As the entire basketball universe will be fixated to their TVs today to finally witness this season commence, there are several underrated gifts under the Christmas tree to unwrap as well. While the league’s brightest stars will be going at it throughout the five-game docket, every hoops junkie should also pay attention to some of the other battles that’ll take place. Kind of like those unexpected cash envelopes you receive from your distant aunt, uncle, or grandparents, the following 10 matchups will surely not disappoint.
Here are the top 10 underrated Christmas Day matchups. Enjoy these worthwhile, hidden presents.
Boston Celtics at New York Knicks
12:00 PM ET, Madison Square Garden
1. Ray Allen vs. Landry Fields
Beantown fans know that this Celtics squad is on its last legs and in desperate need of a youthful overhaul. With all the offseason speculation that Danny Ainge would make a blockbuster move to try and keep these vets in the “contender instead of pretender” category, their consistent backcourt comes back for another run â€” in spite of being the team’s most tradable assets. And as hard as it is to believe that he is now 36, Jesus Shuttlesworth still possesses the sweetest stroke in the game, having shot 52 percent from the field and a staggering 57 percent from downtown to go along with his 19 points a night during last year’s playoffs. His jumper alone against “defensive guru” Mike Woodson and the Knicks should be a sight to see as one opens up presents early Christmas morning.
How soon people forget how nice Landry Fields was prior to the ‘Melo trade. He was an early runner-up candidate to win ROY. But after one preseason game, Mike D’Antoni has already given praise to rookie Iman Shumpert.
“He might become a starting point, he might also become a starting two. I think it will depend more on his teammates more than what he does,” said D’Antoni.
So, it will be interesting to see how Landry responds throughout this season as his starting gig has been put up on notice. The fact that he crashes the boards so well at a little over six per game while shooting just under 40 percent from three-point land last season, his game should bode well in New York this year. That’s because, where shots outside from ‘Melo and STAT will definitely be at a premium – especially as BD works himself into shape – he’s a player that doesn’t need the rock often to score.
2. Brandon Bass vs. Jared Jeffries
Now that Jeff Green has been deemed medically ineligible to play this season because of a heart condition, the acquisition of Brandon Bass as a banger and only legitimate backup big will be critical to the C’s success this season. They traded Big Baby Davis for Bass in order to gain more toughness and productivity. For what it’s worth, Bass played 25 minutes in their preseason opener and scored nine points while grabbing five rebounds. I wouldn’t be surprised to see his numbers increase as he should see additional playing time during the weeks where games are piled on in this condescend season. KG can only be active so much, and Bass should bring the energy needed to try and keep this team afloat.
When New Yorkers hear the name Jared Jeffries, it’s usually followed by some kind of smirk or laugh. What is not so funny is the fact that the Knicks have no reliable safety net if STAT or Tyson Chandler goes down with injury at some point this season – unless you think Josh Harrelson is some kind of savior. Although his game is limited and unbearable to watch, Jeffries is the Knicks’ ultimate glue guy. Through getting timely charges and offensive rebounds, Jeffries performed this at 0.83 times per 48 minutes and third on the team, respectively, according to Stats, LLC. Such stats propelled him to earn the squad’s highest plus/minus point average at plus-3.6, which is three times better than that of ‘Melo! Whatever the reason, the Knicks are far better with him on the floor than off it.
Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks
2:30 PM ET, American Airlines Center
3. Udonis Haslem vs. Lamar Odom
Adding veteran Shane Battier to the mix should certainly the Heatles, however, it is the return to full health of Udonis Haslem that will prove to be the real difference maker. He played like a warrior during the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bulls. Since the Heat lacked the financial flexibility to address their center position, you should expect them to play a lot more small-ball with Chris Bosh at the five and Haslem at the four to maximize their strengths this season. A complete season with him in the fold will ensure the grittiness and effort that Coach Spo’ emphasizes, and needs at the forefront.
If the Lakers are opening up their presents right now, they should look away from the screen in order to not see the invaluable gift they just gave the Mavs for free. The Goods will be thankful he landed in a winning situation as the Mavs unveil their championship banner on opening day. What they lost in rebounding and locker room presence from Chandler, L.O. will more than make that up on his own. Odom is a winner whose versatile game paired with Dirk should present problems for the Heat and the rest of the league to handle on the defensive end, especially when he’s paired with Dirk. Hope Kobe and the Lakers don’t watch too much of this game.
4. Norris Cole vs. Roddy Beaubois
Another position of need for the Heat was point guard. Before letting Mike Bibby walk and re-signing Mario Chalmers to be the starter, the Heatles traded up to the 28th pick in the first round of the draft to get their hands on Norris Cole out of Cleveland State. Pat Riley wants the Heat to pick up the pace this year even more, and Cole will be the sparkplug off the bench needed for that. To shed light on just how fast he is, Cole recorded dime dimes (with four turnovers) in just 21 minutes of play during his preseason debut. If he pushes the tempo and meets the high regards that Riley has of him, it’ll surely be a Cole World hitting South Beach.
