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Ranking the NBA’s Christmas Day Games

With five star-studded showcases on the holiday slate, including Luka vs. LeBron, we’re here to help you decide which games are more important than spending time with your family

Elias Stein

For years, the NBA’s Christmas Day showcase has served as something of an unofficial start to the season for those fans who, for one reason or another, weren’t previously ready to turn their undivided attention to hoops. In an unprecedented, funhouse-mirror-ass year, though, the December 25 quintuple-header actually sort of is the start to the season: It’s just the fourth day of the actual regular season, and the first chance for many fans to get a good long look at the players and teams likely to define this warped, weird campaign.

Yes, Christmas is a day for celebration, for reflection, for peace on earth and mercy mild. But also, y’know, ball is life. (Repent, sinners, lest ye be Hot Sauced into the depths of Hell.)

And so: To help you prepare for the festivities, and perhaps better organize your viewing schedule around when to be in front of the TV and when to resume smashing carefully constructed gingerbread houses and pounding eggnog or whatever, here’s one man’s take on the relative entertainment values of the five games on offer, starting with a pair of MVPs:

5. Warriors vs. Bucks (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC)

I don’t like putting this one in the basement; it feels downright ungrateful to go so long without Stephen Curry and then thumb my nose at getting to watch him again on a big stage. But list-making requires something to come in last, and I’ve got some concerns about just how competitive this one will be.

Draymond Green missed the season opener against Brooklyn after contracting COVID-19, missing Golden State’s entire preseason slate, and tweaking his foot before the Warriors’ final tune-up scrimmage. The Warriors got absolutely drilled without him. He’ll remain on the shelf against the Bucks, and I’m not sure Golden State’s going to be much more competitive on Friday. Finding a way to stifle Giannis Antetokounmpo would become exponentially more difficult without the former Defensive Player of the Year at full steam and directing traffic; puncturing last season’s no. 1-ranked defense, now with Jrue Holiday at the tip of the spear, would be even tougher without Green’s pace-pushing and playmaking touch. (Also, as Harsh Welcomes to the NBA go, Kevin Durant followed by Giannis is a hell of a draw for no. 2 pick James Wiseman.)

Curry had sparkling moments during the preseason, but he looked even more dominant last preseason, and the Warriors stumbled to an ugly 1-3 start before he broke his hand. If Draymond’s out or mitigated, this feels like a game where we’ll get a sense of just how transcendent Golden State will need Steph to be to compete against elite opposition—and, if he’s tamped down at all, of how tough it’ll be for the Warriors to hang with the best of the best. Here’s hoping I’m wrong.

4. Clippers vs. Nuggets (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

I’m willing to concede that this is perhaps a personal problem, but I enter the season feeling sort of bored by the Clippers.

After a statistically successful but stylistically unremarkable regular season, Kawhi Leonard and Co. were both very good and a flaming shopping cart stuffed to the brim with bottle rockets pushed by a vengeful trickster down a mountainous slope during the 2020 postseason. Swapping Montrezl Harrell for Serge Ibaka and adding Nicolas Batum on the cheap should improve the team on the court, while also exchanging jagged, titillating variance for the smooth, calming sigh of stability. Quick, tell me one ice-breaker fact about Luke Kennard, and no, you cannot phone a friend who went to Duke. This team could win 70 percent of its games, but it might do it without ever causing your pulse to race.

Denver presents plenty of potential antidotes: Nikola Jokic whipping full-court fast-breaking classics, Jamal Murray authoring an encore to his daggerous dispatching of L.A. in Round 2, Michael Porter Jr. popping for an unguardable 30, Facundo Campazzo whipping cross-court hook passes through thickets of arms, etc. If the Nuggets kind of yawn and stretch their way through the start and lay an egg in the marquee matchup—like they did last Christmas against New Orleans—this one might not be quite punchy enough to keep those of us on the East Coast up into the wee hours of Boxing Day.

3. Pelicans vs. Heat (12 p.m. ET, ESPN)

It’s admittedly something of a gamble to pin any hopes on a matinee tip being a compelling and well-played affair. Luckily, the hosts take their cues from a dude who likes to stay caffeinated.

I’m bullish on the Heat starting strong. It seems unlikely that a team led by Jimmy Butler and Erik Spoelstra would come out of the gate sluggish and unprepared. Sprinkle in the possibility of fireworks from rising sophomore Tyler Herro and long-range marksman Duncan Robinson, and Miami could put up some aesthetically pleasing numbers against a New Orleans defense that could be a work in progress until new head coach Stan Van Gundy gets his young charges singing from the same hymnal. And if the Pelicans need to lean on their offense in the early going, well, so much the better.

Zion Williamson—fresh off scoring 57 points in 67 minutes this preseason, shooting 57.1 percent from the floor and looking mighty bouncy—should be eager to make up for lost time after missing out on New Orleans’s Christmas Day showcase last year. When the Pelicans got that national spotlight last December, Brandon Ingram made the most of it, scoring a game-high 31 points on 7-for-9 shooting from deep to spark an upset win over the Nuggets. Maybe new Pelicans center Steven Adams will catch Butler flush with a screen, prompting Jimmy Buckets to revisit his praise for the bruising Kiwi’s brick-wall steez. How New Orleans’s new starting five will jell early in the season remains a major question, but there’s enough talent and combustible elements here on both sides to start the day off with a bang.

2. Nets vs. Celtics (5 p.m. ET, ABC)

Before we get started: Let’s clear out the bad vibes of past takes, so that we may start fresh for the season ahead.

OK, now that that’s taken care of: I’m extremely excited to watch Brooklyn’s offense match up with Boston’s defense. The Nets roasted the C’s in their preseason meeting, with Kevin Durant absolutely dusting whichever wing Brad Stevens put on him and Kyrie Irving smoothly drilling jumpers over the top of overmatched defenders. I’m eager to see whether things look different with the excellent two-way trio of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart all locked in for heavier minutes. Forget about the off-court baggage, the history lessons, and histrionics. With KD and Kyrie looking none the worse for wear after their injuries, and the Celtics a perennially tough out with a blossoming supernova scoring talent in Tatum, I feel more confident in the overall level of play in this game than I do the others. This game should provide a kick-ass reason to barely regard your loved ones during an early Christmas dinner.

1. Mavericks vs. Lakers (8 p.m. ET, ABC and ESPN)

Maybe the Lakers intend to ease into a season that tipped off just 73 days after they won the 2019-20 championship. Given their well-earned status as the prohibitive favorite to win the 2020-21 title after making some significant additions during the offseason, it’d be reasonable for them to slow their roll and prioritize making sure they’re in prime working condition come the end of this abbreviated 72-game schedule rather than getting off to a hot start.

I’m guessing, though, that after having taken Luka Doncic’s measure in one of the best games of last season …

… and coming away so impressed with the 21-year-old Slovenian that he wanted to give him a damn shoe deal …

… and seeing that the Dallas star appears to be the next in a long line of highly touted contenders for what he understandably believes to be his crown …

… that LeBron James will bring his A game for the prime-time jewel of the Christmas lineup. Generally speaking, over the past 18 years, that has resulted in some eminently entertaining basketball, and a damn good reason to make sure every last present’s moved out from in front of the TV so that you don’t miss a second of what comes next.