January 26, 2022

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Fit And Go Forward

NBA Christmas Day: Top storylines for each game, including Lakers’ new blood and Kevin Durant’s comeback tour

The NBA’s marquee regular-season showcase comes a bit earlier in the season this year, as teams will only have one game under their belts when the Christmas Day slate tips off on Friday. The timing alters the dynamic a little bit, since players are still easing their way into the young season, but it doesn’t change the fact that there are some incredible matchups on tap.

Highlighted by superstars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Luka Doncic, the Christmas Day slate features five games that should all prove to be incredibly entertaining. To make things a little easier to digest — like your holiday meal — we’ve zeroed in on one key storyline from each team to keep in mind as you watch.

Pelicans storyline: Zion unleashed?

All New Orleans wants this holiday season is a healthy Zion Williamson. The 20-year-old manchild only played in 24 games last season, and it’s safe to say we never got to see him at full strength. The Pelicans stretched him out this preseason and he looked tremendous, both in terms of his conditioning and his play. Williamson averaged 33.5 minutes in two games, putting up 28.5 points and 10 rebounds per game on 57 percent shooting, whetting the appetites of basketball fans waiting to see Zion unleashed.

He’ll get a tough test on Christmas afternoon against Bam Adebayo and the Miami Heat defense, so it will be interesting to see how Williamson begins his sophomore campaign. Prior to the hiatus last season, then Pelicans’ net rating was a ridiculous 13.9 points better with Zion on the floor. He’ll likely be the key to New Orleans joining the playoff picture this season.

Heat storyline: Making the leap

Heat leaders Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic are known commodities at this point in their careers, but the defending Eastern Conference champions can hit another level this season if Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson can continue to develop. Adebayo became an All-Star last season, Herro had his coming-out party in the bubble and Robinson had one of the best 3-point shooting seasons of all time, making 45 percent of his 8.3 attempts per game. It was a short offseason for Miami, but we should still expect to see improvements from the three key Heat youngsters, along with first team All-Rookie guard Kendrick Nunn. Only two months removed from their last game in the bubble, we’ll see if coach Erik Spoelstra turns to his younger players while his veterans get more rest than usual.

Warriors storyline: Steph gone wild

Stephen Curry took 21 shots in 30 minutes in the Warriors’ opening night loss to the Nets, and it honestly seemed like that wasn’t anywhere near enough. Our Brad Botkin wrote about head coach Steve Kerr’s reluctance to use Curry in more pick-and-rolls, but he might not have a choice if Christmas Day is anything like the opener. The Bucks are known for using drop coverage in the pick-and-roll, which means that Curry could walk into a lot of good 3-point looks if Mike Budenholzer doesn’t adjust. Curry needs to have a big game if the Warriors are going to compete with the league’s best regular-season team over the past two years.

Bucks storyline: Home debut for Jrue

Perhaps in an effort to lock up a long-term commitment from Giannis Antetokounmpo (which apparently worked), the Bucks traded a heap of assets for Jrue Holiday, who will make his home debut for Milwaukee on Christmas. It won’t exactly be the atmosphere he’d like with no fans in the stands, but it will be interesting to see what kind of impact he makes as he adjusts to a new system and new teammates. One of the best two-way guards in the league, Holiday will likely be tasked with chasing Curry for a good portion of the game, while taking on secondary playmaking duties on offense. The Bucks hope that the Holiday-for-Eric Bledsoe exchange in the starting lineup will help push them over the top, and we’ll get a look at the early fit on Friday.

Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics — 5 p.m. ET (ABC)

Nets storyline: K.D.’s comeback

Kevin Durant looked phenomenal in his debut on Tuesday, but it will still take him a while to get back to his normal conditioning level as he recovers from Achilles surgery. Brooklyn coach Steve Nash said that Durant didn’t have a minutes limit in the opener, but he only played 25 minutes in the blowout. This game should be much closer, so we’ll see if Nash leaves his superstar on the court for a longer time, and how effective Durant can be against the NBA’s fourth-best defense from a season ago. K.D. has shown a tendency to come out hot and slowly fade, at least offensively, in the young season, so his stamina is another thing to keep an eye on.

Celtics storyline: Jay-Jay all day

With Kemba Walker sidelined with an injury and Gordon Hayward in Charlotte, much of the Celtics’ offensive assault is going to rest in the hands of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Both forwards put up career numbers last season, but they’ll draw more defensive attention with fewer weapons on the floor. The Nets also have a host of long, athletic defenders to throw at both of them, from Kevin Durant to Taurean Prince to Caris LeVert. Lineups featuring both Tatum and Brown had a plus-9.6 net rating in over 1,200 minutes last season for the Celtics, but they logged very few minutes without Walker and/or Hayward alongside them. It’s their show now, and it will be fun to see how Brad Stevens attempts to put the duo into positions to succeed.

Mavericks storyline: Luka magic

It speaks to Luka Doncic’s young superstar status that the NBA selected him and the Mavs to compete against LeBron James and the Lakers in the prime Christmas Day slot. He’ll be without the services of running mate Kristaps Porzingis for at least the next couple of weeks, but Doncic is a one-man offense in a 6-foot-7 package. The Mavericks had the best offense in the league last season, and their rating dropped from 117 points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the court to 112.1 with him sitting. Doncic was in the 90th percentile individually, averaging 1.351 points per possession in halfcourt offense when you include passes, according to Synergy Sports Technology. In other words, get ready to be entertained no matter who is alongside him.

Lakers storyline: New blood

LeBron James and Anthony Davis are being eased into the season after a short turnaround following the Lakers’ title in October, so that leaves plenty of opportunity for other players to step up. In the first game of the season, a loss to the Clippers, Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder — the top two finishers in last season’s Sixth Man of the Year vote — each put up a double-double. They appeared to have great chemistry in the pick-and-roll, a positive sign for the Lakers this early on.

Veterans Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews had a slightly rougher start to their Laker careers, going scoreless in 23 combined minutes in Tuesday’s opener. The defending champs have a lot of new parts to integrate, and the process starts now.

Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets — 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Clippers storyline: Out for revenge

Yes it’s just a regular-season game, but human nature suggests that the Clippers will have a little extra oomph for the Christmas Night matchup with the Nuggets, who eliminated the Clippers from the bubble in devastating fashion with three consecutive second-half comebacks to erase a 3-1 deficit and advance to the Western Conference finals. The Clippers have a new head coach in Tyronn Lue, but he was on the sideline for the collapse as an assistant and should have his team ready to make a statement. Paul George went off for 33 points in the opening-night win over the Lakers, and he said he feels like a new man following a full offseason of work after fully recovering from shoulder surgery. L.A. has some new pieces to incorporate in Serge Ibaka, Luke Kennard and Nicolas Batum, and with George and Kawhi Leonard running the show, this should be a fun one to close out the night.

Nuggets storyline: Promotion for Porter

When Jerami Grant chose to sign with the Pistons, the door opened for intriguing young forward Michael Porter Jr. to assume the bulk of his minutes. One of the most dynamic offensive players in the seeding games, Porter is coming off an All-Bubble performance and will get every opportunity to prove he belongs in the Nuggets’ starting lineup. The prospect of him playing alongside Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray is absolutely terrifying offensively, but it remains to be seen whether the defense can be consistent enough to make that an effective lineup. Whether he ends up starting or coming off the bench, Porter could be in store for a breakout season as the Nuggets look to take the next step in their ascent to the league’s elite.

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