
Will Ben McLemore Ever Attempt a Midrange Shot? This is probably the least interesting game of the day, given the complete implosion of Golden State’s season and the G League-caliber roster they run out on a nightly basis. Have some food during this one, spend time with your family if that’s your thing, and recharge for the heavyweight matchup to follow.
If you are a masochist and must subject yourself to this torture, here’s one interesting subplot: Ben McLemore’s shot profile. At 26, it appeared the former lottery pick was on his way out of the league, but his career has been resurrected this season in Houston as an avatar for their threes-and-layups, analytics-heavy offense. McLemore is averaging a pedestrian 10.4/ 2.3/ 1.0 on 42/36/78 shooting. Nothing fascinating about that, right?
Wrong. What’s crazy about his season is where his shots are coming from. McLemore takes 8.1 field goal attempts per night, and a whopping 6.9 of those shots are threes, for a gobsmacking 84.4% 3-point attempt rate. So this means, in almost 24 minutes a night, he is only taking 1.2 two-point attempts per game, but he is also making those shots at a league-leading 71.1% clip. How is this possible? Because they almost all come inside the restricted area. Per Basketball-Reference, 13.1% of his shots are at the rim, with only 2% of his attempts coming from the area between 3-10 feet, and a minuscule 0.4% from 10-16 feet. If you feel the need to add up all those percentages, they round up to an even 100%, which means McLemore has attempted exactly ZERO of his 244 field goal attempts from the area between 16 and 23 feet from the hoop. Will he attempt a midrange jumper on Christmas Day just for kicks or a as subtle troll? Will he attempt one all season? Am I the biggest nerd on the planet? [Actually, forget I asked. Let’s just get to a game that matters.]
LA CLIPPERS “AT” LA LAKERS, 8 PM, ABC
The Clippers’ Centers Are…A Strength? After the coup they pulled off this past summer, the Clippers came into the season sporting the deepest, most complete roster in the league. The only concerns were thought to be health and whether they would get enough rim protection and scoring from their rotation in the middle. The health question has been a mixed bag — Paul George is back and looks phenomenal, though Kawhi has had to pick his spots at times with lingering knee issues — but the big men have been a rousing success for the 22-10 Clippers.
Montrezl Harrell has evolved from a Chris Paul trade throw-in to an elite per-minute bench contributor to an indispensable, borderline All-Star. The Louisville product has started only twice, but has played the most total minutes on the team, and is averaging a tidy 19.0/ 7.5/ 1.9 on 57% shooting in 29.2 MPG. He infects every part of the game with his snarling energy and rage-filled dunks (69 of them to date — nice). His pick-and-roll action with benchmate Lou Williams remains the most lethal secondary offense in the league, and he has even begun to show some basic playmaking competence in 4-on-3 situations. The biggest question was whether, at 6-8 if we’re being generous, he would be able to hold up in the middle defensively under a heavier minutes load. So far, no problems there. Even if he is benefiting from having elite defensive help on the perimeter, the 25-year-old is putting up the best season of his career for the league’s 7th-ranked defense.
Harrell is the clear front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year, he may get All-Star consideration, and as an impending free agent, he is about to have the Brinks’ truck backed up to his house. There has been chatter that the front office believes they won’t be able to afford his next contract and could thus look to move him before the trade deadline, but that seems foolish to me. He is one of the four best players on a legit championship contender. It would be insane to punt on a potential title season because of financial considerations, particularly when your owner is one of the richest goddamn people on Earth. The Clippers’ front office has done nothing but hit home runs for the last two years, so I suspect they’ll see this situation for what it is.
Their “traditional” center (and nominal starter) Ivica Zubac has also been effective in a lesser role. Zubac only plays 17 minutes a night (primarily because he rarely, if ever, shares the floor with Harrell), but on a per-minute basis, he’s basically Domantas Sabonis:
All told, L.A.’s two-headed pivot monster is providing 27.3 points, 13.9 rebounds, 57.9% shooting, elite defense, and the stylistic versatility to handle any matchup. They’ll be challenged by the sheer size and athleticism of the LeBron/Davis/Howard/McGee frontcourt of the Lakers, but don’t expect them to be intimidated. It’s going to be a war.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS AT DENVER NUGGETS, 10:30 PM ET, ESPN
Don’t Look Now, But Nikola Jokic is Hitting His Stride: After the slugfests of Boston/Toronto, Milwaukee/Philly, and the Battle for L.A., the nightcap is a fittingly low-stakes clash between two teams going in decidedly different directions. The Nuggets have won seven straight and clawed their way back to second in the West at 21-8 on the strength of good health and a cohesive defense currently ranked 2nd in the league. The Pelicans are 8-23 (“good” for 14th in the West) despite winning two of their last three, and will continue to be without Zion Williamson for the foreseeable future. On paper, there isn’t much intrigue to be had here, which might be for the best after ten straight hours of games.
Yes, he is the team’s central figure, but the subplot to watch here is the re-emergence of Nikola Jokic after a sluggish start to the season. His Groundness (AKA The Joker, AKA Big Honey, AKA Big Chungus) has sprung to life in December, with averages of 20.1/ 9.6/ 8.1 on 53/40/88 shooting splits in 12 games this month. The starting five of Jokic/Paul Millsap/Will Barton/Gary Harris/Jamal Murray has been a +/- juggernaut (+13.3 points per 100 possessions in a monstrous 508-minute sample), and with Jokic getting in gear, the Nugs’ run of success could stretch well into the New Year.
[One final note: should Pelicans’ rookie Nicolo Melli dunk or hit a three in this game, I will be PROFOUNDLY disappointed if play-by-play announcer Ryan Ruocco misses the opportunity to shout “MELLI KALIKIMAKA!!”]
Merry Christmas and thanks for reading, everyone. Have a fun and safe holiday filled with good people, good food, and good ball!
Top Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated