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Not in the holiday spirit

Christmas games draw criticism

By Chad Finn
Globe Staff / December 16, 2011
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For NBA aficionados, Christmas brings a gift they weren’t always sure would arrive: the beginning of the 2011-12 season.

During the tumultuous offseason, when the lockout rhetoric was at a peak and the early weeks of the schedule lopped off, there remained hope that matters would be settled: So long as the popular Christmas games hadn’t been canceled, the season would be salvaged.

As it played out, of course, the Christmas games became not a landmark on the schedule, but its commencement.

There are five games in all, beginning with the Celtics-Knicks tip-off on TNT at noon. The other four will air either on ABC (Channel 5) or ESPN. ABC has the NBA Finals rematch between the champion Mavericks vs. the Heat at 2:30 p.m., followed by Bulls-Lakers at 5 p.m. ESPN will feature Magic-Thunder (8 p.m.) and Clippers-Warriors (10:30 p.m.).

But not everyone is in the holiday spirit. In lamenting the league’s scramble to begin the season as soon as possible, Jeff Van Gundy, ESPN’s superb color analyst, proved his candor is in midseason form.

“I think this rush to play on Christmas was a huge mistake,’’ said Van Gundy, specifically citing the condensed schedule, free agency scramble, and abbreviated training camps. “I think when you skip steps, and this season is going to be all about skipping steps, you make mistakes, and that’s what’s happened.

“Sometimes you have to understand that yes, you may make a few dollars less, but we’re going to make the decision that has the players, the teams, and the fans’ best interests at heart. There have been numerous mistakes made along the way.

“Think about it. We’re less than two weeks away from playing, and people are saying, ‘Who’s on my team? This absolute hurry for this cutoff date of Christmas Day, it’s absurd. I’m just thinking to myself, they should have just played all 82 games and just played day-night doubleheaders. Seriously, why not? Let’s just call it for what it is, a total money grab, and make fans stay there for like 10 hours and watch two games.’’

There’s obviously some facetiousness amid Van Gundy’s frustration, but the humorous coincidence is he actually will have a doubleheader on Christmas.

Along with play-by-play partner Mike Breen, he will call the Mavericks-Heat game in Dallas before flying to the Bay Area to pull double duty on the Warriors-Clippers matchup. That nightcap features the coaching debut of Mark Jackson, Breen and Van Gundy’s former broadcast partner.

Van Gundy said he expects Jackson will be so immersed in his new duties there will be no time to be nostalgic.

“I don’t know from his standpoint once you start coaching, whether you care who is broadcasting,’’ said Van Gundy. “So I don’t think he’s going to be too sentimental when [Clippers star] Blake Griffin is staring down at him at the other end. But it will be fun for Mark and myself and Chris [Mullin, the former Warriors star who will join Breen and Van Gundy on the broadcast] because we all have a history with Mark and want him to do so well.’’

Speaking of doing well, Van Gundy disputes the conventional wisdom that younger teams will have an advantage with the compacted schedule. While he wouldn’t go so far as to specifically cite the experienced Celtics as a team he expects to benefit, they fit most of his criteria for short-season success.

“I think it’s as much a mental challenge as it is a physical challenge,’’ he said. “To me, the teams that have the advantage are the teams that have the core back in place as much as possible and the coaching staff in place. Or the teams whose star players aren’t demanding trades. Those teams are the ones with the best chance to get off to a good start and be able to manage the inevitable ups and downs.’’

Van Gundy’s opinion is supported by his experience. He coached the Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1998-99, the last season shortened by a lockout. The chief lesson he retains from that experience is teams must keep working hard and battle through the unexpected, because it’s never going to feel like a normal season.

“I think what you have to do is not get bogged down by the differences [compared with a normal season],’’ Van Gundy said. “Keep grinding, keep plowing through every day, pushing toward trying to be really good in the playoffs. Because there are going to be some very discouraging games for all teams because of the level of fatigue, the inequities of the schedules.

“There are going to be a lot of disappointments. So you just have to keep grinding through so that when you reach the postseason, you’re healthy and you have some amount of home-court advantage and the schedule normalizes.’’

Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globechadfinn.

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