Miami Heat: As if the country needed to be reminded, Sportsman of the Year LeBron James showed everyone what he is capable of doing on a nightly basis. James has scored 20-plus points in all 25 of the Heat’s games this season (third all-time), but everyone knows that scoring is just part of his lethal arsenal. James dropped 29 points (12-20 FG) but dished out 9 assists (against just 3 turnovers) and corralled 8 rebounds while displaying utter dominance against the Thunder. He picked his spots to score with such confidence and played with an uncontainable amount of energy, especially off the bounce. When he attacked, he did so with force and when the Thunder tried to load up to stop him, he made them pay. Christmas served as a reminder that at the end of the day, the road to the Larry O’Brien Trophy runs through Miami. See LeBron’s highlights above, along with his jaw-dropping one-handed, put-back slam on Serge Ibaka below:
Oklahoma City Thunder: They didn’t have their best game game (16 turnovers, 43 percent shooting) but fought until the end and had a chance to win in Miami. Russell Westbrook shot 5-19 but finished with 21 points in a frustrating outing, and Kevin Durant (33 points, 11-21 FG, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 4 TOs) wouldn’t let the Thunder go away down the stretch. Most encouraging for Thunder fans was they way in which he went at counterpart LeBron James. KD attacked the rim fearlessly, using deliberate off-the-bounce moves and long strides to get into the paint down the stretch, even with James on him. He has been criticized for not taking the ball to the hoop in clutch situations, but if Tuesday was any sign, Durant looks to be even more comfortable attacking during crunch time. James barely got the better of Durant in this one, and with these two playing at such a high level this season, it wouldn’t be a surprise to watch another Thunder-Heat series in June.
Sure, it’s getting old, but the fact that James played as brilliantly as he did and the Thunder were neck-and-neck with them on the road still says something. The Thunder will have to fight for everything this season in the Western Conference and potentially in the Finals. Tuesday afternoon’s matchup will likely serve as a reminder of the work that’s still ahead at both ends of the court if they’re going to dethrone the Heat or anybody else they may face in June.
Houston Rockets: Houston is surging of late and one of the main reasons is that Jeremy Lin looks like he’s getting back into shape. Coming off surgery on his left MCL and playing with new teammates in a new system, Lin struggled for the first month of the season. During his last five games, however, Lin is averaging 16.4 points (55 percent shooting) and 7.6 assists per game (against just 2.4 TOs) and appears to have more control and confidence during his dribble-drive exploits. The Rockets are 4-1 during that span with solid wins over Memphis, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. Houston is on the road against Minnesota on Wednesday and San Antonio on Friday before heading home to face the Thunder and Hawks on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively. How Lin and his knee hold up – and how the Rockets fare during those four games – will say a lot about how the team feels about itself heading into the new year.
Chicago Bulls: Defense can only take you so far, especially when your defense is porous, as was the case against the Rockets, who were clicking on all cylinders. The Bulls have scored 100-plus points just five times this season and not surprisingly, they are 5-0 in those games. But when you average 92.8 points per game (26th in the NBA), it’s tough to win a shootout with a team as hot as the Rockets were. Some nights the Bulls get outgunned, and if their defense doesn’t prevent it, more often than not there’s not a thing they can do about it due to their lack of firepower without Derrick Rose, who hopefully is going to return at some point this season.
Los Angeles Clippers: They just keep winning games and, as Billy Crystal pointed out in the second quarter during a guest appearance in the telecast, are yet to add “basketball years and intelligence” in the form of Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill, which will make one of the NBA’s deepest teams even deeper. Crystal did bring up another topic that’s worth discussing: Last season, Chris Paul helped to turn the Clippers around from being a 32-50 lottery team into a second round playoff team. Paul was a noteworthy MVP candidate, but nobody actually believed he would win the award. With the Clips on a franchise-best 14 game win streak, now seems about as good a time as any to campaign for the dominant point guard out west and Crystal made his opinion count as the Clippers handled the Nuggets, 112-100. Paul’s numbers won’t stagger you (well, his 26.54 PER might), but he’s the most efficient point guard in the NBA. The competitive spirit he has brought to Los Angeles has been infectious within an organization that’s been mired in a losing culture for decades. As Crystal pointed out, Paul “might be the best we’ve ever had.” That’s a true Clippers fan.
Denver Nuggets: The wing production they received on Christmas is far too indicative of how the season’s played out for Danilo Gallinari and Andre Igoudala. Gallinari shot 1-10 from the floor and finished with 7 points while Igoudala didn’t do much more, converting 4-9 for 9 points. Corey Brewer wasn’t much help either, going 0-2 in 21 minutes. The lone bright spot on the wing was Jordan Hamilton, who scored 17 points on 7-9 shooting, and looked sharp in doing so. If the wing trio of Gallinari, Igoudala and Brewer doesn’t produce offensively, Hamilton could be used to get things going on a more regular basis. However, he is more of a liability at the defensive end than the other three wings. Coach George Karl will likely have to continue to pick and choose his spots with regards to Hamilton as the season progresses.
Jeremy Bauman is an aspiring scout and shooting coach. After covering last June’s NBA finals for this site, he’ll be blogging for SheridanHoops.com weekday mornings during the 2012-13 basketball season. Follow him on Twitter.