NBA on Christmas Day: Previews, where to watch five high-profile games

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As it has done with so very many things, the pandemic has taken a little shine off the NBA showcase slate of Christmas Day games.

The unofficial start of the NBA season — at least when more casual fans start to pay attention — is still set with high-profile games, including a showdown of the two best teams in the NBA so far this season. However, some of the game’s biggest stars — Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, Luka Doncic and more — will likely be sidelined because of COVID health-and-safety protocols.

It’s still an impressive day of NBA matchups. Here is a preview of every game, plus when and where to watch. All times are Eastern. If you’re looking to stream the games, they are all on ESPN3/ESPN app.

ATLANTA HAWKS at NEW YORK KNICKS, noon, ESPN

Trae Young took over the Reggie Miller honorary title of “Most Hated Man in Madison Square Garden” — and the “f*** Trae Young” chants that came with it — after not just outplaying the Knicks last postseason, but also showboating a little, taking a bow, and rubbing salt in the wounds of Knicks fans as he did it.

This was set to be his glorious return, but he — along with Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, and Lou Williams — is out due to health and safety protocols. Add to that key Hawks’ players such as De'Andre Hunter are out and Cam Redish is questionable due to injury.

That opens the door for the Knicks, who have their own COVID (Kevin Knox, Immanuel Quickley) and injury (Derrick Rose) issues. Kemba Walker has stepped up with big performances in recent games — he scored 44 on Thursday — and could put on a show against a depleted Hawks defense, but New York keeps losing because it can’t get stops, plus both Julius Randle and Evan Fournier have not lived up to their new contracts. Both the Hawks and Knicks are below .500 and off to disappointing starts this season, both are fighting to get solidly into the play-in seedings then think playoffs, and in that setting this becomes the kind of game both teams need to win.

BOSTON CELTICS at MILWAUKEE BUCKS, 2:30, ABC

As of this writing, it’s not clear if Giannis Antetokounmpo will be cleared from health and safety protocols to play on Christmas (center Bobby Portis went into protocols on the same day, Dec. 16, and both could test out early with a couple of negative tests in 24 hours). However, we know that other Bucks starters will not play: Brook Lopez (back), and Donte DiVincenzo (health and safety protocols). The Bucks are shorthanded and are leaning into Olympian Khris Middleton running the offense and big minutes from DeMarcus Cousins at center. It’s a makeshift lineup, but the Bucks have won two in a row.

The Celtics have both of their biggest stars — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — healthy, but that has not led to consistent play from Boston this season. Boston’s defense has been alright, but the offense is 17th ranked in the league for the season, 22nd over their last six games, and they quickly become a predictable isolation team too easily. That said, the Celtics have gotten up for the game and beaten the Bucks in two previous meetings this season.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS at PHOENIX SUNS, 5 p.m., ABC

This is the best game of the day: The two best teams in the NBA this season, two legitimate title contenders, and the biggest names are playing (although the Warriors will be without Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole due to COVID protocols, plus Klay Thompson‘s return will be next month, not on Christmas as hoped).

Stephen Curry has been playing at an MVP level this season: 27.7 points a game, 40.2% shooting from 3, 5.9 assists a game. He had been in a bit of a slump in the wake of breaking Ray Allen’s all-time NBA 3-pointer record, but he broke out of it Thursday night with 46 points. Plus, Curry has a history of big Christmas Day games.

While Curry grabs the headlines, the Warriors defense makes them a title threat — it’s the best defense in the NBA this season. Draymond Green has been brilliant and is quarterbacking a defense that gets back in transition, makes quick rotations, and just makes plays. That defense has been good, not great the past couple of weeks, due to COVID and injuries.

And that defense will be tested by the best team in the NBA this season.

