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The NBA’s showcase day — Christmas — has arrived

By Tim Reynolds

AP Basketball Writer

The MVP is playing.

So are the reigning champions, north of the border.

And out in LA, the NBA’s newest dynamic duos will square off as well.

On the 65th day of the season, with 454 games — more than one-third of the schedule — already in the books, the NBA’s unofficial start date has arrived. The annual Christmas Day quintupleheader of games is Wednesday, the day where the casual fan typically turns their attention toward the NBA.

“It’s going to be cool, man,” said Toronto guard Kyle Lowry, who’ll be making his Christmas debut. “It’s going to be very cool. I’ve always watched it on TV ever since I was a young child. And it’s going to be awesome to step foot on that floor on Christmas Day, have my family and friends around and have the whole world watching.”

The good news from a ratings perspective: Four of the Eastern Conference’s five best teams so far are on the schedule, all playing each other. The bad news: The two worst teams in the Western Conference so far are also on the schedule. But LeBron James and Anthony Davis’ first Christmas as Los Angeles Lakers teammates — facing off against the crosstown rival Clippers — should certainly draw plenty of eyeballs.

“It’s Christmas Day,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “I hope everybody has a great holiday and spends some time with their families, but it’s about the next opponent in front of us. We have to get a win.”

The other matchups: Boston goes to Toronto in the NBA’s first Christmas game in Canada, followed by Milwaukee visiting Philadelphia, Houston going to Golden State, the Lakers-Clippers contest and then a nightcap between New Orleans and a Denver team led by Nikola Jokic and off to the best start in franchise history at 20-8.

“You’re always told that the best teams play on Christmas, the All-Star players play on Christmas and the whole world is watching this game,” said Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, the league’s reigning MVP who has even better numbers this year than he did a year ago.

The potential certainly exists for some playoff-preview matchups. It’s not a stretch to think that the Raptors and Celtics or 76ers and Bucks will wind up meeting in a best-of-seven come April or May. And the same holds true in Los Angeles, where the Clippers and Lakers might be the best of the West.

The Lakers have Davis and James. The Clippers now have Paul George and two-time NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. Those two pairings shook up the league’s landscape considerably when they came together this past summer, and so far with the Lakers are 24-6 and the Clippers at 22-10 neither side has much to complain about.

“I think we’re good,” George said. “I think we’re good.”

The Clippers are 10-3 in games where both Leonard and George start. Davis and James are one of two duos where both are averaging more than 25 points per game; Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in Minnesota are the other.

The pairing of James and Davis has looked spectacular at times already. If there was any confusion about whether those two superstar talents could work together, those questions have been answered.

“We know what the end goal is,” Davis said. “And when you have guys like that, with veteran leadership, when everyone is locked in to our goal, it’s easy for us to jell together.”

James puts it even more simply.

“It’s about getting better, each and every day,” James said.

Christmas is where last year’s Lakers season went wrong — they were fourth in the West, then James got hurt on Dec. 25 and L.A. went on a freefall out of the playoff picture. And injuries will affect some of what the league gets to display on Christmas this year as well.

Golden State has been doomed by injuries all season, with no Klay Thompson and no Stephen Curry for much of this season. New Orleans was picked to be part of the showcase day because of No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson, who has yet to appear in a regular-season game — his summer league was cut short by injury, and a stellar preseason ended the same way. And Toronto is missing several top players right now, including Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol.

But make no mistake: The Raptors have been waiting a long time to be part of NBA Christmas. Wednesday is their first time on the holiday schedule since 2001.

“It’ll be interesting,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “I wish we had more of our regular guys playing in it, but we’ve got to go play the game nevertheless. So we’ll see. I think it’ll be fun. I’m getting a lot of messages from back home. Everybody’s going to be watching.”

•••

LATE MONDAY: RUSSELL SCORES 30 AS WARRIORS TOP WOLVES, 113-104

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — For a team that went to the NBA Finals five straight years and came away with three championships over that stretch, it might not seem like much.

But considering where the Golden State Warriors are at, winning consecutive games for the first time this season qualifies as progress.

D’Angelo Russell scored 30 points, Alec Burks had 25 points and eight assists, and the Warriors beat the Minnesota Timberwolves 113-104 on Monday night.

“I think it’s good man, in the way we’re winning too,” Russell said. “We’re growing.

“It’s not like we just so happened to be making shots … we’re getting better with the little things that we’ve found a way to lose games with. Rebounding, free throws, box (outs), all that little stuff.”

Draymond Green added 14 rebounds and nine points and Damion Lee had 14 points for Golden State, which won consecutive games for the first time since last season’s Western Conference finals.

“It feels … amazing,” Green said. “I never thought I’d be so excited for two regular-season wins in my life.”

Andrew Wiggins scored 22 points and Jordan McLaughlin had 19 for the Timberwolves, who dropped their 11th straight.