He only played in 28 games last year, yet I’m sure Mark Cuban felt pretty at ease to let J.J. Barea head to ‘Sota knowing that he still had this French kid to pick up the slack. As J-Kidd begins his graceful bow out of the game, Roddy looks to be the successor-in-waiting and I’ve been waiting to see him play meaningful minutes to justify his virtually untouchable status on the Mavs. Without much youth on this aging roster, Roddy’s role in the second unit will be instrumental for any hope to repeat as champs this season.
Chicago Bulls vs. Los Angeles Lakers
5 PM ET, Staples Center
5. Luol Deng vs. Entire Lakers SF Platoon
Here at Dime, we recently recognized Luol Deng as one of the top small forwards in the league today. That said, he continually is underrated and underappreciated by fans. I agree with Sean Sweeney’s contention that “You’d have a case for putting him ahead of Iguodala on the NBA’s All-Defensive Second Team last year.” He’ll more than likely be given the task to guard Kobe for the majority of this game, plus score over 15 points for the Bulls to win in L.A. Although his scoring average will likely drop this season due to the addition of Rip Hamilton and a greater responsibility to feed C-Booz, Deng shall steadfastly remain a dependable player as the Bulls attempt to finish first in the East standings again.
Mike Brown still doesn’t have a clue whether he wants to start veteran Matt Barnes, unproven Devin Ebanks, or the eccentric Metta World Peace at the three. One thing is for certain though: Each one of these cats must hold their own defensively to guard the opposition’s best perimeter wing player because Kobe’s days of saving the day on both ends of the floor for 48 minutes are over. Outside of the point guard situation and overall depth, the Lakers’ small forward contributions will be in question on a nightly basis if these three players don’t step up and take the challenge. Deng is a nice measuring stick to get an initial gauge on what their small forward rotation could be moving forward and how each can pitch in to help the invariably-perceived lack of talent surrounding Kobe.
6. Taj Gibson vs. Josh McRoberts
I wonder if Udonis Haslem looks at Taj Gibson and can’t help but see a younger version of himself? Because of his tenacious defensive, hustle and throw-downs like these, Taj has cemented his place as a fixture in the Bulls’ rotation. Oftentimes last season, the Bulls were better off having Taj playing alongside Joakim Noah than C-Booz, especially in the playoffs. One could definitely make a case that the threesome between him, Deng and Noah is the league’s best defensive frontcourt right now. Taj will continue to be a major reason why the Bulls are a legitimate contender.
Josh McRoberts has the improbable task to replace The Goods as the Lakers’ best big man off the bench this season. On a Laker team that doesn’t have much athleticism to begin with, his bounce will be needed. On his lone bucket during his preseason Laker debut, he did show off his springs. Although his game is nowhere near as polished or as impactful as L.O.’s, McRoberts must rise to the occasion and perform consistently right away if the Lakers have any real shot of contending this year. He’ll get his chance from the onset while Bynum serves his four-game suspension.
Orlando Magic vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
8 PM ET, Chesapeake Energy Arena
7. Jason Richardson vs. James Harden
Maybe J-Rich didn’t get an offer that he liked from a real contender, but I thought he should’ve taken a pay cut and joined the Bulls – I guess he means a lot to Otis Smith to re-sign him to a four-year, $25 million deal. He is primarily a spot-up shooter nowadays and only averaged a measly 10 points on a poor 33 percent from the field during the playoffs (It wasn’t any better from three-point land at 32 percent.). Nevertheless, if Smith is banking on J-Rich to somehow transform back to his high-flying days with the Warriors in order to convince Dwight to stay long-term… it is not happening.
Whether he is coming off the bench or starting, it is a moot point because James Harden will receive starter minutes anyways and be playing most of the fourth quarters. Dime has ranked him third among players and teams primed to breakout this season in current issue #66, and Harden is about to show the basketball universe what he has been doing all summer long. He’s on the cusp of belonging among the top 10 shooting guards in the league, if not the top five. The way he controls the game and seemingly knows what’s the best option offensively had people questioning whether he should play the point during crunch time instead of Westbrook in last year’s playoffs. Harden is bound to blow up to the national scene and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a nod by the coaches to play in the All-Star Game.
8. Big Baby Davis vs. Serge Ibaka
Otis Smith apparently likes to dole out money as if he is makin’ it rain in the club. The Cs had zero interest in signing Big Baby to an extension, let alone to the tune of four years and $26 million. I am not sure how much Davis’ play could help convince D12 to stay (the two are great friends), but adding him to the mix in Orlando should give them another big besides Ryan Anderson that could knock down a 15-footer. The fact that he likes to actively take charges could be a nice compliment next to Dwight on the defensive end. However, pretty soon Magic fans may hope he isn’t the only jovial big guy they have to cheer for.
Serge Ibaka led the league in total blocks last season with 198 and finished third in per game blocks at 2.42. His ceiling is extremely high as he has progressed nicely in first couple of seasons. He is expected to take his game to greater heights this season. While Ibaka’s defensive is already solid, he now needs his offense to exponentially develop to the point that he is a threat on the block next to Perkins rather than just a shot-blocking presence. If the Thunder have one area to seriously address this season in order to reach The Finals, it is reliable scoring in the paint. Ibaka must now take it upon himself and become an elite two-way player.