Phoenix has its stars — Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, and don’t sleep on Mikal Bridges, who has performed at an All-Defensive team level this season — but watch them play, and it is beautiful team basketball. This versatile roster can beat you from three or pound a team inside. Tuesday night, when the Lakers went small with LeBron at center lineups trying to play Ayton off the court, he’s mobile and good enough to hold his own defensively on the perimeter and then make L.A. pay on offense. The Suns are also always balanced on the court — the floor is spread with shooters, and that positioning means they get back on defense and take away easy buckets. Call it culture or system or whatever coachspeak word you want, Monty Williams has the Suns dialed in.

“I think a big part of it comes down to our team culture, how guys step into situations and we remain ourselves,” Cameron Johnson said. “You can see our identity on the court when we have everybody. It’s a group of guys that likes playing together and we play for each other.”

Or, you can just use acting Lakers’ coach David Fizdale’s postgame breakdown of the Suns: “They’re kicking ass.”

BROOKLYN NETS at LOS ANGELES LAKERS, 8 p.m., ABC/ESPN

When the schedule was released, we thought this was the Finals preview game on Christmas Day.

Now… well, the Nets look like they could make the Finals, but that team will look nothing like this team. And the Lakers are a below .500 mess.

A lot of star power for this game is sidelined. For the Nets: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are both in health and safety protocols and will not play, but the Nets are just coming out of having 10 guys in protocol and having three straight games postponed because of not having enough players. LaMarcus Aldridge is in protocols, Joe Harris is out following ankle surgery. The Lakers are without Anthony Davis due to a sprained knee, plus are without role players Trevor Ariza, Malik Monk, Austin Reaves and Avery Bradley due to protocols.

The Lakers still have LeBron James — he turns 37 next week and is still playing at an All-NBA level of late and carrying the Lakers, averaging 26.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists a game. If LeBron scores 12 points in this game, he passes Kobe Bryant for the most points scored on Christmas Day in NBA history.

It’s this simple with the Lakers: When LeBron is on the court they play teams basically even (+0.7 net rating), when he sits they get outscored (-4.7 rating). Against the Suns Tuesday, Los Angeles played Phoenix even in LeBron’s 34 minutes, but they got outscored in the 14 minutes he sat by 18. Los Angeles has Russell Westbrook, and he is racking up numbers and is a threat the nights his jumper falls, but he has not carried the load to get LeBron more rest.

Without Davis, the Lakers’ defense is a mess.

Brooklyn will have James Harden back for this game, the lone player from their “big 3” who can play right now. He’s had a slow start to the season and his conditioning — coming from an offseason of hamstring rehab — but was showing signs before getting sidelined with a positive COVID test. In this game, he can be full-on vintage Harden with the ball in his hands, Patty Mills is the only other playmaker on the active roster.

Brooklyn, for all the drama — Harden’s start, Irving thinking he’s making a statement or whatever — is 21-9 and has the best record in the East. Durant has played at an MVP level and carried this team for stretches. The Nets, when primarily healthy, have looked like legitimate title contenders. Which is a lot more than the Lakers can say. However, what that means for Christmas Day is very hard to say.

DALLAS MAVERICKS at UTAH JAZZ, 10:30 p.m., ESPN

No Luka Doncic in this one, he is in health and safety protocols. The Mavericks also will be without Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber, and Reggie Bullock from their rotation due to protocols.

Utah deserves this moment in the spotlight: 22-9 record, the best offense in the NBA, sixth-best defense, Donovan Mitchell is averaging 25.1 points a game and is carving up defenses, and inside Rudy Gobert is playing the best basketball of his career — 15.5 points, 15.1 rebounds, and Defensive Player of the Year level defense in the paint again.

While the Suns and Warriors have been the two best teams in the NBA this season, the Jazz are knocking on that door and should be seen as contenders. It’s easy to dismiss them after a Kawhi-less Clippers team beat them in the playoffs going small, but that Jazz team was not healthy (no Mike Conley, while Mitchell was playing on basically one leg) and with the addition of Rudy Gay and others, they will not be easily beaten going small now. This Jazz team has a chance to be last year’s Bucks, finally putting it all together in the playoffs and proving the doubters wrong.

