Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 10:00 AM

Christmas NBA Essentials

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Merry Christmas! VI’s gift to you is this preview of Tuesday’s NBA holiday-five pack, complete with free leans. Happy holidays!

Milwaukee (-10, 227) at New York, ESPN, 12:05 ET

The Knicks (9-25 SU, 16-17-1 ATS) have been able to get their youth movement started in a season that was always going to unfold as it has, featuring plenty of losing and growing pains under David Fizdale with superstar forward Kristaps Porzingis rehabbing a torn ACL. The first-year Knicks coach has definitely gotten guys to play hard, supply an honest effort and compete for minutes but his team comes into this one losers in nine of 10. Reclamation project Emmanuel Mudiay has taken the reins at the point guard, scoring 32 or more points in three of the last five games. Rookie Kevin Knox has entered the starting lineup on Dec. 12 and has averaged 19.3 in the six games since gaining his promotion.

New York has only won once in those six games, which is one reason it is a double-digit underdog to open this quintuple-header. The Knicks have split their two meetings against the Bucks (22-10, ) this season, winning 136-134 on Dec. 1 behind 28 points from Mudiay and 26 off the bench from the 19-year-old Knox, whose five 3-pointers remain a season-best.

That loss was an important one for the Bucks since they were cruising along as one of the league’s top stories at the time, having won 15 of their first 21 games. Khris Middleton was benched by head coach Mike Budenholzer for the fourth quarter and OT in that loss over a lack of effort and then was held out of the next game despite no suspension officially being announced. The message was clear – the Bucks are too talented to be loafing around putting themselves in jeopardy of losing to teams they have no business struggling against.

Milwaukee is playing on Christmas Day for the first time since 1977 and has won seven of 10 since that OT shocker at the Garden. Middleton has shot himself out of his slump, point guard Eric Bledsoe has joined him in receiving All-Star consideration and Malcolm Brogdon has really come into his own, averaging 15.1 points and emerging as a surprise member of the 50-40-90 club, shooting 50.6 percent from the field, 44.7 percent from 3-point range and 98 percent from beyond the arc. Together with MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo (2-to-1 at Westgate LV Superbook), the Bucks have emerged as a viable threat to win the Eastern Conference, currently a 4-to-1 choice at Westgate (@SuperbookUSA on Twitter) behind only the Celtics and Raptors, both of which are 7-to-5.

Despite the strong start, this will be the first time many will get a look at a Bucks team since there are many casual fans who don’t pay attention until this annual Christmas tradition, which always coincides with the NFL wrapping up its regular season.

For our first present, totals expert Chris David of has arrived with a sack full of recommendations. David isn’t laying or taking the points in this game believes we could see the scoreboard operator working extra hard in the holiday opener.

“Betting the ‘under’ in NBA games on Christmas has become a popular lean for many but following that trend on this particular matchup may not be that easy,” David said. “The Knicks are a mess defensively and Milwaukee brings the top scoring offense in the league to Madison Square Garden plus I dug up a nice total angle that’s developed with New York this season.

“As double-digit underdogs this season, the Knicks have gone 2-8 SU and 5-5 ATS. In those games, the defense has really suffered (122.8 PPG) and that’s translated into an 8-2 ‘over’ mark. If you’re hesitant to shy away from the holiday ‘under’ lean, then I would recommend you to take a stab on the Bucks team total ‘over’ (118 ½).”

Milwaukee comes off a season-low 87 points in a Saturday night loss in Miami but had scored at least 120 in its previous two outings. New York has surrendered at least 110 points in 13 consecutive games. Brogdon and Knicks rookie Allonzo Trier are considered game-time decisions due to hamstring injuries.

Oklahoma City at Houston (-1.5, 221), ABC, 3:05 ET

The Thunder (21-11, 18-14) visit the Rockets (17-15, 14-17-1) for the second time this season and will look for a repeat performance to continue their ascent in taking Houston’s place as the league’s most viable threat to the Warriors. Although the Timberwolves snapped their four-game winning streak on Sunday night with a 114-112 upset in Oklahoma City, the Thunder open Tuesday one game behind Golden State, trailing the Nuggets by a half-game in the Northwest Division.

Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double again, having pulled off his ninth of the season against Minnesota. Surprisingly, his scoring clip is just 20.2 per game, since the most impactful tweak he’s made has been in allowing Paul George to assert himself and find his rhythm. George had one 30-point game over his first 12 games of the season but has 10 of them over the last 20. He’s averaging 32.8 points over the past 10 and scored 43 in consecutive games last week, so he’s clearly in rhythm and will be a priority for Houston to get a handle on. NBA expert Kevin Rogers points out that the Thunder has lost back-to-back games only once since an 0-4 start but knows there’s danger ahead given a number of trends favoring the home team.

