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Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Christmas Day 2018: What to watch for in each Christmas Day Game

With five games on the slate for Christmas, there's going to be plenty to watch in the NBA.

Giannis in Madison Square Garden, an MVP showdown in Houston, a revival of the NBA's best rivalry, another LeBron-Warriors Christmas classic and a Damian Lillard vs. Donovan Mitchell showdown.

Beyond the surface level intrigue, let's take a look at the most important thing on the floor to watch in each Christmas Day game.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. New York Knicks

What to watch: Giannis Antetokounmpo in the paint

Giannis Antetokounmpo still doesn't have a reliable jump shot, but it doesn't matter. Already one of the best scorers in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks have made the two-time All-Star practically unstoppable this season by surrounding him with four perimeter players at all times.

As a result, Antetokounmpo is scoring and dunking on opponents in a way we haven't seen from a certain Hall of Famer in the early 2000s.

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MORE: Antetokounmpo is playing like a modern-day Shaq

According to NBA.com, Antetokounmpo is generating 17.9 of the 26.2 points he's scoring on a nightly basis in the paint. Not only does that lead the league, it does so by a massive margin.

That's bad news for a New York Knicks team that is giving up the third-most paint points per game so far this season.

The solution isn't to simply load up on Antetokounmpo either. Antetokounmpo is a more than capable passer - he is creating almost the same number of points for his teammates this season as LeBron James - and the Bucks trail only the Houston Rockets in 3-point attempts per game and rank in the middle of the pack in converting those opportunities.

If teams send multiple defenders at Antetokounmpo to prevent him from getting to the basket, his teammates will feast on wide open looks.

With the amount of problems Antetokounmpo creates on offense, it's no wonder why he's widely considered to be the front-runner for MVP.

Houston Rockets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

What to watch: Points off of turnovers

Teams can't afford to be careless with the ball around the Oklahoma City Thunder. According to NBA.com, the Thunder are leading the way this season in the amount of turnovers they're creating per game and the amount of points they're scoring off of those turnovers.

A lot of those baskets come in the same way, starting with Russell Westbrook or Paul George coming up with a steal or deflection. (Westbrook currently ranks first in steals per game and George ranks third. It's a similar case with deflections, with Westbrook and George ranking second and seventh respectively in that category).

Once either of them have secured the ball, it's off to the races for one of - if not the most - athletic team in the league.

The Houston Rockets rank in the bottom half of the league in turnovers per game but the top half in turnover percentage, the result of them playing at one of the slowest paces.

A big reason for that is James Harden, who is leading the league with 5.3 turnovers per game.

With Chris Paul expected to miss at least two weeks with a hamstring injury - ruling him out for this game - expect Oklahoma City to throw everything they have at Harden defensively.

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics

What to watch: How the Celtics defend Joel Embiid

At full strength, the Boston Celtics have as close of an answer as there is to the Joel Embiid problem.

According to matchup date pulled from Ian Levy of Nylon Calculus, Al Horford defended the one-time All-Star better than almost any player last season. Backup centre Aron Baynes wasn't quite as effective, but, as Levy noted, "he held Embiid slightly below his regular scoring average and held him to just 46.4 percent from the field."

The matchup data isn't always a perfect representation of how well a player or team defends a certain player, but this is one of the cases where the eye test backs it up.

Even though he gives up a couple of inches to Embiid, Horford has the strength to fight with Embiid in the post and the length to contest his shots around the basket. He is also an incredibly smart defender who rarely falls for Embiid's fakes, which helps keep Embiid off the free throw line, where he has been punishing teams this season.

Baynes has similar physical tool, only he outweighs Horford by 15 pounds.

The Australian puts that weight advantage to good use when matched up with Embiid by making him work for every shot.

The issue for the Celtics is Horford just returned from missing seven straight games with knee soreness and Baynes is expected to miss four to six weeks after breaking his finger on Dec. 19.

With Horford limited and Baynes unable to play, will Boston be able to contain the most dominant big man in the game?

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Golden State Warriors

What to watch: LeBron James' pull-up

Remember when teams would live with LeBron James shooting jumpers? Those days are long gone.

LeBron has already made 48 3-pointers off the dribble this season, putting him behind only Damian Lillard (60), Kemba Walker (66) and James Harden (115) for most in the league. While he ranks behind a couple more players in pull-up 3s made per game, the only ones ahead of him who are making them at a higher percentage are Lillard and Stephen Curry.

It isn't a part of LeBron's game we've never seen before. We have just never seen him shoot this many pull-up 3s at this high of a rate.

LeBron James' evolution on pull-up 3s
Season Frequency 3PM 3PA 3PT%
2013-14 11.6% 0.7 2.0 33.6
2014-15 15.6% 0.9 2.8 33.7
2015-16 11.8% 0.6 2.1 30.2
2016-17 14.7% 0.9 2.5 34.9
2017-18 17.9% 1.2 3.3 36.2
2018-19 19.4% 1.4 3.8 38.4

LeBron is still one of the best scorers around the basket, so there isn't really anything teams can throw at him anymore that he isn't prepared for. If defenders give him a couple of feet of space in isolation or drop underneath the screen in a pick-and-roll, he will pull-up for a shot he's making at a 38.4 percent clip this season.

If they press up on him to take that shot away, well, you know.

The Golden State Warriors know LeBron better than most teams having played against him in four straight finals, but he continues to evolve as a 3-point shooter and he's in a new situation in Los Angeles.

Both factors add an interesting new wrinkle to one of the best rivalries in NBA history.

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Utah Jazz

What to watch: The midrange game

The Utah Jazz's defence is designed to keep opponents off the 3-point line, daring them to instead score from midrange or over the long arms of Rudy Gobert in the paint.

That scheme has helped turn the Jazz into an elite defensive team. Last season, they ranked first overall in defensive rating in surrendering 102.9 points per 100 possessions. This season, they rank seventh in giving up 105.3.

Most teams are reluctant to take a high volume of midrange shots nowadays - even if they are relatively open - but the Portland Trail Blazers aren't like most teams. They rank near the top of the league in the amount of shots they take from midrange per game and they're converting those opportunities at the third-highest rate.

Portland's success speaks to the shooting prowess of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. The only teammates combining to make more shots per game from that distance this season are Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in Golden State and DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge in San Antonio.

McCollum is more reliant on midrange pull-ups than Lillard, but Lillard is one of the more complete shooters in the game today. If he's given any sort of daylight coming off of a pick-and-roll, where he does the bulk of his scoring, he won't hesitate to let it fly.

With the way the Jazz defend, Christmas could end with Lillard and/or McCollum putting on a show.

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