Christmas Day has long been the NBA’s unofficial starting point for the casual fan. We celebrate another all-day slate of marquee matchups by looking back at some of the best NBA-related Christmas moments.
Shaq vs. Kobe
John Gonzalez: Revenge is the best Christmas present. Anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t understand the true spirit of the holiday (and probably thinks Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie). After being traded to the Miami Heat during the 2004 offseason, Shaquille O’Neal returned to Los Angeles for the first time to face his frenemy, Kobe Bryant. In the run-up to the proceedings, Shaq described himself as a “brick wall” and Kobe as a “Corvette” that was about to run into him.
The tense reunion was practically gift-wrapped for NBA fans, and it did not disappoint. Bryant scored 42 points, but Shaq had 24 points and 11 rebounds. The Heat won by two in overtime and extended their winning streak to 11 games. The brick-wall thing was pretty good, but at the time it felt more like Shaq playing John McClane and tossing Kobe off Nakatomi Plaza. Yippee-ki-yay, what a fun game.
Tyreke Evans Forgets the Play … Twice
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Evans was not in the holiday spirit in the Pelicans’ 94-88 loss to the Heat in 2015. The then–New Orleans guard, who told reporters he so “sick “ that he vomited at one point, missed his first seven shots and finished with six points and five turnovers in one of the worst Christmas Day performances in recent history.
Evans also blanked on two plays—one with the game tied in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, and the second in overtime with 1:27 remaining. On the first, he forgot which side he was supposed to take the ball to, even though the Pelicans had just come out of a timeout.
In overtime, Evans completely forgot everything (the play, that he was in an NBA game, the meaning of life) and moseyed on over to Eric Gordon in the corner.
Tracy McGrady, King of Christmas
Danny Chau: As a native Angeleno kid trying to escape the shadow of the Lakers Death Star in the early aughts, I latched onto the effortless charms of Tracy McGrady, who had positioned himself as alt-Kobe on the Orlando Magic. His first step was quicker, his second jump was faster, his midrange turnaround fadeaway was every bit an aesthetic equal to Kobe’s. And for a time, Tracy McGrady was the King of Christmas—a holiday I don’t celebrate and have only really known as the day I’ve been able to watch basketball in peace for the past 20-plus years. McGrady played in three career Christmas Day games between 2000 and 2003, and holds the NBA’s highest points per game average on that day, at 43.3.
The most iconic of his Christmas performances came in 2003 against a rookie LeBron James in one of the first true superstar duels of James’s career. It was mesmerizing. Apologies in advance for guiding you down this rabbit hole:
McGrady finished with 41 points and 11 assists that night, only two rebounds shy of a 40-point triple-double. Of course, this brief snapshot of T-Mac’s dominance only underscores the star-crossed nature of his Hall of Fame career. Kobe would go on to play in 16 Christmas games over the course of his 20-year career, more than any other player in league history. McGrady never played a Christmas game with Yao Ming in Houston. His points average on Christmas games is one of the few remnants of his career that outline just how dominant he was at his peak. I hope he holds that record for a while longer.
The Mavs Raise a Banner
Jonathan Tjarks: 2011 was the first (and hopefully only) Christmas Day where a team unveiled its championship banner, as the lockout forced the Mavs to wait six long months for their ring ceremony. The game itself was a rematch of the 2011 Finals, but the matchup had totally changed. The Heat were clearly stewing about what happened, while the Mavs had seemingly aged 10 years. Without Tyson Chandler, who was allowed to walk in free agency, the Mavs didn't have the athleticism upfront to prevent LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from living at the rim. I was at the game, and you could see LeBron and Wade blow by the older Mavs defenders with ease. The Heat were letting everyone know: There was not going to be another ring ceremony in Dallas.
As a Mavs fan, it was definitely not my favorite NBA memory from Christmas Day, but it was by far my most memorable. I think I still have post-traumatic stress from what happened. There has never been a shorter championship honeymoon in NBA history. I felt like I was watching the passing of the baton in real time.
LeBron Dunks All Over the Lakers
Justin Verrier: If two rings and the disappearance of his aspirational, square-jawed, headband-wearing puppet alter ego didn’t already make it clear, LeBron James’s Christmas Day 2013 dunkfest in Los Angeles served as an unofficial by-force taking of the torch from Kobe Bryant.
Bryant didn’t play in the game—the then-35-year-old got his big gift a month before, with the Lakers handing over $48.5 million more despite obvious signs (like, say, having to stitch together his left Achilles) of Bryant’s ensuing decline. Meanwhile, James did this:
That was in the first quarter. One quarter later, James one-upped himself:
Merry Christmas, Jodie Meeks.
The NBA Returns in Time for Christmas
Kevin O’Connor: As a kid, the TV was rarely on for Christmas Day. But the one day I vividly remember watching the NBA on Christmas was in 2011. The TV was on the day. It was special. The lockout was over. Basketball was back. The Knicks kicked off the season by beating the Celtics. The Heat pulverized the Mavericks. The Bulls edged the Lakers on a Derrick Rose floater in the final seconds. I’m sure a lot of you can relate: Being with family on Christmas makes it OK to not have basketball. But when it is on, there’s nothing better than sharing the NBA with your family.
Portland Trail Blazers vs. Denver Nuggets 2009
Paolo Uggetti: 2009 was a formative year for me as a basketball fan. It’s when I moved up from a casual fan with an interest in the Celtics’ Big 3 to a diehard. The Christmas slate in 2009 was the first I had looked forward to, so watching Brandon Roy drop 41 points on Carmelo Anthony (who had 32 points) and the Nuggets was just what I needed.
After you get through the Mariah Carey open, the performance is a thrill. Roy, with a black sleeve covering his left shoulder, scored from pretty much every piece of hardwood at the Rose Garden. Melo kept the Nuggets in it as long as he could, but Roy was too much. With four minutes left, Roy dished it to Steve Blake for the dagger after drawing three defenders. It was like watching Kobe without the polarization. I was all the way in.
Roy would go on to make his third straight All-Star Game, but it would be the last time he would truly be the same because of chronic knee injuries. He played only 47 games in 2010-11, retired at the end of 2011-12, and played just five games in a comeback bid with the Timberwolves in 2012-13.