Christmas gets more important with each passing NBA season. For one day a year, every structural problem the league faces gets brushed aside. There is no ratings crisis. There are no load-management concerns. There are just games. The NBA typically lines up 10 of its best teams, and with nothing at stake but pride and a single mark in the standings, the league’s brightest stars universally put on a show. For all of the issues facing the NBA now, it has managed to gift us one unblemished day of endless basketball joy.
This year will be no exception. We may well see conference finals previews in both the East and the West. Every game features All-Stars. And the action never stops. It begins with Kemba Walker and the Boston Celtics taking on the defending champion Toronto Raptors. Next, things heat up even more in the East as Giannis Antetokounmpo and the first-place Milwaukee Bucks visit the Philadelphia 76ers. Things switch over to the West when James Harden tries to keep the Houston Rockets climbing up the standings in a road game against the Golden State Warriors. In what should be the game of the day, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Los Angeles Lakers play host to their crosstown rivals, the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George-led Los Angeles Clippers. Wrapping up the holiday fun, the New Orleans Pelicans pay a visit to the Denver Nuggets.
So enjoy 13 hours of uninterrupted couch time with the regular season’s best full day of basketball. Here’s everything you need to know going into NBA Christmas Day.
1. Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors, 12 p.m. ET
The optics of this game have completely changed just within the last week. The Raptors have dealt with injuries all season long, but none as crucial as having Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol and Norman Powell all out indefinitely at the same time. Toronto has been able to weather the storm through injuries to Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka. It seems regardless of who is out, the Raptors keep winning games.
However, going up against a Boston team that has been playing some of its best basketball lately will be the ultimate challenge for Toronto without its best player. After a rocky start to the season, Kemba Walker has flourished with the Celtics, leading the team in points per game (22.6) and assists (5.4) entering Monday. What’s even more impressive is Walker ranking fifth in the league in points per possession off the pick-and-roll. As a team, the Celtics rank second in the league off points generated in the pick-and-roll, as it’s been their strength all season long. They’ve managed to kill teams with their offense, whether the scoring is coming from Walker, Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown, and their defense is right up their with Toronto’s as one of the best in the league.
Without Siakam’s scoring and defensive presence, the Raptors will have their hands full guarding the three-headed monster of Walker, Tatum and Brown. Gasol has had a down year thus far, but he has the best net rating (plus-10.8) of any of the other starters on the team, and still provides solid defense in the post. When this starting lineup is intact, the Raptors have proved to be one of the best teams in the East. While they have also proven to have the depth to contend through injuries, they haven’t had to play a team like the Celtics, especially without Siakam. Toronto can still get it done on the defensive end of the floor, but someone will need to help Lowry carry some of the offensive weight to keep this game interesting.
This will be the first time that Toronto has hosted a Christmas Day game, and just the second time it has played on the holiday. The Raptors have one of the best home environments in the league, which is part of the reason why they hold a 13-3 record at Scotiabank Arena this season. They’ll get some help from the crowd to make the game tough for Boston, but unless Toronto gets enough help from its entire roster to make up for Siakam’s absence, the Celtics could pull away with a win here. — Jasmyn Wimbish
2. Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers, 2:30 p.m. ET
The Christmas Day matchup between the 76ers and Bucks is the first of three meetings the teams will have this season, as both will also play twice in Milwaukee in February. The Sixers enter this potential conference finals preview with an all-time Christmas Day record of 17-14, while the Bucks are 3-2. Both teams also played on Christmas last season. The Sixers lost 121-114 to the Celtics in Boston, while the Bucks bested the Knicks in New York 109-95. The victory against the Knicks represented Milwaukee’s first Christmas Day game since 1977, when they played the Kansas City Kings.
After losing in last season’s Eastern Conference finals, the Bucks have been on a mission and sit at the top of the East as a result, thanks largely to the play of reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has improved upon his stellar play from last season, and is averaging 31 points, 12.9 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.2 blocks per game for Milwaukee. He appears poised to raise a second straight Maurice Podoloff trophy at the end of the season. It’s worth noting that Giannis posted a career-high 52 points against Philadelphia last March.
The Sixers have also been solid to start the season, albeit a bit more inconsistent than Milwaukee. While the Bucks have a hold on the conference’s top spot, Philly has been embroiled in a battle for prime positioning along with other teams in the East playoff picture like Miami, Boston, Toronto and Indiana. All-Star center Joel Embiid leads the Sixers with per game averages of 23.1 points and 12.8 rebounds per game. We’ll see if Philly’s big man along with Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris can help the Sixers stay hot at home against the East’s top squad and player. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain
3. Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors, 5 p.m. ET
One of the NBA’s fiercest rivalries of the last few seasons has taken a dramatic turn, as the Warriors have gone from perennial championship favorite to potential lottery winner in the blink of an eye (or the fracture of Stephen Curry’s hand). That takes a lot of the luster out of what would have been a star-studded matchup, but we’ll still get to see James Harden and Russell Westbrook go up against D’Angelo Russell and Draymond Green, assuming they’re healthy, which should provide a good amount of entertainment.
Despite the staggering difference in overall records, don’t automatically assume this game is going to be a blowout. The Warriors have had trouble closing out games, but they have been competitive in losses throughout the season. On the other side, the Rockets have a penchant for falling behind in the first half, only to turn things on toward the end of the game. That’s partly a product of their inability to focus on defense for 48 minutes, but it’s also due to the nature of their offense — when you hoist that many 3-pointers, you’re going to go through hot and cold spells, which means you can fall behind just as quickly as you can surge ahead.