•••

CAVALIERS SEND CLARKSON TO JAZZ FOR EXUM, 2 2ND-ROUND PICKS

CLEVELAND (AP) — The Cavaliers traded Jordan Clarkson before he could walk away.

Cleveland dealt the veteran backup guard to the Utah Jazz for guard Dante Exum and two future second-round draft picks on Tuesday. The teams agreed to terms of the deal shortly before their games in Cleveland and Miami tipped off on Monday, and the NBA approved it Tuesday.

Clarkson was in the final year of his contract and was unlikely to re-sign with the Cavaliers as a free agent, so the club made a move to add a young player and future assets to help Cleveland rebuild.

The Cavaliers will get San Antonio’s second-round pick in 2022 and Golden State’s in 2023. The Jazz acquired those selections in other trades.

Clarkson could be the first of several veterans moved by the Cavs, who have reportedly been open to receiving offers for star forward Kevin Love. Following Monday’s 121-118 victory over Atlanta, Love posted a message on Instagram, saying he would miss Clarkson.

“This one hurt!!!” Love wrote. “JC really became a close friend of mine the minute he got to Cleveland — the brotherhood is so much bigger than this game we play. Wish we could have shared the court for longer but I know you’ll put in work in this next chapter.”

Clarkson was acquired by Cleveland in a 2018 trade with the Los Angeles Lakers that also landed the Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr.

Clarkson’s departure clears the way for young guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland to get more playing time; the Cavaliers see them as the foundation of their future. Sexton scored 25 points, Garland added 21 and both played well down the stretch to hold off the Hawks as the Cavs got their third win in a row under first-year coach John Beilein.

Sexton and Garland scored Cleveland’s first 17 points of the fourth quarter.

“The young guys right now, we’ve got to play through their mistakes because those are happening out there, too,” Beilein said. “But the two of them really see each other, they play well together, everybody should be really excited about the future with those two on the floor.”

The 27-year-old Clarkson is averaging 14.6 points per game this season and is expected to give a lift to Utah’s second unit. In his final game for Cleveland, Clarkson scored a season-high 33 points in a victory over Memphis.

Exum had fallen out of Utah’s rotation, and the Cavaliers are hoping a change of scenery could spark the talented 24-year-old, who has been slowed by injuries. The No. 5 overall pick in 2014 has two years and $19.2 million left on his contract.

In making the move, the Cavaliers created a $3.8 million trade exception, which they have one year to use, according to ESPN.

Exum appeared in 11 games for Utah this season. Over the past five seasons, he averaged 5.7 points and 2.2 assists in 18.7 minutes.

___

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

The Warriors broke open a tie game midway through the second quarter with an 18-3 run to take a 53-38 lead.

Green scored on a hook shot with 2:30 left in the first half to cap the run.

The Warriors opened up a 64-47 lead after starting the third quarter on a 7-0 run. The Warriors led 82-58 late in the third quarter on Omari Spellman’s layup.

Minnesota went on a 14-2 run to close within 84-72 early in the fourth quarter.

The Timberwolves closed to 109-104 with 22 seconds left when McLaughlin was fouled on a dunk and completed the three-point play with a free throw.

The Timberwolves are 5-19 since a 125-119 win over Golden State on Nov. 8 in which Russell scored 52 points and Wiggins had 40.

“It’s no secret we’re in a funk right now,” Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders said.

“Young team or not, we’ve got to learn lessons in this league, because you’ve got to go through hard times to get to where you want to be.”

The Warriors are playing their best ball ahead of a Christmas home game against the Houston Rockets that will be seen by a national audience.

“We need this regardless of what’s coming next,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We just needed to win a couple of games in a row just to get a little momentum and feel good. Christmas is always a special day to play on, you know that everybody’s watching. It’s got a different vibe, a different feel, and our players will be really excited it’ll be good to go into that game with momentum.”

TIP-INS

Timberwolves: G Shabazz Napier was held out of Monday’s game due to illness. … Jake Layman missed his 15th straight game with a left toe sprain. … Karl-Anthony Towns (left knee sprain) missed his fourth straight game.

Warriors: F Glenn Robinson III missed Monday’s game with a right ankle injury. Kerr said Robinson rolled his ankle in practice on Sunday. Robinson had started 30 straight games. He’s probable for the Christmas game against Houston, Kerr said. … F Eric Paschall played for the first time since leaving Friday’s game against New Orleans late in the first quarter with a knee injury. … The Warriors activated G Ky Bauman and F Alen Smailagic.

UP NEXT

Timberwolves: Play at Sacramento on Thursday. Minnesota’s 141-130 loss to the Kings the last time it played in Sacramento on Dec. 12, 2018, ended as the third-highest scoring game in Timberwolves history.

Warriors: Host Houston on Christmas Day. The Rockets defeated Golden State 129-112 on Nov. 6 in Houston.

___

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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