A fully healthy Mavericks team would be an interesting test for the Jazz. This Jalen Brunson-led Mavs squad (and Brunson is having the kind of season that will get him PAID next summer) is not much of a threat if the Jazz didn’t drink too much egg nog before the game.

Lonzo Ball undergoes successful knee surgery, out ‘at least a few months’

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Lonzo Ball underwent another arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Wednesday, and the doctors finally had some positive news.

They believe that they’ve “addressed the issue”, and there is “confidence” that he’ll be able to play this season. He’s still expected to miss “at least a few months”, according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Charania added that both sides will monitor his progress over

After his first surgery in January, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well at all, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. During media day this week, Ball said that he couldn’t run or jump, so he couldn’t play basketball. Billy Donovan said that they had to think of Ball’s injury as potentially season-ending. So an update that says that he should play this season is considered good news at this point.

Chicago had a 22-13 record with Lonzo last season, but were just 24-23 without him. He averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks, and 3.1 triples per game in his first year with the team.

They have other defenders like Ayo Dosunmu and Alex Caruso, but they don’t have anyone else that can both defend and facilitate the way Lonzo can. They’ll use training camp and the preseason to decide on a starting point guard between Dosunmu, Caruso, and Goran Dragic.

They’re one of the more talented teams in the East, but they may end up playing in the play-in tournament if they’re without Ball for the majority of the season.

 

Five players poised to make first NBA All-Star game this season

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Who is ready to make the leap?

Every season there are players on the cusp of becoming an All-Star — not only has their game improved to be one of the top 24 players in the league, but their stature has risen to the point fans (voting for the starters) or coaches (voting for the reserves) want to see them in the game.

Here are five players on the cusp of making that leap and getting the chance to suit up in Salt Lake City this February for their first All-Star Game.

1. Tyrese Haliburton (Pacers)

He was the centerpiece headed to Indiana in the trade that sent Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento — and a lot of executives around the league were shocked the Kings gave him up. After the trade, Haliburton averaged 17.5 points and 9.6 assists a game with a 62.9 true shooting percentage — and this season he’s going to be asked to do even more on a team that is rebuilding (but still has Myles Turner and Buddy Hield on the roster… what exactly is Indiana doing?).

The Pacers will take a step back this season (which doesn’t help his All-Star chances) but Haliburton himself will be unleashed. He will draw the attention of fans and opposing defenses — coaches know and like his game, which is why he stands a good chance to be an East All-Star reserve this season.

2. Anthony Edwards (Timberwolves)

Edwards has made the leap in popularity and stature — he is trash-talking Kermit in Adam Sandler’s Hustle — and he probably should have been an All-Star last season averaging 21.3 points a game.

Edwards has the explosive, highlight-factory game and has the big personality fans love (although his homophobic social media post over the summer does not help his cause). He will be in the spotlight more on an improved Timberwolves team — he will be the outside to Karl-Anthony Towns and Rudy Gobert inside — that should be in the mix for the playoffs in the West. Anthony Edwards has a lot of All-Star Games in his future, this season should be his first.

3. Evan Mobley (Cavaliers)

As a rookie, Mobley was already a top-flight defensive big man who averaged 15 points and 8.3 rebounds a game — and he came back this season stronger and ready to make a leap on the offensive end. He finished a close second in the Rookie of the Year voting and took that personally, hitting the gym hard and coming out with a chip on his shoulder this season. He flashed potential last season with the ball in his hands, a guy who could beat his man and be a playmaker. Expect to see more of that, more of Mobley out on the perimeter as a creator this season (maybe even grabbing the board and bringing the ball up in transition himself).

He’s going to get noticed on a Cavaliers team with an All-Star backcourt of Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell, and if he has added to his game this year it’s Mobley’s turn.

4. Tyrese Maxey (76ers)

Maxey got thrust into the starting point guard role last season when Ben Simmons never suited up for the 76ers (and played like the guy the 76ers hoped Markelle Fultz would be). Then he thrived after the trade, working a little more off-ball and being a secondary shot creator off James Harden. Maxey averaged 17.5 points and 4.5 assists a game last season, and he is in a position to have those numbers jump again this season.

