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Binge-worthy day of NBA games a gift for hoops fans

December 25, 2018

The best gift for basketball fans might be the NBA’s Christmas slate of premier stars and dominant teams. This year’s noon-to-midnight lineup is no different, opening with a national showcase for one of the league’s most unique talents.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has become a leading contender for MVP while leading Milwaukee from wasteland to wonderland. On his Basketball Reference page, the 6-11 “Greek Freak” is listed as a “Shooting Guard and Point Guard and Power Forward and Small Forward.” He’ll display his remarkable versatility against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden.

(By the way, New York is neither a dominant team nor in possession of a premier star. But home games still take place at the “Mecca of Basketball,” a moniker that sticks even though the Knicks haven’t won a championship in more than 40 years. In this matchup, the arena is the co-star, not the home team.)

Milwaukee is playing on Christmas Day for the first time since 1977, and it’s more than a one-man band. Yes, Giannis leads the league in Player Impact Estimate (20.3), an efficiency rating that measures players’ overall statistical contribution. But no other NBA team has a better point differential. And no other NBA team is Top 5 in offensive efficiency as well as defensive efficiency.

Giannis Co. make a fine appetizer for the entres that follow.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma City-Houston has lost some luster due to the Rockets’ unexpected drop. They reached the Western Conference finals last season and were poised to upset Golden State before Chris Paul was injured but they have a flimsy hold on the No. 8 seed this season. Paul is injured again and won’t be available against the Thunder.

The battle between James Harden and Russell Westbrook will have to suffice. The former teammates have won the league’s last two MVP awards (2018 and 2017, respectively) and could have more in their future.

Next up are the participants from last season’s Eastern Conference finals. Philadelphia and Boston will face stiff competition to reach that level again, as they currently trail Milwaukee, Toronto and Indiana in the standings. But no other pairing matches this one for old-school bad blood, not to mention some of the sports top trash talkers.

Sixers center Joel Embiid is averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds per game, and recently expressed his disdain for shooting 3-pointers. Instead of camping out at the arc and proving spacing for non-shooters Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler, Embiid prefers to go down low and take advantage of the mismatch he enjoys against virtually every opponent.

The Celtics welcome center Al Horford’s return after a seven-game absence due to injury. He should decrease the need for intense team meetings after three-game losing streaks, like the one Boston held last weekend. Horford’s presence as an understated, underrated star is one of the Celtics’ greatest strengths and one of the league’s best examples of selflessness.

That leads us to the main course Lakers versus Warriors as understated as a kick in the pants.

LeBron James has made the Lakers relevant again and surprisingly competitive, while Golden State is cruising despite last month’s blowup between Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Opponents and non-fans can only hope that a rift prevents the Warriors from winning another NBA title, which would be their third consecutive and fourth in five in seasons.

“I know the hope is that incident will make us fall off, but it ain’t,” Green told ESPN recently. “It’ll never happen. We good.”

Perched in its familiar spot atop the Western Conference standings, the Warriors’ are challenged by internal dynamics more than external forces. Gearing up for 82 regular season games is difficult when a team uses championships to measure itself.

But Golden State won’t have a finding motivation against James in the primetime event. This marks the fourth consecutive Christmas that the Warriors have faced James, who is playing in his 11th consecutive game on the holiday. Old jeans aren’t as comfortable as these foes when they step in the spotlight.

The nightcap features Portland at Utah. That game might produce some fine basketball but let’s face it only hardcore hoops aficionados will care or stick around to watch. At least that’s the case on the biased East Coast.

Nevertheless, we’ve reached the NBA season’s real start. This annual marathon leads to the trade deadline, the playoff scramble and the postseason tournament, followed by the highly anticipated summer soap opera, “As the Free Agents Turn.” It’s possibly the last Christmas for several familiar faces that could be in new places next December.

Happy hoops holiday!

⦁ Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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