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NBA scores 2016: Kyrie Irving is the Warriors’ Grim Reaper

Irving beat the Warriors for the second time in two games. He’s also important to how good the Cavaliers can be.

Kyrie Irving might as well be the Grim Reaper at this point: with his customary black cloak exchanged for tattered Warriors jerseys he’s been collecting, and his scythe replaced by a game-winning jump shot. Six months after beating the Warriors in Game 7, he did it again on Christmas Day, nailing a 13-foot turnaround jumper with three seconds left and celebrating with the meanest of mugs.

We all know Cavaliers’ 109-108 win over Golden State on Sunday doesn’t really mean anything, not with both teams being overwhelming favorites to face each other in the NBA Finals this coming summer. But Irving’s continued crusade against the Warriors isn’t just entertainment — it shows how high the Cavaliers can soar, and why they can actually keep up with Golden State even after they added some dude named Kevin Durant.

That Irving turnaround was ruthless, to be sure. It’s a Kobe Bryant shot, with Irving ending up on his butt behind the three-point line by the time he comes to a halt, watching the ball float into the net anyway. It’s a move that secretly demands plenty from Irving’s excellent footwork and ball-handling, even if the flash and dazzle we’re used to watching on loop isn’t there.

But it wasn’t just this play that Irving burnt the Warriors on — it was the entirety of the final two minutes. With 2:17 left, Irving dashed into the lane for a layup that erased Golden State’s 14-point fourth quarter lead to tie the game at 103-all. He had stolen the ball on the previous possession, and he recorded two more in the final two minutes. The last one came with 42 seconds left, and Irving drove the court for a fast break layup seconds later.

Irving’s final line was absurd: 25 points, six rebounds, 10 assists, seven steals, and only two turnovers. He shot 11-of-27, his inefficiency providing his one flaw for the game, but you’re not asking for perfection against the league’s second-best defense — just to make a difference. Irving did that throughout the game.

There’s a reason that LeBron James is deferring more than ever this season, and it’s not just because he likes watching the 24-year-old lightning bolt dance around defenses and nail reckless threes. (Although that’s probably part of it, since we all adore that.) Irving is so important to Cleveland’s — and James’ own — future, because he’s still young enough to get significantly better without even requiring the Cavaliers to retool externally.

Cavaliers fans didn’t like that ESPN pointed out that Irving hasn’t progressed like other elite players on a year-by-year basis, and they’re right that the piece could have been written a bit more diplomatically. It’s unfair to demand that improvement from someone who is still a top-20 player in the league, but it’s also true that the Irving who showed up on Sunday against the Warriors isn’t always the Irving we see in any given game. Could he be? Oh man, what if that is who he becomes?

Golden State added Kevin Durant this summer, which cannot be said enough. A 73-win team added someone who was a league MVP just three years ago and still firmly in his prime. They’re better now, but the Cavaliers can be, too, without a single new signing. It just depends on whether Irving, still shy of his 25th birthday, can keep getting better. That’s important for this year, but it’s important as LeBron James passing into his mid-30s, too.

And all the while, remember you’re asking this from a player who has two game-winning shots against the Warriors in six months. He’s the symbol of death against them, and he might just be getting started.

We need a Celtics vs. Knicks playoff series

New York always plays on Christmas. They’re a storied franchise in the biggest market that always draws ratings, so it’s just a fact we’ve come to accept over the past few years when the Knicks have been a garbage fire. (Apologies if that is an insult to perfectly normal garbage fires.) But on Sunday, there was no acceptance needed — the Knicks deserved to be there.

Knicks vs. Celtics could not have started off Christmas Day any better than it did. The Celtics led the entire second half, but a Kristaps Porzingis push and a Carmelo Anthony layup turned a double digit lead into a tie game with minutes left. These two teams are currently the No. 3 and No. 5 seeds in the Eastern Conference, so Boston’s 119-114 win can help make sure they stay atop the Knicks in the standings.