The player to watch in this matchup is obviously Harden, who’s been on an absolute scoring tear this season. He’s currently averaging over 38 points per game, which no player has done in the history of the NBA besides Wilt Chamberlain — Michael Jordan averaged 37.09 points per game in 1986-87. Harden also has a history of big games against the Warriors. He scored 36 points with 13 assists in a 17-point win earlier this season, and had 44 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in a thriller at Oracle Arena last January. Westbrook has also been known to have big games against the Warriors, and he’ll be visiting the Bay Area as a Rocket for the first time.
On the Warriors side, the injuries to Curry and Klay Thompson along with the departure of Kevin Durant have opened up opportunities for lesser-known players to emerge. Villanova product Eric Paschall is third among rookies in scoring this season, while Alec Burks is averaging a career high in scoring given the extra playing time. Green and Russell have been in and out of the lineup, but they’re the unquestioned Golden State leaders when they’re on the court. Russell leads the team in both scoring and assists in his first season as a Warrior.
While this may not be the matchup it once was (or will be in the future), it’s still worth tuning in on Christmas Day to see some of the league’s most dynamic players in what should be a relatively competitive game. — Colin Ward-Henninger
4. Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers, 8 p.m. ET
Throw everything you saw on opening night out the window. The Clippers didn’t have Paul George. The Lakers gave 47 minutes to Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels and Jared Dudley, who now play only in emergencies. With Rajon Rondo hurt and Alex Caruso benched on a coach’s decision, neither of their two rotational point guards played. These are two completely teams, and as such, we were always going to see two very different strategies even before LeBron James .
The Lakers, in particular, have compromises to consider. They are at their most dangerous with Anthony Davis at center for a variety of reasons, but the most important for the sake of this matchup is that it offers the simplest solution to defending the devastating Clippers’ pick-and-roll. Stick Davis on Montrezl Harrell, and suddenly, switching it becomes viable in a way that doesn’t exist for most teams. Normal wings can’t bang with Harrell. LeBron can.
The drawbacks to doing so are severe. The Clippers are practically a basketball hydra. Cut off one strength and two more take its place. The Lakers’ defense relies on the overwhelming rim protection pairing Davis with either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard provides. They’ve held up well defensively in the Davis at center minutes — 103.2 points allowed per 100 possessions, per cleaning the glass — but the Clippers create a host of other problems. Among them: They are the NBA’s fourth-best offensive rebounding team without sacrificing anything in the way of transition defense. Going small against them risks death by 1,000 possessions. Even putting LeBron on Kawhi Leonard, as such a plan would necessitate, risks tiring James out defensively.
The Clippers have to reckon with the opposite side of that coin. Harrell has no chance defensively against Davis, and downsizing cripples them on the boards. The Clippers are about as aggressive as it gets in picking up ball-handlers at half court and trapping when the opportunity presents itself, and they will do so when Davis leads bench lineups to try to keep the ball out of his hands, but doubling passers at LeBron’s level is utterly untenable. The Clippers learned that the hard way against James Harden. When both Lakers’ stars are on the floor, the Clippers will surely double Davis in the post. That can work when another center is on the floor. When one isn’t? You’d better hope the Lakers miss.
These are just a few of the dozens of problems both teams need to solve against one another, and neither is going to have all of their answers before or after this game. In truth, this is a trial run, an open laboratory for Doc Rivers and Frank Vogel to tinker with any micro tactics they might be considering for when these games start to count in the spring. Ultimately, the final score isn’t what’s going to matter in this one, but how we get there will say quite a bit about what to expect when the real games begin. — Sam Quinn
5. New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets, 10:30 p.m. ET
The fifth and final game of the Christmas Day slate features the New Orleans Pelicans against the Denver Nuggets. Unfortunately, it will not feature No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson. The Pelicans rookie underwent surgery to repair the lateral meniscus in his right knee just before the season started, and is yet to play, despite the fact that the initial 6-8 week timeline has come and gone.
Williamson’s absence has been a bummer on a number of fronts. First and foremost, undergoing knee surgery before you’ve played a real game is an awful way to start your NBA career, but especially when you’re already dealing with the expectations of being the No. 1 pick. Plus, for fans, we haven’t been able to see him play, and from what we did catch of him in the preseason, that means we’ve missed out on a whole lot of fun. Then, there’s the ratings issue. It’s boring to talk about, but it is worth mentioning that Williamson being out, coupled with the Pelicans being on national TV all the time, hasn’t helped the poor TV ratings the league is worried about.
And finally, Williamson’s injury has been a huge blow to the Pelicans. There were fairly high expectations for them to potentially compete for a playoff spot this season with Williamson and the veterans they signed in the summer. Nothing has gone to plan, though, and they enter Christmas near the bottom of the Western Conference at 7-23. Their defense has been a disaster, their offense hasn’t been much better, and there’s already reports that they’re Jrue Holiday, which signals that they’re already viewing this as a lost season.on veteran point guard
Given their various issues, they’ll have their hands full against a strong Nuggets team. After their breakout season, in which they won 54 games and made it to the second round of the playoffs, there was a lot of intrigue about how Denver would fare this time around in a top-heavy Western Conference that saw a number of other contenders emerge in the summer. So far, it has proven that last season was no fluke. At 20-8, the Nuggets won six games in a row, and sit in second place ahead of the likes of the Rockets and Clippers.
That’s quite impressive on its own, but even more so considering their MVP candidate from last season, Nikola Jokic, was nowhere near his usual self to start the season. Often looking disinterested, he was barely shooting some games, and his numbers were down across the board. He’s turned things around in the past few weeks, however, and has been playing much butter during the Nuggets’ big winning streak. While it’s too bad we won’t get to see Williamson play on Christmas, watching The Joker is a pretty good present itself. — Jack Maloney