“Since starting 0-4 at home, the Rockets have regained their home-court advantage at Toyota Center by posting a 10-1 mark in the last 11 opportunities,” said Rogers. “Houston has put together an 8-2-1 ATS mark in this stretch, including Saturday’s 108-101 victory over San Antonio as five-point favorites. The Rockets have dominated the Thunder at home since April 2014 by winning nine of the last 10 matchups at Toyota Center, although OKC won at Houston this past April.”

James Harden will have to be great in order for the Rockets to hold serve and has only averaged 23.8 points over his career on Christmas, the same clip as former teammate Westbrook. He was held to just 19 points in the lone meeting against OKC this season, shooting 7-for-19 despite Paul's presence next to him. Westbrook didn't even play so George did his best impression and finished with a triple-double in the 98-80 win on Nov. 8, Houston's lowest-scoring output of the season. OKC out-rebounded the Rockets 52-39.

Harden is averaging 32 points on the season and 39.7 over the last six games, so he’ll need a special performance since the Rockets remain without Chris Paul (hamstring) and are just 1-5 SU and ATS without their All-Star point guard. That win came on Saturday night in a 108-101 home win over the Spurs where they covered as 5.5-point favorites. Gerald Green provided a boost with 31 minutes off the bench. Either he or undrafted third-year wing Danuel House will find themselves on the floor in key roles with Harden, Eric Gordon, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela, so expect them to be x-factors.

Austin Rivers was officially signed on Monday and is expected to see minutes, so Harden will have a little more help with starting forward James Ennis III (hamstring) also sidelined. My expectation is that although he’ll probably be the day’s top scorer – see if your book has that prop available – the Rockets will come up short at home. Take the Thunder plus the points.

Philadelphia at Boston (-4, 223), ABC, 5:35 ET

With the Raptors currently setting the pace in the entire league with at 25-10 mark, there’s a good chance that these Atlantic Division rivals will be dueling for homecourt advantage from here until April. If Indiana keeps up its pace, the 76ers (22-12, 16-18) and Celtics (19-13, 16-16) could very well wind up the East’s 4-5 series, which means we could be referencing this meeting often over the next few months.

Boston won the first matchup in the season opener way back on Oct. 16 105-87, but that matchup didn’t feature Jimmy Butler, which is one reason why this Christmas clash is so important. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, the Celtics have won 15 of 17 regular-season meetings and are 19-3 when you include last season’s playoff meeting that the 76ers lost 4-1.

The hope is that Butler’s acquisition will help turn the tide in this series since he gives the team the closer it’s lacked, not to mention an elite defender to help contend with Boston’s many weapons. The 76ers are 13-4 with Butler in the lineup, so while there are still plenty of chemistry issues to solve, a “Big Three” featuring him and young standouts Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons carries plenty of potential. While the Celtics are the co-favorite to win the East (7/5), there’s great value in the 76ers at 6-to-1.

The 76ers crushed the depleted Raptors 126-101 on Saturday, and while that result is rather meaningless since Kawhi Leonard and Serge Ibaka were out of the lineup, there’s been progress made despite depth issues remaining a concern. On that end, Wilson Chandler (quad) is considered a game-time decision while former No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz remains out and his future with Philly is still a major question mark.

Boston welcomed Marcus Morris back to the lineup in Sunday’s 119-103 rout of the Hornets, which snapped a season-long three-game losing streak. The Celtics remain without center Aron Baynes (hand) and may therefore struggle to contain Embiid.

David believes that if you’re leaning to Philadelphia as an underdog, then a money-line play is justified at 3/2 odds (Bet $100 to win $150).

“Philly has caught points 10 times this season and the point-spread hasn’t mattered in any of the games. Granted, the 76ers haven’t been great as ‘dogs overall (4-6 SU, 4-6 ATS), their record is 3-2 since Jimmy Butler joined the club,” David said. “The Celtics have gone 10-4 at TD Garden this season when listed as favorites and they’ve covered nine of those victories. For me, it’s Boston minus the points or Philadelphia outright.”

The 76ers have only won once at TD Garden in 12 outings since the start of the 2014 season, posting an 89-80 win back in January. Kyrie Irving didn’t play in that contest.

L.A. Lakers at Golden State (-9, 235), ABC/ESPN, 8:05 ET

This is being billed as the Christmas present for the masses, which must be why it will be available on two networks. Since both teams have been pointing to this one since the schedule was released, the fact that the books have made Golden State such a heavy favorite is an indictment on LeBron James and what the Lakers have accomplished thus far.

After all, L.A. originally opened as 10.5-point underdog despite coming into this game completely healthy. James’ team has lost three of four, dropping road games against the Wizards and Nets before losing at home to the Grizzlies on Sunday night despite his 22 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists.

