I usually wish the NBA Christmas Day schedule makers went a different route by the time December rolls around. Injuries have a lot to do with that—hello, Phoenix—but then so does my general frustration with how certain markets are favored over others. I don’t care about television ratings. I want to see the most appealing basketball matchups and most exciting players. It’s technically only one game, but every player who takes the floor knows they have the entire basketball world’s attention. Christmas Day is an event for that reason, shining a spotlight on highlights, mistakes, and subtle strategic adjustments that take place from quarter to quarter.
So, no Timberwolves? No Thunder? Translation, for the cynical reader who thinks this observation is naive: No Anthony Edwards? No Shai Gilgeous-Alexander? It wasn’t hard to see a world where those teams would be relevant when the schedule came out, if not really good! And I get that the league had to protect itself from injuries and that James Harden’s future was unknown at the time, but I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t say that the Clippers were overlooked.
All right, now that I’ve expunged my inner Grinch, let’s break down the five-game holiday slate, which could be a lot worse. Here they are, ranked in reverse order, from least to most compelling.
5. Milwaukee Bucks Vs. New York Knicks
In last year’s Christmas preview, I wrote: “The Knicks have no star power and are punching above their weight.” This statement is more debatable now than it was then, but it still holds. Yes, Jalen Brunson is a pesky midrange maven who’s endlessly crafty playing off two feet outside the paint. He’s also quietly drilling 46 percent of his (by far) career-high 6.6 3-point attempts per game, while averaging a team-high 25.3 points—more than LeBron James and Anthony Edwards. That sounds like a star to me!
Julius Randle is a more complicated proposition. His numbers are impressive, and he might be on track to crack another All-NBA third team. But his statistical production is offset by the fact that he’s also a selfish first option (5.2 assists per game aside) who commits several deflating plays every night that probably make his teammates consider early retirement. He’s a record-scratching ball stopper who regularly sabotages New York’s offense, whether he holds on to the ball and tries to pivot his way out of a double-team with three seconds on the shot clock or has tunnel vision in transition. The transgressions are frequent and flagrant:
There might not be a less enjoyable NBA experience than being his teammate on the court. (Free Quentin Grimes.) On the other end, Randle’s defensive effort comes and goes, and when it goes, it’s gone. Kawhi Leonard appreciated the apathy several times during a recent Clippers win:
Randle was amazing the last time New York played Milwaukee, but to boil this play-in tournament rematch down to one specific disadvantage, the Knicks are up against Giannis Antetokounmpo without Mitchell Robinson or his replacement, Jericho Sims, in the starting lineup. That puts a ton of pressure on Isaiah Hartenstein and (gulp) 38-year-old Taj Gibson.
New York can muck things up by bombing away from deep with three-guard lineups that run off every make or miss to take advantage of Milwaukee’s porous transition defense. It’s here where Josh Hart and Immanuel Quickley can create real problems for the Bucks. But Antetokounmpo has converted 77 more shots in the restricted area than any other player this season while making nearly 80 percent of those attempts. He should stomp all over an interior defense that’s had trouble protecting the rim. Also, Damian Lillard is living at the free throw line and has been wreaking his own brand of havoc around the basket.
Good luck to New York, a plucky, depleted, overmatched team that’s done little to warrant Christmas Day exposure beyond hosting all its regular-season games at Madison Square Garden.
4. Dallas Mavericks Vs. Phoenix Suns
A few weeks back, when I wrote this story about Devin Booker embracing a new position and being awesome at it, fans of the Dallas Mavericks did not take kindly to my tweet calling him the best point guard in the NBA. And they shouldn’t! Luka Doncic is averaging 32.7 points and 9.1 assists per game as basketball’s most unstoppable pick-and-roll savant. His stepback 3 is, right now, officially the scariest shot in basketball. He’s launched 153 this season, and 40.5 percent have gone in.
When he sparked this ridiculous four-point play over Jaden McDaniels earlier this month, the game should’ve just ended on the spot. All action that happens after you see something this ridiculous is rendered blurry and meaningless:
For all the highlights Luka produces, he also paints plenty of masterpieces that never get the recognition they deserve. As he’s played with a bunch of new and raw teammates this season, my favorite plays are often the ones that should be a gorgeous tableau but instead are immediately forgotten because of someone else’s inability to exploit his genius:
Poor Jaden Hardy:
Luka is excellence personified. And, regardless of where your allegiances lie, a toe-to-toe showdown against Booker, as a couple of superstars who really don’t like each other and have the memes and quotes to prove it, is popcorn worthy.