With Kristaps and Melo and a slightly resurgent Derrick Rose (although his stats really aren’t that different from last year), the Knicks are fun. The Celtics might be, too, even if they’ve underachieved ever so slightly so far this year. A big part of that has been Al Horford — the biggest free agent signing outside KD — going in and out of the lineup with a concussion and the birth of his son. But missing 10 games early is better than another time of the year, and Horford had a wonderful all-around game and a block on Porzingis at the very end to seal it.

These two teams could be a first-round (even second-round!) playoff matchup, and I am rooting for that. If it’s anything like this game, what more could you ask for?

No Christmas magic for Dwyane Wade

There’s almost never a reason not to cheer for Dwyane Wade. He’s the guy who took less money and made it possible LeBron James and Chris Bosh to go to Miami. He’s the guy who helped Shaquille O’Neal win his fourth NBA championship. And he’s the guy who knew his value in free agency when he left Miami to sign with his hometown Chicago Bulls team.

So on Christmas Day, Wade was the most productive Bulls player, scoring 24 points on 9-for-16 shooting, as well as dishing out a team-high six assists. It just so happened, though, that Chicago was out-classed on another level.

If the Bulls’ holiday wishes were even remotely in the ballpark of a victory on Christmas, San Antonio dashed those dreams with authority. The Spurs jumped out to a 26-8 first quarter lead, and after the Bulls tied the game in the third quarter, San Antonio pulled away in the fourth. They won handily, 119-100.

Even worse for the Bulls, LaMarcus Aldridge made his first 11 field goals. Yes, all 11. And when both he and Kawhi Leonard get it going, it makes San Antonio a nearly impossible team to stop.

Almost but no cigar for Russell Westbrook

Westbrook might not care whether he gets a triple-double, but his numbers say he’s on pace to average one for the season. The Thunder guard fell three boards short of 10 rebounds on Christmas, but he dazzled the crowd with 15 assists in a convincing 112-100 win over Minnesota.

This one should keep you busy.

Westbrook finished with 31 points (11-of-25 shooting), 15 assists, and seven rebounds and led Oklahoma City to its 19th win of the season. He had help — the Stache Bros, Steven Adams, and Enes Kanter, combined for 42 points and 10 rebounds. If the Thunder, led by Westbrook’s head full of steam, continue to play this way, they could become a scary team to face in the playoffs come April.

The Bulls had a cool moment, though.

Sharpshooter Nikola Mirotic completely disrespected two defenders and disregarded the laws of transition offense when he single-handedly pulled a deep three-pointer after pushing the ball on a steal. Merry Christmas, Niko.

Lakers beat the Clippers for the first time since 2013

The 11-game losing streak is over! The Lakers finally beat the Clippers again after going 1-12 in games played in the month of December. The Clippers may have been without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but a win is still a win. It was a tale of two halves in this game. The first half was all about J.J. Redick’s 19 points and this dunk that came on the literal first play of the game.

The second half was all about the Lakers. The Lakers started the 3rd quarter on a 13-0 run and never looked back. Seven different players scored in double figures for the Lakers including all five Lakers starters. Timofey Mozgov and Nick Young both led the Lakers with 19 points, including five three-pointers from Young.

Christmas’ top moments

We thought Russell Westbrook yelled “Thank you, Kyrie” but it was probably “Thank you, Jayme.” Damn. Still, given his history, it was a decent guess.

Richard Jefferson threw down not one, but two huge dunks against the Cavaliers. (Also maybe kinda definitely tripped KD on the final play.)

This LeBron chasedown block of Zaza Pachulia is just rude.

Carmelo gave a car to a 17-year-old who has cancer and his family. Aww, this is so sweet.

Westbrook dimed his teammates all night long in a 15-assist outing against the Wolves.

Christmas Day’s best sequence


Christmas Day scores

Celtics 119, Knicks 114 (Celtics Blog recap | Posting & Toasting recap)

Cavaliers 109, Warriors 108 (Fear the Sword recap | Golden State of Mind recap)

Spurs 119, Bulls 100 (Pounding the Rock recap | Blog a Bull recap)

Thunder 112, Timberwolves 100 (Welcome to Loud City recap | Canis Hoopus recap)

Lakers 111, Clippers 102 (Silver Screen & Roll recap | Clips Nation recap)