When the NBA opened its 75th season, commissioner Adam Silver hoped the league would be able to experience “something that looks closer to normal”—including, ideally, the customary Christmas Day quintuple-header. The state of affairs in the run-up to Saturday’s showcase, though, is anything but normal: More than 85 NBA players and multiple head coaches have entered the league’s health and safety protocols in the past two weeks, a number that continues to climb at a breakneck pace.
Even if all five of Saturday’s games are able to be played as scheduled—no guarantee, with the league saying it might shift some game times—it’s likely that COVID-19 will compromise the contests. It’s not yet clear whether superstars Kevin Durant, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, or Luka Doncic will clear protocols in time to take the court. A slew of other starters and key rotation players on Christmas combatants (Clint Capela, RJ Barrett, Al Horford, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Hardaway Jr., et al.) have been sidelined by the virus, too.
Given the state of the rosters on offer—and the state of, y’know, everything else—you’d be forgiven if you found it hard to summon up much excitement for what’s supposed to be a grand display of the splendor of the world’s best basketball league. I’d submit that’s all the more reason, though, to get amped about a game that [knocks on wood, tosses salt over left shoulder, says two Hail Marys and three Our Fathers] still might be able to give us the goods: Suns vs. Warriors.
Phoenix (25-5) and Golden State (25-6) head into Saturday owning the two best records in the NBA; this marks the first time that no. 1 and 2 will square off on Christmas since 2005, when the Pistons toppled the Spurs in what ended up being an ’05 Finals preview by an era-appropriate eyesore score of 85-70. The Warriors enter ranked fourth in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency, according to Cleaning the Glass, while the Suns sit eighth on O and second on D; these are arguably the league’s two best-balanced, most complete, and highest-caliber teams. (We see and hear you, Jazz fans. As a consolation, please enjoy what I assume will be a lopsided victory over the disappointing and injury/illness-stricken Mavericks in the late game.)
COVID has its claws in this one, too: Warriors starters Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole both entered the protocols earlier this week, meaning Golden State could be without its second- and third-leading scorers (and its first line of defense on Chris Paul). Every other top player outside of the almost-back-but-not-quite Klay Thompson is healthy, though, giving us a contest featuring a bunch of All-Star-caliber studs, all operating at extremely high levels.
Stephen Curry remains the greatest show in the sport—an attention-demanding, flame-throwing, heart-stopping legend who ranks third in the league in scoring at 27.1 points per game, who’s got a shot at breaking his own record of 402 3-pointers in a single season, and who may well be on his way to a third Most Valuable Player trophy. He’s not the only Warrior with his sights set on reclaiming some hardware: Draymond Green has a strong claim to Defensive Player of the Year so far, and has paired his renewed defensive ferocity with a level of offensive aggression and efficiency we haven’t seen from him in years. Their partnership, forged in the fires of championship battles and the shared understanding of what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport and to begin the climb anew after getting knocked off the mountaintop, remains the heart and soul of the Warriors—the driving force and animating principle of a dynastic power reborn.
The Suns’ shared reservoir of playoff experience isn’t nearly as deep as Golden State’s, but they’ve turned in an absolute master class in how to respond to the disappointment of a Finals defeat: Phoenix has lost twice since the opening week of the season. Paul is putting together arguably the most effective age-36 season of any guard ever, dishing a league-leading 10 assists per game while shooting 54.3 percent from midrange—the highest mark in his Hall of Fame career. Devin Booker has weathered a frosty shooting start and a hamstring injury that cost him seven games, becoming one of just 13 players this season averaging 23-5-4 and drilling a career-best 42 percent from 3-point range.
Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, in the midst of the best seasons of their young careers, merit legitimate All-Star consideration; a second unit led by JaVale McGee, Cameron Payne, Cameron Johnson, and Landry Shamet has been one of the NBA’s best. They’re strong and solid in all facets of the game, professional in their approach, and exacting in their execution—just like last year, but with, perhaps, a little more fuel on the fire.
“The way we’re playing, I believe this team is better than the team last year that went to the Finals,” Ayton told reporters after Tuesday’s workmanlike blowout of the Lakers.
Both teams play absolutely beautiful basketball predicated on sharing the rock, ranking first and tied for second in the league in potential assists per game. Steve Kerr is back to running Golden State’s unique meat-grinder read-and-react system, built around Curry’s constant movement, his harmonic resonance with Green, and the collective smarts of complementary playmakers like Andre Iguodala, Otto Porter Jr., Juan Toscano-Anderson, and Nemanja Bjelica. Phoenix brutalizes defenses with its killer pick-and-roll game, built around the set-crafting creativity of Monty Williams, Ayton’s screen-and-dive partnerships with Paul and Booker, and crackling shot-making both inside and beyond the arc. They both like to push the ball—the Suns rank third in the average length of their offensive possessions (14.0 seconds), according to Inpredictable, while the Dubs are tied for fourth (14.1)—but are equally comfortable slowing it down and carving you up, with Golden State and Phoenix sitting fourth and fifth, respectively, in points scored per half-court play.
As you’d expect from two teams that are this good and this evenly matched, their first two meetings of the season were both fantastic … and they split them. Phoenix drew first blood, taking a 104-96 decision despite losing Booker for the second half to that hamstring injury, with Ayton (24 points and 11 rebounds, six on the offensive glass) leveraging his size advantage over the smaller Warriors inside, Bridges keying a teamwide effort to limit Curry to 12 points on 21 shots, and Paul, as is his wont, taking over down the stretch. The Warriors returned serve three nights later back home in the Bay, blitzing the Booker-less Suns 118-96 behind a six-triple breakout from Steph, all-court dominance by Draymond (nine points, nine rebounds, nine assists, six steals, three blocks, yeoman’s work battling Ayton), and strong performances off the bench by hustle merchants Toscano-Anderson and Gary Payton II. The third meeting won’t decide the season series—they’ll see one another a fourth time, at the end of March—but it will give one team an upper hand toward securing a head-to-head tiebreaker, which could prove pivotal in the race for the no. 1 seed in the Western Conference. (We said “could.” Again: We hear you, Jazz fans.)
Everything feels balanced on a knife’s edge right now, impossible to project; the NBA and its teams, like the country and world they inhabit, are once again trying to build the plane as they fly it. With uncertainty and unease abounding within and outside the league, and so many of its stars removed from the stage, it can be tough to locate and lock in on the joy we seek when we turn on the game. I can’t promise that this game will provide it. I do think it’s got a shot, though. With stars and stakes, bragging rights and beautiful play, it’s got just about everything we could ask for. It’s the best matchup the NBA can stage right now—the league’s best chance of delivering us all some sorely needed Christmas cheer.
An earlier version of this piece misstated the year that the Pistons and Spurs met in the NBA Finals. They played in the 2005 Finals, not 2004.