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
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.