Time to get caught up

The post-Christmas NBA Guide

NBA Action is heating up heading into the new year. Photo by Paul Muth

It's jokingly understood that most people believe basketball doesn't really begin until after Christmas, and as football winds down for all but the NFL's playoff bound the spotlight is ever so slightly beginning to tilt towards the NBA. So instead of bugging your friends about how you totally almost won your fantasy league, maybe try striking up a conversation about something other people might actually be interested in. Here's a quick recap of what you need to know that you probably missed leading up to Christmas.

The Good Teams

Golden State Warriors - Yeah, they're still good, but they've been mortal this season. They have wrestled different teams at the top of the Western Conference standings all season season long and Christmas Day they were blown out by the Lakers who only had LeBron for one half of basketball. That marked their 12th loss this season, whereas last season it took until February to reach a dozen losses for the Dubs. They're still the favorites, but at the moment, they are not a lock.

Toronto Raptors - Toronto lost their adopted son DeMar DeRozan in a trade during the offseason with San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. Fans were furious with the organization until the team started playing basketball and melting faces. Suddenly that DeRozan thing isn't such a big deal after all. Toronto holds the best record in the league, and Leonard leads the team in points per game (26.9), rebounds per game (8.4), and steals per game (1.8). The Raptors are legit.

Denver Nuggets - Yes, the team that lost out on a playoff spot in overtime on the last game of the season last year is now one of the best teams in the NBA. Spurred by the young backcourt of Jamal Murray and Gary Harris, and anchored by one of the most underrated stars in center Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets exploded to a 9-1 start. Jokic is leading the second best team in the West in...well...everything. Seriously, though, he is averaging 17.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, and 1.5 steals. They're a little hurt at the moment, but the return of Will Barton should be a boost. This Nuggets team isn't a fluke.

Milwaukee Bucks - It wasn't too long ago that the Bucks making this section would draw a double-take, but as long as my favorite player in the game, Giannis Antetokounmpo, is dribbling for Milwaukee this team will remain relevant. The Greek Freak has morphed into one of the greatest players in the league and is an early leading candidate in the MVP race.

Other good teams - Oklahoma City looks great in Paul George's second year with the Thunder, Boston is one of the deepest teams that's finally getting healthy and figuring out their rotation, and Philadelphia looks like they could be scary if they let Joel Embiid carry the team.

If you're wondering about Houston, they've been OK. They're not out of it, but they don't look as good as last year so far.

Way-too-early MVP candidates

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo - NBA fan or no, you owe it to yourself to watch the Greek Freak play. Maybe a year or two away from becoming the best player in the league.
  • Kawhi Leonard - Whatever leg problem kept him out last season, he looks to be very healthy. He's the best player on the best team.
  • Joel Embiid - Embiid has been an absolute force in the paint, averaging 26.6 points and 13.2 rebounds.
  • Stephen Curry - It's Stephen Curry, he's just doing what he always does.
  • Nikola Jokic - The Nuggets center is nearly averaging a triple-double.

Other notables: Lebron James, James Harden, Anthony Davis

Rookies that actually look good

  • Luka Doncic, SF, Dallas Mavericks - Dallas replaces a foreign Hall of Famer with what looks like his heir-apparent. Doncic is already a terror (19 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 5.1 apg) and he's only 19.
  • Jaren Jackson Jr., PF, Memphis Grizzlies - Stud defender, stat-sheet stuffer, could be great.
  • Deandre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns - Capable Scorer, great rebounder, you won't see him play for a while though because he plays in Phoenix.
  • Trae Young, PG, Atlanta Hawks - His scoring ability carried over from college, averaging 15.5 points per game to go with 7.2 assists per.

Top storylines so far

Scoring - New 'Freedom of Movement' rule implemented by the league has been widely accepted as the reason for a massive surge in scoring this season. Last season six teams averaged 110+ points per game. This year that number has ballooned to 17. No, it's not a conspiracy, and yes it's fun to watch.

Jimmy Butler - Butler headlines held the league hostage for most of the first month of the season until he was finally traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. Seeing how Butler's role and fit alongside the youngsters Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid will be worth keeping an eye on throughout the season.

Western parity - As long as most can remember the Western Conference has been a dominant top-heavy force. That's hardly the case this year. While the Eastern Conference-leading Toronto Raptors enjoy an 8.5-game lead on their 8th seed, you would have to travel down to the 15th seed to find the same disparity. Every team in playoff contention right now could seize the lead within four games, leading to a truly wild west.

Ok now you have got the gist of the season so far. Now for everyone's sake please stop talking about your fantasy team.

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RAVENS 33, TEXANS 16

5 observations from the Ravens win over the Texans

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Let's be honest; the Texans were not going to beat the Ravens. Baltimore has better players, a better quarterback and a better coaching staff. (And oh, a better kicker). All of that was on display in the Ravens' 33-16 win.

The Ravens move to 2-0, while the Texans dropped to 0-2 after facing the AFC's two best teams.

The Texans will still likely contend for a playoff spot, but nothing the last two weeks indicates they are anywhere near contending in the AFC. A look at five things from the Ravens win:

1) Oh, Brien...It did not take long for Bill O'Brien's goofy coaching to rear its ugly head. Down 3-0 at their own 34 as the first quarter was running out, O'Brien chose to go for it on fourth and one. The play was predictably blown up, the Ravens quickly scored to make it 10-0, and the Texans were instantly in a hole against a superior opponent. You can't give points away against the Ravens. They might have scored anyway with a punt, but there was no stopping them with a short field.

2) Some positives on defense. Despite the score, The Texans looked much better on that side of the ball against an explosive offense. J.J. Watt had two sacks, the team had four total, and they kept Lamar Jackson from destroying them. Seven of the points were scored by the Ravens defense, and O'Brien's gaffe led to seven more. The Ravens wore them down in the fourth quarter, but they played well enough until then to keep the team in the game had the offense been better. They did not force any turnovers, however, and that was one of the differences in the game. They were also blown off the ball on a fourth and one in the fourth quarter that led to the Ravens' 30th points and could not stop the run at all in the fourth quarter. But that's what the Ravens do with a lead, and the Texans offense gave them no breaks by being unable to stay on the field.

3) The difference between real contenders...The Ravens were just so much more skilled on both sides of the ball. Defensively, they focused on taking away the run. David Johnson averaged 3.1 yards per carry. Will Fuller had as many catches as you did. The Ravens forced two turnovers on just really good football plays. The Texans don't make plays like that. They might against lesser teams, but if your goal is to compete with the best, it's just not good enough.

4) Deshaun Watson needs to be better. His numbers looked so so on the surface (25 of 36, 275 yards, 1 TD, 1 interception). He was sacked four times and added 17 rushing yards on five carries. He did not make plays late when they needed one here or there to maybe get back in the game. With his big contract, it's time for Watson to stop being close to elite and take the next step. His interception was more of being fooled by Marcus Peters than throwing a bad ball, but the Texans were just 3 of 9 on third downs. Throw in the ill-advised fourth down play, and they were just 3 of 10 extending drives. Give the Ravens a lot of credit, but again, to compete with the best, you have to be better than that.

5) Now what? The Texans travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers, who have not been impressive in their two wins. Still, it's hard to see Houston as anything but serious underdogs. They are last in the AFC South, and have a lot of work to do. The defense showed some promise at times, but will have to continue to improve. The offense has a long way to go. They match up better with the Steelers than they do the Ravens and Chiefs, but that does not mean they can win. If you were hoping they would give you some indication they can be more than just also-rans, they failed to do that on any level against either the Chiefs or Ravens.

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