NBA Heat Check: No let up from Holiday, Harrell magic fading for Wizards

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It's a New Year, and there appears to be plenty of legitimate contenders to become the NBA champions in 2022.

Nine teams have at least 20 wins to their name, suggesting the Milwaukee Bucks will face an almighty battle to keep possession of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

However, the Bucks will have a better shot of retaining it if one of their big three plays at the standard he produced in December.

Stats Perform looks at some of December's best and worst individual performers in this month's edition of Heat Check.

RUNNING HOT...

Donovan Mitchell

Despite missing two of the final three games of the year with a strained back, the Utah Jazz star enjoyed a superb December, averaging 30.2 points per game across the last month of 2021.

That was up from his previous season-long average of 23.2 entering December, inflating that figure to 25.8 with a string of instrumental showings.

Mitchell topped 30 points six times over the course of the month and brought in the New Year in style with a 39-point effort against the Minnesota Timberwolves, converting six of his 11 three-point attempts. With Mitchell in such a rich vein of form, it's no surprise the Jazz look like strong contenders for the top seed in the Western Conference.

Donovan Mitchell
Donovan Mitchell

Jrue Holiday

The Bucks' hopes of defending their title will likely rest on the sizeable shoulders of Giannis Antetokounmpo, yet the Greek Freek cannot do it all on his own.

Milwaukee must, therefore, have been heartened to see Holiday end 2021 in top form.

Averaging 14.8 points per game going into December, Holiday racked up 21.3 last month, in which the Bucks went 11-4.

On only three occasions did Holiday fail to shoot over 50 per cent from the field. He produced a 40-point game against the New Orleans Pelicans and posted three double-doubles. With Holiday in this type of form, the Bucks are a nightmare to try to beat.

Gary Harris & Franz Wagner

The advent of the NBA play-in games means the Orlando Magic's season is still very much alive, despite them going 3-11 over the course of a dismal December.

And further reason for hope for Orlando came in the performances of Harris and Wagner. No player in the NBA delivered a bigger increase in points per game over the month of December than veteran former first-round pick Harris, who averaged 15.5, nine points more than his previous season-long average.

Meanwhile, eighth overall selection Wagner furthered his cause for Rookie of the Year, increasing his output by 6.1 points to average 19.5 per game.

Wagner delivered arguably the highlight of the month for the Magic in a losing effort against the Bucks as he put up a career-high 38 points, offering the most compelling evidence yet that the German is a young talent for Orlando to build around.

GOING COLD...

Harrison Barnes

Another apparent contender for the play-in round even after a 15-22 start, the Sacramento Kings will need more from Barnes than he produced in December to avoid another underwhelming year.

Barnes was averaging 19 points a game going into December, but he tallied 20 just once last month as he put up 14.1, with his plus-minus of negative 10.1 for the month further illustrating his lack of impact.

Tyrese Maxey

One of the stars of the season for the Philadelphia 76ers, Maxey's December drop-off owed partly to him battling a quad injury. He missed three games as his average dropped from 18 points per game pre-December to 14.4 points last month.

Maxey had three games where he failed to reach double-digit points, though his season-high plus-minus of 31 in a 13-point effort against the Washington Wizards underscored his ability to influence the game even when he doesn't score at an elite level.

Montrezl Harrell

The Wizards, having made a surprisingly strong start to the season, endured a difficult December, going 5-9, and some of the blame for their disappointing end to the calendar year falls on the shoulders of Harrell.

Harrell had been averaging 16.1 points per game going into the month, but the big man's production dipped to 11.6 points per game as 2021 came to a close. He did not tally double-digit points in five games and missed the final two games of the calendar year after entering the NBA's COVID-19 protocols.

Additionally, Harrell was disappointing on the boards, chalking up 5.7 rebounds per game having averaged 8.3 prior to December. The Wizards will hope it proves only a temporary dip for the former Sixth Man of the Year.

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