There was plenty of basketball to watch on Christmas Day, 13 hours worth to be exact. What figured to be a disappointing slate of easily predictable outcomes turned out to be a surprisingly fun, upset-filled NBA gift. A Golden State Warriors team full of two-way and minimum contract players managed to beat James Harden, Russell Westbrook, and the rest of the Houston Rockets. Joel Embiid played grinch for Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks, leading to fans firing up all of the familiar “Bucks are a regular season team” takes. The solid, wing-heavy Boston Celtics comfortably beat an injury ravaged Raptors team and a newly rejuvenated New Orleans Pelicans squad pulled out a victory against the Denver Nuggets. And in the most anticipated game of the day, Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers outlasted and outshot LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. I enjoyed myself.

I viewed the Christmas day outcomes as a reminder of all there is to love about the NBA. Star-players duking it out for legacy supremacy and short-lived bragging rights. Yes, the regular season isn’t the most accurate prediction of playoff success, but it is still entertaining and compelling nonetheless. Wednesday’s games continued to reinforce my belief that, if you’re truly interested in the NBA, there is more than enough nightly entertainment to satisfy your intrigue.

 

Russell Westbrook Versus a Familiar Foe

Russell Westbrook can still be a force, specifically a positive force for the Houston Rockets and your fantasy team. He’s averaging 31.8 points a game in his last five contests and shooting 88.4 percent from the free-throw line in those games. Westbrook isn’t going to win you the field goal percentage category on a week-to-week basis, but his improving free-throw percentage could make him a more potent force for the rest of the season. Basketball Monster ranks Westbrook as a fifth-round value this season. His massive turnover numbers and poor field goal percentage drag down his value. If you punt field goal percentage and turnovers and refresh the player rankings on Monster, Westbrook jumps up to a second-round value. This is the player you want. This is the Russell Westbrook fantasy owners need. Last season, this player did not exist. Westbrook finished the 2018-19 season shooting 65.6 percent from the free-throw line. To this point in the season, Westbrook is shooting 79.1 percent from the free-throw line and trending up. If Westbrook can once again shoot 80 percent or better from the free-throw line, his value is greatly improved. He will score more efficiently and, more importantly, it should embolden him to attack the rim and embrace contact time and time again. To be an efficient scorer in the NBA you need to get to the free-throw line. This is NBA law. None of the top five scorers in the league average less than seven free-throw attempts a game. Russell Westbrook averages 6.5 free-throw attempts a game. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Westbrook’s free-throw attempts rise now that he seems to have recaptured his free-throw shooting ability.  

On the other hand, Russell Westbrook remains Russell Westbrook. Westbrook’s strengths are inextricable from his weaknesses. The relentlessness and aggression that define his game are consistently destructive—to the Rockets’ opponents and the Rockets themselves in almost equal measure. On December 25, 2019, the Golden State Warriors succeeded in baiting bad Russell Westbrook to come out and play. The Warriors, like many other teams this season, trapped James Harden just after he crossed half-court, forcing the ball into Westbrook’s hands and goading him into taking open three-pointers, something he’s never done well. Far too often Westbrook obliged, shooting 0 for 8 from three and a miserable 11 for 32 from the field overall. Westbrook has a rigid, complex, likely self-serving sense of morality that his self-image seems dubiously tied to. He’s immeasurably, even irrationally confident. Westbrook is meticulous and regimented, from his parking spots to his free-throw routine. Change, it appears, is not something that comes easily for Westbrook. He plays like the Juggernaut, and for a time he was the basketball equivalent, rampaging through every team’s defense like the Juggernaut chopping a house down to its foundation simply by running through every wall in the home. Suddenly, walls have a lot less give than Westbrook remembers. Suddenly, strategy seems less like a mild annoyance and more like a boulder on his back. I’m not sure whether it matters if Westbrook is unwilling or incapable of changing, both options are somewhat sad (as sad as anything centered around a made up game that people you don’t know play for millions of dollars can be) and unbelievably human. Some part of me feels bad for Westbrook. Another part of me can’t help but cackle as Westbrook bricks wide-open three after wide-open three, clanks lay-up after lay-up, and commits turnover after turnover because he consistently plays on the wrong side of the fast/out of control dividing line.