What’s also entertaining, but not in a way that necessarily generates quality basketball, is the fact that neither one of these defenses can do anything to stop the other team’s offense, even with Bradley Beal out and Kyrie Irving’s status unknown.
For Phoenix, Christmas Day comes with a little extra stress and urgency. It’s early, and we haven’t seen its projected closing five lineup (Kevin Durant, Booker, Beal, Eric Gordon, and—probably—Jusuf Nurkic) play a single second this season, but that inability to build any chemistry is kind of the point. This team is currently in 10th place, teetering toward a dreaded play-in game. It’s so hard at this point to know what its actual strengths and weaknesses are. This is a theoretical team. Unguardable on paper. Tattered in reality. The Mavericks (and Doncic, in particular) won’t care about any of that, though. The standings are tight for almost everyone in the Western Conference.
3. Philadelphia 76ers Vs. Miami Heat
Is it too early for Nick Nurse to catch some Coach of the Year buzz? The Sixers are first in net rating, with a top-five offense and defense; Tyrese Maxey is a Ferrari who’s about to make his first All-Star team; and, coming off his MVP season, Joel Embiid’s skill, talent, and dominance should be weighed in kilotons until further notice.
Nurse deserves a bunch of credit for this. He took over a chaotic team that felt cursed, with so much unknown after James Harden opted into his contract and subsequently demanded a trade. That saga could’ve tanked Philadelphia’s season. Instead, Nurse’s offensive system has been implemented without a hitch, splashing some necessary randomness into what was a predictable (and, to be fair, dominant) high pick-and-roll attack. Harden and Embiid were a methodical factory line. The Embiid-Maxey two-man game is a gold medal–winning synchronized skating routine.
Now, here’s where I sprinkle some cold water on the Sixers’ hot start by pointing out their schedule. Philadelphia is 13-1 against teams that are below .500, and 6-7 against teams that are above .500. Overall, when up against teams that have a top-10 net rating, the Sixers have been outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions. It’s a small sample size and Embiid didn’t play in a couple of those games, but their point differential is indeed puffed up by some squishy opposition.
As an organization that’s 11-2 all-time on Christmas Day, the Miami Heat are not squishy. After a heavy diet of whatever the Pistons, Wizards, and Hornets did to “get” “stops” against them, the Sixers will feel like they’re solving a Rubik’s Cube underwater when up against Erik Spoelstra’s extended 2-3 zone. You can throw whatever criteria you want out the window when playing the Heat, whether their top players are healthy—Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro both returned from long absences earlier this week—or not. Duncan Robinson deserves some Most Improved Player love. Jaime Jaquez Jr. would win Rookie of the Year if Victor Wembanyama and Chet Holmgren didn’t exist. Jimmy Butler’s efficiency is down, but he remains a smart-foul magnet who takes care of the ball, nails big shots, and gives their transition attack teeth.
This game feels like it can be an early-season measuring stick for both teams, but particularly for the Sixers. How good are they, really? And what do they need to add before February’s trade deadline? Those answers won’t be contained in one game, but these 48 minutes could stand out as a particularly strong data point in Philadelphia’s season.
2. Denver Nuggets Vs. Golden State Warriors
We could talk about Brandin Podziemski’s young Manu Ginobili vibes, the All-Defensive Team campaign for Peyton Watson that’s slowly gaining momentum in my brain, whether Klay Thompson can discover the fountain of youth, or how many minutes Aaron Gordon will spend at the five over the next few months.
But instead, let’s home in on a more seismic topic I’ve been pondering for the past year or so: With apologies to LeBron James, does this game feature the two best offensive players of my lifetime? The question is fair enough to single-handedly lift this game into the no. 2 slot. Steph Curry and Nikola Jokic are all-time floor and ceiling raisers who spend pretty much every possession shredding whatever game plan has been drawn up to slow them down by involving and elevating everyone around them. They’re historically successful figures who understand, completely, that they play a team sport.
There are myriad ways to sum up their dominance—gaudy statistics, championship banners, individual awards—but how Curry and Jokic elevate and embolden those around them is the separating factor, for me. The supporting cast is almost irrelevant. Bad players look competent. Competent players look irreplaceable. These two are at the core of winning ecosystems that force other teams to consider them when building their own rosters. That is true greatness. (I’m not sure how this can be measured, but I would be willing to bet, after it’s all said and done, that Curry and Jokic will have earned more money for their teammates than anyone before them.)
It’s always fascinating when these two square off, too. They’re egoless and hyperefficient, and they display titanic skill within the flow of a system that’s constructed to take advantage of their unprecedented gravity. They almost always make the right play, first taking what the defense gives and then splintering it with constant pressure.
