Dropping a Nickel On the Holidays

by Doobie Okon

It’s that snowy, disturbingly cold time of the year again so we’re guaranteed some marquee games on the NBA schedule. So while your friends and family are opening presents or caroling or celebrating 2010’s imminent arrival, you can stay glued to your TV screen with these:

1) Celtics at Magic: Fri, 12/25, 2:30 (ET), National TV: ABC

Sure, a scintillating Christmas Day matchup between two of the East’s best should be motivation enough for both teams. However, the Magic are in a unique position since they’ve had the Atlanta Hawks at their heels in the Southeast the entire season–which might be a good thing considering Orlando can’t take a night off for fear of losing the division lead. They started December 5-3, with the three losses being against the only winning teams in that stretch (Miami, Utah, Phoenix) but then rebounded nicely with two home victories against strong teams in the Blazers and Jazz. Jameer is finally back and Dwight Howard remains the standard at the center position, leading the league in rebounds (12.9) and blocks (2.4) while shooting an insane 63.1% from the field, good for second behind Boston’s Kendrick Perkins.

The Celtics are running away with the Atlantic–already sporting a 10.5 game lead over the second place Raptors. They certainly are the geriatric bunch, but with such a complete and unselfish team they don’t have to worry that KG’s numbers are down from past years. Boston’s defense remains staggering–they currently lead the League in points allowed at 92.0 per game and show no signs of slowing down, winning 13 of their last 14 games. So while the Celtics might be in cruise control at such an early juncture in the season, they have some extra motivation here since Orlando took round one on November 20th in Boston, 83-78.

Prediction: It’s hard to bet against either team these days, but with the pesky Hawks looming, I’ll give the slight edge to the Magic. Orlando by 4.

2) Cavaliers at Lakers: Fri, 12/25, 5:00 (ET), National TV: ABC

Don’t turn that dial. There shouldn’t be a moment to waste between the two ABC games as the latter features a must-see cross-conference battle featuring two of the NBA’s best teams and the two best players.

Has there ever been a more unique debate in sports than Kobe-LeBron? It seems every time one tries to stamp his name as the greatest, the other one-ups the following night. Bryant holds a slight edge in scoring (29.3 to LBJ’s 28.7) while James continues to do everything–rebound (6.8 rpg), rack up assists like a point guard (7.8 apg), all while greatly improving his shooting percentage to over 50% so far. So anytime these two stars go head-to-head, it should make for some thrilling television.

Like the Celtics, Cleveland already has the Central division title in their sights, holding a 7.5 game lead over Milwaukee. The Lakers seem like they have a nice cushion over the Phoenix Suns (5.5 games), but Phoenix is such a talented team that Los Angeles remains on their toes for now. The result–a 23-4 record where they’ve won 16 of their last 17. Since their one loss during that stretch in Utah, the Lakers have beaten five straight sub-.500 teams, so it shouldn’t be too difficult for the Bryant and co. to get fired up for this one.

Prediction: Anyone who isn’t excited to watch this game needs to be checked. I expect phenomenal performances by both LBJ and Kobe, but the Lakers are just too strong offensively. The game might be close throughout but Los Angeles will pull away in the fourth. Lakers by 9.

3) Mavericks at Nuggets: Sun, 12/27, 8:00 (ET)

A Western Conference showdown between its two best teams not named the Los Angeles Lakers. Both squads lead their respective divisions by small margins over multiple teams, as only 5.5 games separates Denver and the fourth-place Thunder in the Northwest, while 6.5 games is the gap in the Southwest between Dallas and last-place New Orleans.

Carmelo Anthony, the NBA’s leading scorer at 30.5 ppg, is just downright beastly this year, but his team can struggle at times going 3-4 in its last seven games.  The last two losses came against much weaker teams–the Hornets and Grizzlies–and their schedule doesn’t get any easier, with their next five against Atlanta, Portland, Dallas, Sacramento and Utah. Chauncey Billups will eventually be fine after the groin injury and should help the Nuggets stay more consistent once healthy.

I have to admit that I didn’t expect the Mavericks to be this impressive so far. But for what he gives you at his size, Dirk Nowitzki continues to be the most underrated player in the NBA in my eyes–and therefore Dallas goes as he goes. However, the Mavs have lost two out of three and are facing a resurgent Memphis Grizzlies (who beat Denver on Sunday) the day before this match-up with the Nuggets–so there’s definitely room for improvement as the holiday season passes.

Prediction: Mavericks by 2. This game could go either way, but if Billups is still struggling with the injury then Dallas has the advantage. ‘Melo-Dirk should be fun to watch.

4) Lakers at Suns: Mon, 12/28, 9:00 (ET)

Phoenix is in danger of losing any hope for a Pacific division title after a 4-7 December record currently has them 5.5 games back of Los Angeles. The absence of defense can rear its ugly head and there’s no better evidence than this Phoenix team. Sure, they feature a high powered offense but are giving up the second most points per game in the West. And all of this would be on a much lighter note had the Suns not suffered their first home loss to Cleveland on Monday–a game in which they were murdered in the fourth.

Except for the Knicks, all of Phoenix’s December losses have come against strong teams, but if they want to remain in the discussion of Western elites, they need to take care of business against the other ones. And being that the Suns are already 0-2 against the Lakers this year, here’s the bottom line–this is a huge game for the Phoenix. Not so much for L.A.

Prediction: I think the Suns come through with a big W at home. Phoenix by 5.

5)    Cavaliers at Hawks: Tues, 12/29, 7:00 (ET) // Hawks at Cavaliers: Weds, 12/30, 7:00 (ET)

A nice little holiday treat: a home and home series on consecutive nights between two of the East’s most exciting squads. Atlanta is one of my favorite teams this year, simply because many people don’t put guys like Joe Johnson and Josh Smith in the same category as some other stars around the league. They are beating everyone though and are doing it with a high-octane offense and a strong defense–Atlanta currently holds the second highest margin between points per game and points allowed at 8.9, behind the Celtics.

Jamal Crawford has been a great addition to the Hawks and is second on the team in scoring even though he’s the sixth man. And just like Crawford, the rest of team is embracing their roles as well and thats why I continue to say Atlanta has one of the best  starting units (plus the sixth man) in the entire league.

Cleveland is indeed running away with the Central, but their schedule is rough before the new year rolls by. So this home and home series should tell us much about both teams heading into 2010.

Prediction: Conventional wisdom says that they will probably split this series, so I’ll go with the home teams in both games. Hawks by 2 on Tuesday; Cavs by 8 on Wednesday.

Happy holidays and a happy new year to all.