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NBA Week That Was covers the previous Monday through Christmas Day

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Players of Christmas Day: Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Jimmy Butler

Christmas Day featured some excellent performances from some of the league’s brightest stars. In chronological order:

- Joel Embiid returned from his latest bout of back soreness and scored 25 points to go with 16 rebounds and three blocks. He also made several big plays late in the game to lead the Sixers to a road win in New York. Not be missed was Enes Kanter’s standout performance with 31 points and 22 rebounds, as he kept the Knicks in the game.

- Kevin Durant went toe-to-toe with LeBron James and came out on top. Durant scored 25 points, but most impressive were his five blocks. He’s got an outside shot at leading the league in blocks per game, which could put him in the MVP mix with James and James Harden.

- John Wall led the Wizards to a road win over the rival Celtics. He struggled to shoot the ball, but hit some big shots down the stretch. He also piled up 14 assists, while turning the ball over just once. It was your classic example of controlling the game without dominating the scoring column.

- Russell Westbrook kept the doubters at bay for a night, as he scored 31 points and handed out 11 assists in the Thunder’s upset win over the Rockets. He seemed to make a concerted effort to get Carmelo Anthony and Paul George involved, as they combined for 44 points on 27 field goal attempts. OKC has started to turn it around lately and may be becoming the team we all hoped they would.

- The Timberwolves turned the final Christmas game into a laugher, as they pulled away late behind Jimmy Butler. Butler scored 23 points and dished out eight assists, but it was his defense that was most impressive. He was part of a perimeter group that held Jordan Clarkson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Josh Hart to a combined 16-of-38 from the floor.

Win of Christmas Day: Oklahoma City's win over Houston

In a day filled with big wins, the Thunder beating the Rockets stood out most. OKC has struggled all season to find their footing. Going against the team that came in with the best record in the NBA, OKC put it all together. They defended well, challenging James Harden with a host of defenders and held Harden to just 7-of-18 from the floor. The Thunder also chased Houston off the three-point line, holding the Rockets to 12-of-37 from behind the arc, which is well below their season averages.

With Anthony settling in, it has allowed Oklahoma City to find a balance they were previously missing. The Thunder offense works best when Russell Westbrook leads the way and others play off him, generally with a defined hierarchy. Paul George seems to be setting into the number two role, similar to what Victor Oladipo did last year. This leaves Anthony to play the Serge Ibaka/Domantas Sabonis role, and he’s easily capable of exceeding previous standards in that spot.

Transactions of Note: Two-way contract maneuvering continued in full force last week. The Nets added Milton Doyle on a two-way deal to replace the waived Yakuba Ouattara. The Bucks picked up Sean Kilpatrick, who was waived by those same Nets, and he took Gary Payton II’s two-way spot, after Payton was let Tyler Cavanaugh of the Hawks converted from his two-way contract to a standard NBA deal. The Jazz waived both of their two-way players, Eric Griffin and Nate Wolters, and replaced them with Erick McCree and Naz Mitrou-Long respectively.

Two-way deals become guaranteed on January 15th, so teams are making moves with that milestone in mind. They’ve now seen a couple of months of each player, and have enough data to know how they fit in the overall program. This is driving some of the decision making on these moves, notably for Brooklyn and Utah.

The other milestone in mind is the 45 day maximum that two-way players are allowed to spend with the NBA club. This was the driving factor in the Hawks converting Cavanaugh. That is the “good” side of the 45 day maximum. A player outperforms his two-way deal and then is accordingly rewarded with a standard NBA contract.

On the flip side, you have what happened with Payton. Payton had been a good soldier for Milwaukee over parts of last season and this season, and was even starting games recently. Because of the Bucks lack of a roster spot on their 15 man standard NBA roster, and because Payton was pushing the 45 day maximum, Milwaukee had to let him go. It was not a popular decision in the Bucks locker room according to reports.

The 45 day rule was put in place, so teams wouldn’t abuse two-way players by keeping them on cheap contracts and then using them in the NBA. But it also shouldn’t be penalizing players and costing them jobs entirely. Expect this rule to be tweaked at some point, as the NBA world continues to get a handle on this new roster building tool.

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