Good morning, I’m Josh Rosenblat. The NBA is in good hands.
In today’s SI:AM:
???? Luka’s big game
????️ What does the emergence of LIV Golf mean?
???? Tom Verducci on MLB’s contractual paradox
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The NBA’s brightest stars
Christmas Day can typically signal to basketball fans that it’s time to lock in on the NBA. With the season approaching its midway point, narratives have begun to take shape both around the league’s breakout players and the state of its franchises. And when it comes to those players, no two have shone brighter than Jayson Tatum and Luka Dončić.
Take last night as a microcosm. With Tatum’s Celtics hosting the Rockets, the internet was abuzz with the 24-year-old forward’s performance. He poured in 38 points in 34 minutes leading his team to a 24-point win. The diversity with which he scores is impressive. He is a lethal transition player, who, nightly it seems, is looking to posterize a defender with a vicious dunk. Tatum is a solid isolation player, but where his offensive skill set really seems to thrive is when the Celtics’ offense utilizes his intelligence as an off-ball cutter and screener. In his last six games, Tatum is averaging 37.5 points per contest, shooting more than 90% from the line on nearly 11 attempts, and making over half of his shots. Oh, don’t forget the 4.5 assists and seven-plus rebounds he’s also contributing over that stretch.
Tatum is leading an offense that’s the top unit in the NBA this season, dropping 117 points per 100 possessions. After last night’s win, the Celtics have stretched their lead in the Eastern Conference over the Bucks to two games and look poised to continue to add to their league-leading 25 wins on the season despite a rocky 7–6 stretch this month.
But Tatum’s hold over the basketball internet could last only so long.
As Boston put away Houston, the Knicks and Mavericks tipped off in Dallas in what would become a historic game for the 23-year-old Dončić. The sheer numbers are staggering: 60 points, 21 rebounds and 10 assists in 47 minutes, leading the Mavs to a 126–121 overtime win. He’s the first player in league history to put up those numbers, according to the NBA.
But the performance really has to be seen to be believed. Kevin Durant was one of many who weighed in on Dončić’s performance on Twitter, calling it “some video game s—.”
In a lot of ways, Dončić did what we’ve come to expect from him. He’s an impressive ball-dominant scorer, ruthlessly effective in changing pace to get to the rim (and get to the line, where he shot 22 free throws) or pull up for a jumper. He attacked the paint to kick the ball out to open shooters. He grabbed rebounds and began to push the ball up the court, orchestrating his team’s offense as if he knew exactly what was to come from New York’s defense.
Yet, this season in a lot of ways has been frustrating for Dallas. Despite Dončić’s MVP-level play, the Mavs find themselves in the middle of a crowded Western Conference, just four games out of first but 2.5 games from falling out of the playoffs entirely. And it seemed like they’d drop another game last night.
With 44 seconds left in regulation, Dallas was down 9. Dončić then proceeded to score or assist on 12 of the Mavericks’ final 15 points in that stretch, including an incredible sequence with just a few seconds remaining where Dončić intentionally missed a free throw down two points, grabbed the contested rebound and made a jumper before time expired to send the game to overtime tied at 115. Dončić closed out the Knicks in the extra period to secure the win.
With Dončić, Tatum and a bevy of other stars putting in epic performances on a nightly basis, the NBA seems poised for a monster second half. Between those two, back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid and others, this season’s MVP race is going to be heated, Rohan Nadkarni writes.
“I’m not suggesting we go out of our way to nitpick everyone’s games,” he writes. “Finding the differences between these players will be a fool’s errand. Let’s just marvel at all the talent at the top of the league.”
The best of Sports Illustrated:
But LIV is not about revolutionizing a sport. It’s about something else. Yes, it’s about sportswashing and some form of reputation laundering or tourism advertising for Saudi Arabia’s government. But, really, its purpose is bigger (or smaller?) still. It’s just part of an international pissing contest. This is really just a story about egos.
Here are the odds, matchups and spreads for SI Sportsbook’s Perfect 10 contest in Week 17.
The top five…
… college football “bat signals” used by coaches to show their fan bases a recruit has committed, according to Dan Gartland:
5. Mario Cristobal (Miami): A GIF of Santana Moss.
4. James Franklin (Penn State): A slick school-produced video reference to the “red light.”
3. Dave Doeren (NC State): A reference to the “red light.”
2. Sonny Dykes (TCU): The Hypnotoad.
1. P.J. Fleck (Minnesota): An actual Bat-Signal GIF.
J.J. Watt announced that he would retire following this NFL season, marking an end to a dominant career. But few could have seen his success coming, especially considering where he started his college football career and what position he played. In which position did Watt primarily line up and for which school did he play for during the 2007 college football season?
Check tomorrow’s newsletter for the answer.
Friday’s SIQ: Dec. 23 is the anniversary of a famous game in NFL history, when the Steelers defeated the Raiders thanks to rookie running back Franco Harris. Harris, who died Dec. 21, completed the “Immaculate Reception” in the final seconds of the game, giving Pittsburgh the victory and a berth in the AFC championship game. What team did the Steelers face the next week with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line?
Answer: Harris and the Steelers had to go up against the famed 1972 Dolphins—the only team in NFL history to complete an undefeated season and win the Super Bowl. Miami outlasted Pittsburgh 21–17 to move its record to 16–0 before defeating Washington to finish off its perfect season.
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