Maxey is quick with the ball and can get downhill, with the skill set to finish at the rim or pull up and nail the jumper. He shot 42% from 3 last season, although that may be unsustainable (he can shoot, but over 40% every year may be a big ask). Maxey is adding to that game on the court, but it’s his maturity and decision-making — this is his third year in the league — where the biggest leaps are coming.

The 76ers are going to be in the spotlight a lot and should win a lot of regular season games, and with Maxey shining in that light, the All-Star game is a real possibility.

5. Jalen Brunson (Knicks)

Brunson burst out of Luka Doncic’s shadow last season in Dallas and averaged 16.3 points and 4.8 assists a game last season — now he’s going to have the ball in his hands every night on the biggest stage in the NBA. Tom Thibodeau will hand Brunson the keys to the Knicks offense, which means the guard’s counting stats should climb — and with that his All-Star chances go up.

There are questions about how the Knicks’ offense will fit together with Brunson, RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, but Brunson is going to get the chance to prove he can be a No.1 guard. In that spotlight, a trip to Salt Lake City is in the offing.

Steve Nash on Ben Simmons: ‘I don’t care if he ever shoots a jump shot’

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The last season he played, Ben Simmons took just 9% of his shots from beyond 10 feet — he did not space the floor at all, which meant Joel Embiid had to at times. That lack of a jumper he trusted has always been one of the knocks on Ben Simmons’ game.

Steve Nash doesn’t care. Via Nick Friedell of ESPN:

“That’s why I don’t care if he ever shoots a jump shot for the Brooklyn Nets. He’s welcome to, but that is not what makes him special and not what we need. He’s a great complement to our team, and he’s an incredible basketball player because of his versatility.”

In an offense with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving setting the table — particularly in the halfcourt — Simmons is going to be asked to play more of a role: Be an elite defender, push the ball in transition, work in some dribble-handoff situations where he can drive the lane as an option, be a cutter off the ball, and be a distributor in the halfcourt. It’s why Simmons’ ideal role with the Nets often gets compared to Draymond Green — it’s a Draymond-lite role. There will be far less of him as lead guard running pick-and-roll.

Will Simmons settle into that role? Also, it should be noted that peak Green (2016 for example) shot better than 30% from 3 and had to be respected out there (last season 29.6% on 1.2 3s per game) — he had to be covered at the arc. Simmons does not. Also, Green did not avoid getting fouled and getting to the line.

Nash has the task of meshing Simmons into the system and figuring out the rotations — can he play Simmons and Nic Claxton together, or is having two non-jump shooters on the floor at once clog the offense? Is Simmons going to play center at points? There is championship-level talent on the Nets roster, but so many questions about fit, defense, and grit.

There’s no question about Simmons taking jumpers, but Nash doesn’t care.

Pelican’s Green says Zion ‘dominated the scrimmage pretty much’

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The Zion hype train keeps right on rolling. First were the reports he was in the best shape of his life, then he walked into media day and it looked like he is.

Now Zion has his own hype man in Pelicans coach Willie Green, who said he dominated the first day of team scrimmages. Via Andre Lopez of ESPN.

“Z looked amazing,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said on Wednesday afternoon. “His strength, his speed. He dominated the scrimmage pretty much.”

“What stood out was his force more than anything,” Green said. “He got down the floor quickly. When he caught the ball, he made quick decisions. Whether it was scoring, finding a teammate. It was really impressive to see.”

Reach for the salt shaker to take all this with — it’s training camp scrimmages. Maybe Zion is playing that well right now — he’s fully capable, he was almost an All-NBA player in 2020-21 (eighth in forward voting) before his foot injury — but we need to see it against other teams. In games that matter. Then we’ll need to see it over a stretch of time.

If Zion can stay healthy this season, if his conditioning is where everyone says it is, he could be in for a monster season. Combine that with CJ McCollum, Brandon Ingram and a strong supporting cast in New Orleans, and the Pelicans could surprise a lot of people — and be fun to watch.