You’d be forgiven if, when looking at the NBA’s five-game Christmas Day showcase, you find yourself dwelling on what you won’t be watching. When the matchups for the quintuple-header leaked back in August, visions of thunder dunks danced in our heads as we geeked out about all the talent that would be on display. The first two months of the season have taken their toll, though, leaving a number of pivotal players on the sidelines for Wednesday’s festivities.
Already damaged by the absence of Klay Thompson, Rockets-Warriors went from the latest chapter in one of the league’s defining recent rivalries to an extremely tough midday hang once Stephen Curry broke his left hand, effectively ending Golden State’s season before Halloween. Excitement over Pelicans-Nuggets’ potential as a delightful late-night snack dissipated after New Orleans made it clear that 2019 no. 1 draft pick Zion Williamson is still “a ways away” from making his regular-season debut after surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Hopes for a supercharged start to the day with Raptors-Celtics took a hit when Toronto—playing on Christmas for the first time since 2001, and hosting a Christmas clash for the first time ever—lost MVP candidate Pascal Siakam, defensive linchpin Marc Gasol, and key wing contributor Norman Powell in the same game last week. The biggest stars are still in place for Bucks-76ers, but the losses of Eric Bledsoe (playing at an All-Star level before fracturing his right leg two weeks ago) and rookie defensive monster Matisse Thybulle (out indefinitely after he picked up a right knee sprain and bone bruise on Saturday) remove a pair of chaos agents from a potential Eastern Conference finals preview. And we’ve all got our fingers crossed that the thoracic muscle strain and “nagging groin issue” that kept LeBron James out against the Nuggets on Sunday, and the sore right knee that’s now hampering Anthony Davis, won’t prevent them from suiting up for the Lakers’ marquee showdown with Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and the Clippers.
While I can’t blame fans for feeling like the injury gods dropped a double order of coal in their stockings, I would make a suggestion, in the spirit of the holiday season: Give yourself the gift of trying to focus on what you are getting when you tune in on Wednesday. Yes, it sucks that we won’t get to see all of the best and brightest on the grandest regular-season stage the league has to offer. The beauty of the NBA, though, is that you can always find something worth celebrating— even if it’s not what you were hoping for when you started unwrapping the box.
Yes, the Raptors will be short-handed when they welcome the Celtics. But Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka have started to find their rhythm after their own extended injury absences, Fred VanVleet’s back from his knee sprain, Nick Nurse always has a trick or two up his sleeve (keep an eye on exciting young reserves Terence Davis and Chris Boucher), and Boston hasn’t won in Toronto in four and a half years. It’ll be fun to watch the always-rabid fans in the North try to propel the wounded defending champs past a Celtics squad that’s been one of the league’s best and most balanced this season. Boston’s one of just four teams that ranks in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency this season, according to Cleaning the Glass—the L.A. teams and the Bucks join them—and has weathered injuries to Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart thanks to All-Star-caliber play by Kemba Walker, steps forward from ace wings Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and quality depth up and down the roster.
Philadelphia-Milwaukee could absolutely be the game of the day. Last March, Joel Embiid (40 points, 15 rebounds, six assists) and Co. barely outdueled Giannis Antetokounmpo (52 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists) and the Bucks in a five-point Sixers win. A few weeks later, Giannis returned the favor, exploding for 45-13-6 with five blocks to best a 32-13-13 Embiid triple-double in a six-point Bucks victory. After the summertime shuffle that bid farewell to Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick but imported Al Horford and Josh Richardson, Philly has managed to win more than two-thirds of its games with a top-10 point differential and still somehow be kind of disappointing. Now, we get to take the Sixers’ measure against the team they appear to be purpose-built to stop: a Bucks squad that has cemented itself as the class of the league, with savvy vets and bright young things (can I interest you in some Donte DiVincenzo?) all orbiting Antetokounmpo, who is outperforming last season’s MVP run and making his bid for the title of best basketball player in the world.
Giannis’s stiffest competition for the crown will also be working on Christmas. In the prime-time headliner, we get to see not only how far LeBron and Anthony Davis (the most frequent assist pairing in the league by far) have come since their opening-night loss to Kawhi and the Clippers, but also how the arrival of Paul George—the fourth All-NBA-caliber member of the Hollywood quartet, who was still rehabilitating his surgically repaired shoulders on opening night—impacts the proceedings. The early returns have been phenomenal: George is averaging more points and assists per minute, and posting an even higher true shooting percentage, than he did during his run to a top-three MVP finish in Oklahoma City last season, and the Clippers are outscoring opponents by 12.1 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Kawhi and PG on the court together … which is right around the same mark the Lakers have posted when LeBron and AD share the floor. (If you think numbers like net rating matter at all, that is. It’s Christmas, man. I’m not going to sit here and Grinch all over Gregg Popovich’s analytics takes. After all: Choosing to avoid fighting with your older relatives when they go off about hoaxes perpetrated by clandestine deep-state actors is kind of what the holidays have come to be all about, right?)
There could also be some fireworks worth watching even in the matchups that seem more one-sided. A punchless Warriors team might not be the ideal quandary to bring out the best in Houston, but it’s a good bet that James Harden—still scoring more points per game this season than anybody in the history of the sport besides Wilt Chamberlain—is going to put up a crooked number. You can also probably safely wager that Russell Westbrook will look to run head-first into the squishy Golden State defense and leave an 8-foot hole coming out the other side. (Also: As he really works only one day a year and has his elves building all the toys and his reindeer doing all the flying, I wonder if Russ would consider Santa a “sometimey-ass leader.”) If any Warrior’s going to be able to fight fire with fire, it’ll be D’Angelo Russell, who hung a career-high 52 on the Wolves earlier this season, and who can present problems for defenses when he’s got his pull-up jumper working. Nuggets-Pelicans, if nothing else, could provide a chance to check out how a resurgent Nikola Jokic makes Denver look like a bona fide contender … unless, of course, Brandon Ingram goes out and looks like the best player on the floor against the Nuggets again, as he did for stretches of New Orleans’s Halloween win.
Maybe we won’t get 99th percentile outcomes in all five games; maybe, for example, the Warriors and Pelicans really will get destroyed to the degree you’d expect. (That’s when you go get another plate of food and/or get to bed early. Win-win.) It’s also possible though, that we’ll get some memorable surprises. Like a sub-.500 Heat team beating the first LeBron-Kyrie-Love Cavs squad back in 2014. Or Bernard King exploding for 60 points against the Nets in 1984 (still a Christmas Day scoring record!). Or a rookie Patrick Ewing going nuts in the fourth quarter to force overtime against, and eventually beat, the vaunted ’85-’86 Celtics. Or the Lob City Clippers and the pre-dynasty Warriors engaging in a little pushing and shoving—an incident that wasn’t exactly overflowing with holiday spirit, but that probably mirrored the vibe in more homes post-present-unwrapping than we’d care to admit.
I’m not sure what we’ll wind up talking about after this five-game Christmas slate, but I feel reasonably confident that there’ll be something worth talking about besides all the star power left sitting on the sidelines in street clothes. Many things suck; ’twas ever thus. Consider this a warm-hearted reminder that we can still make the choice to remain open to the possibility of silver linings, and to enjoy the many gifts, big and small, that NBA basketball still has to offer.