 

Quick-Hitting fantasy Updates:

Jaylen Brown is having his best season as a pro and could be (I’m undecided) the better of the two young wings in Boston. He certainly has been this year. For the season, Brown is averaging 20.2 points, 7 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and  1.1 steals, while shooting 51.4 percent from the field, 39.1 percent from three, and & 75.2 percent from the free-throw line (all career-highs). Brown put his improved shooting, ball-handling, and offensive feel on full display for a national TV audience on Christmas. He finished the tilt against the Raptors with 30 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists. The Celtics as a whole are in the midsts of a bounce back season as all of their best players (Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, and Marcus Smart) are having solid seasons, although Tatum’s percentages are bit down.

Romeo Langford isn’t producing much, but he played 20 minutes against the Raptors and is averaging 20.3 minutes in the Celtics’ last three contest.

Fred VanVleet appears to have found his footing again after struggling in his first few games back from injury. He had his best game since coming back with 27 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals against the Celtics.

Patrick McCaw is getting plenty of minutes (32 against the Celtics) and doing next to nothing with them. You would have to imagine the minutes disappearing soon.

Unless this Christmas Day game has a surprising hangover effect, Westbrook should return the intermittent brilliance of his previous games. You can’t count on high percentage shooting from him, but he should continue to provide points, steals, rebounds, assists and turnovers in large amounts. The return of Eric Gordon may depress his  numbers to a small degree, but there has been no force thrown against Westbrook in recent years that has prevented him from getting his numbers. I don’t see that changing now.

James Harden remains a maestro of the the hardwood. Even in a game in which he and the Houston Rockets lost to an injury-riddled and tanking Warriors team, Harden produced an impressive stat-line—24 points (9 of 18 from the field and 6 of 10 from three), 6 rebounds, 11 assists, and 3 steals. For the season, Harden is averaging 38.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists, 1.9 steals, 0.7 blocks, and 4.7 steals a game. He’s shooting 45.2 percent from the field, 87.5 percent from the line and 37.2 percent from three. His problems don’t exist in the statistical or fantasy sphere. He is lord of those intertwined realms. One wonders, however, how much he really cares about winning when he remains unwilling to defend or move at all after he passes to a teammate out of a double-team.

Willie Cauley-Stein looks his best when deployed in a switching defense. He’s his best-self on offense when deployed as a point-guard dependent role man in the pick-and-roll. He’s looked much better since D’Angelo Russell’s return to action and Draymond Green credited him with helping limit James Harden and the Rockets’ effectiveness on Christmas. I have long been a Cauley-Stein skeptic but he’s producing too well to allow bias to cloud your judgement. Ranked 49th by Yahoo and 70th by Basketball Monster, Cauley-Stein is giving you some production in every category. For the season, he’s averaging 8.3 points, 6.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 steals, and 1.5 blocks, while shooting 57.1 percent from the field and 63.2 percent from the free-throw line. The free-throw percentage is a bummer, but he only averages 1.3 attempts a game.

Eric Gordon is listed as day-to-day and could return as early as this Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans.

LeBron James didn’t look healthy to start the game and that never changed during the Los Angeles Lakers Christmas matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers came out victorious and LeBron came out more battered than he went in after taking a knee to the groin from Patrick Beverley. This is certainly something to monitor. LeBron missed a significant stretch of the season with a groin injury last year and he’s no spring chicken, going on 35 at the end of this month. LeBron was 2 of 12 from three and 9 of 24 overall and noticeably passive.

Kyle Kuzma had a 25 point break-out and, if LeBron were to miss time, it would stand to reason his usage and scoring if not his efficiency would rise.

Derrick Favors appears to be finding his form in New Orleans after battling through injuries and the tragic passing of his mother. Favors stuffed the stat-sheet on Christmas with 8 points, 13 rebounds, 8 assists, 1 steal, and 3 blocks. For those of you who traded for, held on to, or picked up Favors in your leagues, the payoff has arrived.

Jrue Holiday dominated the Denver Nuggets and all but won the assist category for fantasy teams this week. Holiday gave the Denver Nuggets, a team many experts believe should trade for him, an up close and personal look at what they’re missing out on. Here is Holiday’s Holiday stat-line: 20 points, 4 rebounds, 8 assists, and 6 steals. There is a great deal of trade buzz surrounding Jrue Holiday. Fans want to see him on a playoff team and up until the last few games (they’ve won three out of their last four) the Pelicans looked dead and buried. The Woj Watch for Jrue Holiday has begun.