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The state of the NBA at Christmas

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We still know the way this season will end, but the league finds new ways to get there.

The NBA is in a curious place. While the league continues to focus on an uncertain tomorrow, the present remains as fixed as ever.

The Golden State Warriors are such prohibitive favorites that no one’s worried for them, even though the math rates four other as stronger contenders for the Finals based on their play this season, per basketball-reference’s Playoff Probability report. It doesn’t matter that the Dubs are arguing with each other or sleepwalking through large chunks of the schedule. It doesn’t even matter if they’re playing well, which they have only sporadically. Even with a catastrophic injury to one or more of their four stars, no one will seriously pick against the Warriors come spring.

As one longtime observer of the league said with a shrug last week, “Well it’s all over. Again.”

Set against this rigid backdrop, the NBA still seems to evolve weekly. Sixteen different players have won Player of the Week honors, while their teams rise to the top of the standings, only to fall back into a crowded pack of would-be contenders.

Consider the Lakers, who will be Golden State’s opponent in the marquee timeslot (8 p.m. ABC) of the NBA’s signature regular-season event: the Christmas Day buffet of games. The Lakers were assigned the role of Warrior fodder because they added LeBron James, and because they’re the Lakers. Never mind that few people knew what LeBron on the Lakers would actually mean by this point. That hardly matters when the game’s biggest star joins its most important franchise.

We’re more than a third of the way through the season, and the Lakers look like a solid, middle-of-the-pack playoff team. That wasn’t so assured after a shaky start, but as Luke Walton has settled on rotations and players have assumed roles around LeBron, the Lakers have become a good basketball team. James has been fantastic, as ever, and is posting another season worthy of MVP consideration.

With a bit of good fortune, LeBron’s Lakers could slip into an enviable seeding position and do a bit of playoff damage. Or, they could slide back into the nebulous zone between first-round exit and late lottery pick. We know as little as ever about them.

This version of LeBron’s Lakers won’t be the next version of the Lakers. In almost every roster permutation you can imagine — and we have lots of time to imagine these things — the future holds more appeal than the present.

That’s the NBA as 2018 gives way to 2019. While Christmas may be an enjoyable diversion, the future is where it’s at. We’re all wondering what it’s going to look like when we get there, even if it includes the Warriors winning yet another championship.

So let’s talk about the other four Christmas games:

Milwaukee at New York (Noon, ESPN)

There’s no law that says the Knicks have to play in the opening Christmas spot, but while we’re here, let’s gaze in wonder at the player Giannis Antetokounmpo has become. If you held a vote for the Most Valuable Player award right now, the Greek Freak would be the favorite.

His numbers are astronomical -- 27 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, 59 percent shooting -- and his Bucks are winning at close to a 70 percent clip. If they survive the postseason, there’s a good chance they would be hosting game one of the Finals.

Giannis has his blind spots. His 3-point shooting has regressed from barely acceptable to downright poor, and his free throw shooting is also trending in the wrong direction. Those are problems that’ll be magnified in the playoffs, so he and the Bucks must prove their mettle there.

For now, however, Antetokounmpo is as good as it gets, and his supporting cast has finally taken shape. Point guard Eric Bledsoe has quietly made a strong case for an All-Star nod, while Brook Lopez has been the perfect complimentary big man. If Khris Middleton can recapture his form after a rough December, the Bucks will be primed for a long postseason run.

With a young cast of rookies, castoffs, and vagabonds, the Knicks have been surprisingly entertaining while losing the requisite number of games to secure a high lottery pick. If anything, they might be a little too good for the ping pong derby. Still, they’re finally are executing a competent rebuilding strategy. Good job, Knicks.

Oklahoma City at Houston (3 p.m. ESPN)

Oklahoma City is the answer to a dubious question: Who’s really the second-best team in the topsy turvy West? Well below the radar, Sam Presti has built a strong contender around an elite defense that is long, active, and disruptive. This is what the Thunder were building toward last season before Andre Roberson suffered a season-ending knee injury that has also kept him out of action this year.

Russell Westbrook has dialed back his usage rate back just a tad and is once again averaging triple doubles across the board. Steven Adams is a load who’d be an All-Star in the other conference. Jerami Grant is Roberson with a jump shot and Dennis Schroder has been reborn as a scoring sixth man off the bench.

The real difference maker, however, has been Paul George, who is playing the best all-around basketball of his career, Four years removed from his devastating leg injury and finally comfortable in OKC, George is setting career marks in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. PG may have been miscast as a franchise player, but he’s perfect as a 1A counterpart to Westbrook’s Alpha dominance.

The Rockets were that team last year, but injuries and roster attrition have relegated them to the fringes of playoff contention. Good thing they have James Harden, who is playing even better than his MVP season of a year ago. This is always a fun matchup of styles when Westbrook and Harden collide, and a reminder of what might have been had Oklahoma City kept them both.

Philadelphia at Boston (5:30 p.m. ABC)

Earlier this season, I wrote that the rejuvenated Sixers-Celtics rivalry would save the Eastern Conference.

A few things have made me rethink that stance. The Raptors are clearly the best team in the conference, while the Bucks and Pacers are every bit as good, if not better, than Boston or Philly. Ultimately, a hyper-competitive second round of the playoffs in which no outcome would be surprising is what’ll save the East.

There’s also the matter of the Celtics’ record against Philly. Counting last season’s playoff series, the C’s have won eight of the last 10 games. As Joel Embiid put it after an opening night blowout in Boston, “It’s not a rivalry because they always kick our ass.”

Much has changed since that opening night contest, however. The Sixers now have Jimmy Butler, while the Celtics have been in a state of flux. Neither team is as good as they imagined they’d be, and both have serious holes that need to be addressed: point guard defense and depth for Philly, consistency and secondary scoring behind Kyrie Irving for Boston.

It doesn’t help that Boston’s two best big men, Al Horford and Aron Baynes, aren’t healthy. They are key to defending Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Still, it’s the Sixers and Celtics. In an ever-changing landscape, it’s nice to know that these two eternal rivals are relevant at the same time again.

Portland at Utah (10:30 p.m., ESPN)

This has always been the crapshoot spot in the Christmas rotation. Some years, the late game is a perfect holiday bonus for the League Pass diehards featuring two up-and-coming teams. And some years, we get two teams scrapping for relevance.

Of all the unexpected wrinkles this season, none are more perplexing than the fall of the Utah Jazz. With all five starters back from a team that went 29-6 down the stretch last season, plus a full season of Jae Crowder and a healthy Dante Exum, expectations were high for the Jazz to continue building momentum. My preseason prediction was that they would overtake Houston for the second spot in the West.

Whoops. Poor outside shooting has been their Achilles heel, and there’s only so much 37-year-old Kyle Korver can do to make up for down seasons from Ricky Rubio and Donovan MItchell.

There’s still hope for Utah, who has a history of second-half turnarounds under coach Quin Snyder. The schedule lightens up considerably and the shooting has to improve at some point. But there’s not much margin for error in the brutal Western Conference, so their early-season struggles will hurt their seeding if nothing else.

The Blazers, meanwhile, are gamely hanging in the playoff chase, much like they always do under Terry Stotts. All-NBA guard Damian Lillard is better than ever, C.J. McCollum is as good as ever, and Jusuf Nurkic is a beast more often than not. Meyers Leonard is playing exceptionally well, and with a bit more seasoning, Zach Collins looks like a player.

The Blazers do this every year and Portland is in better shape than Utah, Houston, San Antonio, New Orleans, Memphis, or Dallas, for that matter. What that gets them in return is subject to debate.

Fun subplot: Dame going off in front of his friends from Weber State.