Let’s run through some winners and losers from a jam-packed day of basketball…
Winner: The Harden-Embiid Partnership
Amid rumors he may have his eyes back on the Rockets, James Harden combined with Joel Embiid for another impressive performance Sunday. The Beard and The Process (the worst comic book duo ever) combined for 64 points on 19-of-38 shooting, while Harden added 13 assists. After some early season struggles (largely due to injuries), the Sixers are now right in the mix with the top of the East. Philly is only two games behind No. 1 Boston in the loss column despite Embiid and Harden playing only 15 games together. And in those 15 games, the team has a stellar 9.8 net rating with its star twosome on the floor. Both have playoff demons to answer for come spring. It would be unfair to say those two have not impressed to close 2022, though.
Loser: Knicks Statement Game
Kind of a bummer for New York to lose. The Knicks have now lost three in a row after an eight-game win streak against mostly meh competition—Cleveland game notwithstanding, I don’t want to take away from what the Knicks have done over the last month. The rotation has tightened and looks good. Julius Randle is finding his place alongside Jalen Brunson. And R.J. Barrett is playing better as well. This group is markedly better than the one we’ve seen the last two seasons. They’ll get more high-profile chances to prove they can hang with the East’s elite.
Winner: The Dirk Statue
That fadeaway is art.
Loser: Doubling Luka Dončić
The Lakers kept sending two at Luka on Christmas, and he handed out gifts to his shooters like the Amazon Prime delivery gu—I mean Santa. Dallas shot 18-of-44 from three, as Luka generated great look after great look. It sounds counterintuitive, but I really think teams need to let him score 50 and try to stay at home on the supporting cast. The Lakers especially cannot afford to get into a three-point shootout. It’s a math problem Los Angeles will almost always never be on the right side of.
Winner: GMs in Rob Pelinka’s DMs
The Lakers have to make a move, right? LeBron James was a plus-two in the nine-point loss to Dallas. (Russell Westbrook was somehow a minus-30 in 24 minutes.) The Lakers are not a total lost cause. LeBron can still hoop. This team can’t afford to fall behind much further. Just trade those damn first-round picks already.
Loser: People who Wrote About Milwaukee’s Improved Three-Point Defense
It’s me, I’m the loser. The Bucks have spent this season trying to take away the deep ball from opponents, and for the most part, they’ve been much more successful than in years past. That all went away against the Celtics, who launched 39 threes against the Bucks and hit a robust 19 of them. (That’s roughly six more than Giannis and Co. typically give up.) Boston’s offense, which dropped 139 points, looked like the unit that was on a historic pace to start the season, and not the one that has stumbled a bit in December. My desire to see these teams match up in the playoffs has not gone away. And obviously, Khris Middleton’s absence once again played a significant role for Milwaukee, especially with Giannis having an inefficient night.
It will be very interesting to see what adjustments the Bucks make for the next matchup, or if simply having a healthier team will make a big difference. It had to be encouraging for Boston to continue to generate good looks against Milwaukee. The gap in the East has closed since the start of the month, but Boston sent a message to just about everyone with a very convincing win.
The next Warriors–Grizzlies game cannot come fast enough. Trash talk! Technicals! Taunting! That was an absolutely thrilling game between two teams who do not like each other. Even without Stephen Curry on the floor, Golden State and Memphis absolutely delivered in terms of entertainment.
Loser: “I’m fine in the West”
I don’t mind Ja Morant saying he’s not worried about anyone in the West—in fact I welcome it. I love how much the Grizzlies talk. I even love how much they go at the Warriors despite not having won anywhere close to their level. But for Memphis to lose to a Warriors team without Steph, and then for people to have the temerity to blame the refs or call Klay “weird” for having some words back … get a grip! The Grizz have to hold the very thorough L they took on Christmas. Let it fuel more hate, even. But they have to start with accepting that loss.
Memphis looked unserious defensively, frequently botching simple actions like guard-guard screens and letting the Dubs’ role players grow confident with easy looks. Jaren Jackson Jr. apparently Freaky Friday’d back into the rookie version of JJJ who can’t play 30 seconds without fouling. The shooters couldn’t shoot. The Warriors played with something to prove on Christmas and they earned every single last one of their taunts against the Grizzlies. Memphis will have its chance at redemption, and ultimately the playoffs is the only scorecard that matters. The reality, though, is the Grizz asked for this specific Christmas game, antagonized the Warriors on multiple occasions, and got convincingly outplayed by a team that’s typically a JV squad without Steph. Hard to take a more complete L than that, no matter how some may try to spin it.
Winner: Slam Dunks
Aaron Gordon made at least a few thousand people accidentally wake up their sleeping family members with uncontrollable screams when he briefly turned Landry Shamet into Landry please-don’t-slam-it with his late-game, late-night dunk against the Suns. That was one of the best in-game jams I’ve ever seen. Poor Shamet, who played one of the best games of his career and put his body on the line against a much bigger human in an important moment with nothing to show for it except being on the wrong end of a long stream of photos, videos and gifs.
Loser: Young Thug’s verse on “Mixtape”
“I’m ballin’ on you like I’m Chris Paul” means something a lot different in late 2022 than it meant even earlier this spring. CP3 just hasn’t been able to take over games consistently for the Suns so far this season. With Devin Booker leaving Sunday’s game after reinjuring his groin, Phoenix valiantly battled against Denver. Late in the fourth and in OT, Paul couldn’t quite muster up enough magic to close the game. He missed a free throw and a couple signature midrange jumpers in the final minutes of the fourth, then clanked two more free throws and a pull-up three in the extra period. Paul looked gassed, and was laboring to get his body across halfcourt.
It’s asking a lot for CP to carry the team with Booker out. At the same time, the Suns desperately need him to provide like a star in late-game situations, especially when role players like Damion Lee and Shamet have kept the squad afloat until then. It was only earlier this calendar year Paul closed out the Pelicans with a 14-of-14 elimination game performance. Will we see that version of CP3 again? I hope so. For now, Paul is enduring the worst shooting and scoring season of his career. With Phoenix on the ropes and dealing with injuries, it’s a necessity for him to turn it around.
Winner: Nikola Jokić’s MVP Case
The Joker put up a casual 41 points, 15 rebounds and 15 assists vs. the Suns. Last year, the NBA wouldn’t even give this man a Christmas game, a first for a defending MVP since the league made Dec. 25 a quintuple header. It’s unfortunate Jokić was relegated to the final game of the night Sunday, because his display of brilliance deserved a better showcase. Jokić is now averaging 25.4 points, 11.0 rebounds and 9.4 assists a contest. Nobody else in the league meets those benchmarks. And of all the players scoring at least 25 a night, Jokić is first in field goal percentage. The dude is a machine, and his play hasn’t dropped off at all since last season. It’s no surprise with his best teammates finally healthy, Jokić has the Nuggets in first place. On the NBA’s biggest day, nobody outplayed Jokić.