Golden State has won eight of 10 but has covered in just a single game over the past seven after surviving the Clippers 129-127 on Sunday night behind 42 points from Stephen Curry, who won the game in the final second. Kevin Durant added 35 points and 12 rebounds but critics still lamented why it’s taking so much effort to pull off wins against teams the Warriors typically dominate.

While you can’t please everyone, Golden State is the super team that seemingly can’t please anyone, so the expectation that the betting public would ride with James and his young Lakers teammates plus the points is likely what the books were going for when setting the spread where they did.

Warriors head coach Steve Kerr has been looking for a spark from the second unit and is now playing Curry with them, which is why his usage has been so high of late. Thompson shot 4-for-15 from the field against the Clips and teams have been intentionally leaving Draymond Green open so he’ll shoot, doubling others with great results. Green shot 4-for-12 last time out and is shooting 37 percent from the field since returning from an injury, shooting 5-for-19 from 3-point range (26 percent).

Green will undoubtedly be left open by design here, which means that he’ll have to knock down his clean looks if the Warriors are expected to win comfortably. While Curry is in a great rhythm, it’s Durant whose 31.1 points per game is the NBA’s top scoring average on Christmas among active players. He dropped 44 points on Denver in 2010 and may also be worth a look in a top-scorer prop.

LeBron comes in with a 26.8-points per game average on Dec. 25 but has had some excellent shooting games with the Lakers, shooting nearly 52 percent from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc in the purple and gold. L.A. is the deepest it has been this season with Brandon Ingram and Rajon Rondo back from injuries. Kyle Kuzma has emerged as James’ top scoring sidekick, but Lonzo Ball’s importance has also grown over the past few weeks as he begins to prove his worth as a defender, distributor and taker of clutch perimeter looks that will inevitably be increasingly available so long as he’s playing off the ball alongside James.

This is the Lakers’ biggest game of the season, so it will certainly be used as a measuring stick for what James can expect from his teammates going forward. The Cavs lost 12 of 13 games against the Warriors despite LeBron’s best efforts, covering only twice. He’s won eight of 12 career games on Christmas.

Golden State will also view this as a big game since it’s the final time they’ll spend the holiday in Oakland’s Oracle Arena, so count on a festive atmosphere. DeMarcus Cousins’ debut is next up on the list and won’t come here, so this Golden State team is just temporary. The same can’t be said for the Lakers, who should have centers JaVale McGee (flu) and Tyson Chandler (back) in the mix. Check on their availability prior to tip-off to ensure that the Lakers won’t be forced to go small before pulling the trigger on side or total.

Portland at Utah (-6, 214.5), ESPN, 10:35 ET

If you’ve still got an appetite for basketball after the main course, this should end up being a tasty dessert.

The Jazz just routed the Trail Blazers 120-90 last Friday night, which is the only setback that Portland has suffered over the past five games. This should certainly ensure Utah will get the Blazers’ best punch as the road team on the holiday. History certainly favors a strong performance since they’ve won 14 of 17 career games on Christmas.

Utah has won two of three games and has seen center Rudy Gobert impose his will of late. The Jazz are still waiting for Donovan Mitchell to straighten out his jump shot and be more efficient, but have started to figure some things out to crawl out from the hole they’ve dug for themselves.

David provided a winner to our VI users in our NBA Free Picks feature on Friday with the ‘under’ (213 ½) between Utah and Portland and he believes the trend will continue on Christmas.

“Including last Friday’s outcome, the ‘under’ has cashed in three straight and six of the past eight meetings between the pair. We’re also starting to see Utah get back to its defensive form recently," David said. "The club has held its last six opponents to 97 PPG and that’s led to a 6-0 ‘under’ streak heading into this game. Knowing Portland’s offense doesn’t travel as well, I’d expect another grinder on Tuesday.”

The Trail Blazers come into the game healthy and have been solid despite second-leading scoring guard C.J. McCollum slumping. He shot 5-for-15 from the field, while starting forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless combined to shoot 2-for-13. They'll look to get back on track as the Blazers aim to take their otherwise solid form into a crucial stretch.

"Portland is in the midst of a brutal schedule through January 5. The Blazers travel to Utah on Tuesday, followed by a home-and-home set with Golden State, then hosting Philadelphia to close out 2018. It’s not done yet, as Portland tips off 2019 by traveling to surprising Sacramento before hosting Oklahoma City and Houston on a back-to-back," said Rogers. "Fact of the matter is that the Blazers overcame a 1-6 stretch from late November through early December to remain in the mix of the Western Conference playoff race by winning six of the past nine contests. This upcoming stretch for Portland will definitely be one that the Blazers look back when April rolls around as one that can make or break a season."

Follow Tony Mejia on Twitter at @TonyMejiaNBA or e-mail him at [email protected]

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