Sure, Golden State’s season might be slipping through its own fingers. But counting the Warriors out will forever feel foolish so long as no. 30’s wrists work. He’s been lights out when it matters, scoring the fifth-most fourth-quarter points in the league on an absurd 65.2 true shooting percentage. (His 28 fourth-quarter 3s are, unsurprisingly, more than anybody else’s.)
Compared to last year, Jokic’s usage rate is up and his effective field goal percentage is down, an understandable development for someone averaging almost five more shots per game on a team that’s been missing Jamal Murray for half the season. But he’s still the best player alive, ranking first in total rebounds, third in total assists, and fifth in total points. No matter how many 3s Curry flings through the net, Kevon Looney, Dario Saric, and Trayce Jackson-Davis will have their work cut out for them. Draymond Green they are not.
1. Boston Celtics Vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Every time the two winningest franchises in NBA history square off, it’s meaningful. Both sides are coming off a conference finals appearance, aspire to win this year’s title, and feature superstars who deserve a shout in the early-season MVP conversation. When the Celtics and Lakers clash on Christmas Day, dramatic tension will fuse with history, stakes, and a fascinating contrast in style.
It’s LeBron James vs. Boston. A Celtics defense that allows a ton of 3s against a Lakers offense that ranks 25th in 3-point percentage. L.A. averages 6.8 fewer attempts than their opponent per game (which ranks 29th), while the Celtics take 5.0 more (fourth most). The Lakers also own the fourth-best field goal percentage at the rim, while the Celtics are first at defending it.
If Kristaps Porzingis is healthy, it’ll be interesting to see whether Boston can neutralize Anthony Davis and keep him out of the paint when they go five out. On the other end, will the Celtics put Jrue Holiday on Davis and let KP roam off, say, Cam Reddish or, fearing the damage AD can generally do on the glass, present a more traditional matchup that doesn’t let them switch the James-Davis pick-and-roll? And, to that point, if rebounding becomes an issue, how quickly will Joe Mazzulla turn to double-big lineups that have done a solid job walling off the paint this season? When Al Horford and Porzingis share the floor, only 29 percent of opposing shots come at the rim, and a feeble 55.1 percent of them go in.
LeBron will test that resistance. Out of 63 players who’ve logged at least 100 drives this season, James’s 60.8 field goal percentage trails those of only Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Tyrese Haliburton. Boston is long and disciplined enough to force kickouts, though, in a game that might come down to how effective LeBron’s teammates are off those passes.
Related: the foul count. Boston ranks first in defensive free throw rate. Los Angeles is second, which is one of the big reasons why it averages a league-high 5.6 more foul shots per game than its opponent. That isn’t something the Celtics will lose sleep over, given their preference to launch from behind the arc, but it could spell trouble if their 3s aren’t falling.
Zooming out a little bit, one X factor to keep an eye on is Derrick White, who’s been good enough to spark an interesting question: Behind Jayson Tatum, who is Boston’s most important player? Not most talented, skilled, athletic, explosive, or likely to make the All-Star team. Important. Boston is plus-222 this season when White is on the court. That’s fourth best in the entire league. More telling, his on-off net differential is plus-11.4 points per 100 possessions. Next up on his own team is Sam Hauser, who’s plus-2.9.
White is not only highly efficient, shooting 77.8 percent within 3 feet of the rim and 42.9 percent behind the arc (both career highs), but he also embraces a tapered role that enhances everyone he interacts with, particularly when he sets a ball screen for Tatum:
The Celtics have been more intentional about hunting mismatches lately, and if it’s not White setting those screens, expect whoever D’Angelo Russell is on to be involved quite a bit. White knows how to punish defenders in these spots, whether he’s popping for a 3, slipping into the middle of the floor, making a quick read, or capitalizing on a 4-on-3 advantage:
He is also on track to make his second straight All-Defensive team and, on a roster featuring Holiday, Jaylen Brown, Horford, Porzingis, and Tatum, he’s still probably the most disruptive defender—a relentless on-ball nuisance whose fast hands are a nightmare for anyone who thinks they’re home free for a bucket before he pokes it away. There aren’t many guards—Jaden McDaniels, Herbert Jones, and … that’s it?—who are more destructive trailing a ball handler over a pick. (Calling back to how important the free throw line may be, White’s ability to contest without fouling will be relevant when he’s guarding Austin Reaves, who’s so good at stopping short and drawing contact in those situations.)
With history’s long shadow, so many intriguing strategic questions, and the potential for someone like Tatum or Davis or James or Brown to set off a fireworks display, missing this Christmas Day game is the one you will most likely regret.