What gifts will NBA Christmas games bring?
7:59 | NBA
What gifts will NBA Christmas games bring?
Thursday December 24th, 2015

Here’s a Christmas miracle: unlike last year, injuries shouldn’t dampen the mood during the NBA’s annual holiday showcase.

Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant and Kawhi Leonard were among the headlining stars who sat out Christmas 2014 due to various ailments. This year? The 10-team field—which is built around a highly-anticipated Finals rematch between the Warriors and Cavaliers—should be fully loaded.

Barring any last-second scratches, 13 2015 All-NBA selections will take part in Friday’s festivities: LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Anthony Davis, LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Tim Duncan, DeAndre Jordan, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. But, wait, there’s more. That group will be supplemented by the likes of Durant, Bryant, Leonard, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard.  

The biggest question marks have been Irving, who missed 24 games this season due to tknee surgery, and the 37-year-old Bryant, who has been resting periodically in his 20th and final NBA season. However, Irving returned to the court for the Cavaliers last Sunday and Lakers coach Byron Scott strongly hinted on Wednesday that Bryant would suit up on Christmas.

Now that all the A-listers have RSVP'd, it’s time for a full breakdown of the five-game slate. The following preview is meant to double as a viewer’s guide, with each game being ranked on its “must-see” potential.

Pregame Preparations

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Game 1: Pelicans (9-19) at Heat (16-11)
[12 p.m. ET, ESPN]

Previous meetings: None this season.

Main storyline: Is it already too late for the Pelicans? Christmas opens with a somewhat strange pairing: New Orleans and Miami have no real shared history and they are, for now, headed in opposite directions. After a big step back last season following the departure of LeBron James, the Heat have pushed back into the playoff conversation this year. The Pelicans, meanwhile, haven’t been able to deliver on their “up-and-coming” reputation, instead sliding from the West’s No. 8 seed last year all the way to No. 14 in the conference this year.

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Your eyes aren’t deceiving you: a team with Anthony Davis, certified All-NBA First Team material, has the fourth-worst record in the league, besting only the Sixers, Lakers and Nets. There is some good news: Tyreke Evans returned recently from injury, Jrue Holiday has held up so far in somewhat limited minutes, and the West is significantly softer than it’s been in recent years. In fact, the Pelicans are just 3.5 games out of the conference’s final playoff spot. They’ll need to make serious upward progress soon, but crazier things have happened.      

Matchup to watch: Anthony Davis vs. Hassan WhitesideFrom a life story standpoint, there are plenty of contrasts between Davis, the 2012 No. 1 overall pick, and Whiteside, a former second round pick who traveled the globe before finally finding a home in Miami. Davis went to Kentucky, where he won a national title, and then made the All-Star team in his second year. Whiteside went to Marshall, spent time in the D-League, and then was released by the Kings and Grizzlies. Davis is on the cover of NBA 2K16. Whiteside famously suggested, during a post-game interview, that his 2K15 rating underrated him and that the game-makers needed to increase it.

The two players do have at least one major skill in common: they block shots. A lot of shots. Often in spectacular fashion. Whiteside currently leads the league with 4 blocks per game, while Davis ranks second at 2.7. Let the spiking begin.   

Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 4. Miami has been good but not great this year (ranking No. 10 in the league in point differential) while New Orleans is just 3-13 on the road. While both squads are loaded with creators, the best team action will be coming later in the day. There’s really no need to rush through opening presents or other morning activities. The YouTubes and Vines should be waiting when you’re done, with Davis, Whiteside, Wade and Bosh taking turns getting in on the action.

Game 2: Bulls (15-11) at Thunder (20-9)
2:30 p.m. ET, ABC]

Previous meetings: The Bulls beat the Thunder 104-98 in Chicago on Nov. 5.

Main storyline: Two college coaches adjust to the pro game. The NBA surely planned this “Fred Hoiberg vs. Billy Donovan” showdown from the start. The narrative is just too easy: two championship contenders hoping that a coaching change can get them over the hump.

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That story got an added jolt recently when Jimmy Butler suggested that Hoiberg was a “laid-back guy” and that the Bulls needed to “be coached a lot harder.” Now, Christmas represents a showdown between a wavering Chicago team facing locker-room question while riding a three-game losing streak and a surging Oklahoma City squad that has won nine of its last 10. An ugly loss for the Bulls would turn up the heat on Hoiberg and add fuel to trade rumors that are circling a team with many mismatched pieces.

Matchup to watch: Russell Westbrook vs. Derrick Rose. In years past, this would have been billed as a head-to-head matchup of the league’s two most explosive point guards. No longer. Westbrook, for one, continues to impress: his 30.5 PER ranks second in the league and his 25.3 PPG, 6.9 RPG and 9.3 APG averages haven’t been matched for a season since Oscar Robertson in 1966. Rose, though, has been in a season-long tailspin: he’s averaging 13.5 PPG on 37.2% shooting and his 9.8 PER ranks No. 61 among point guards. Given that Westbrook isn’t exactly known as the merciful type, this one could get ugly.    

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Christmas Day rank: No. 2. Oklahoma City is playing some dazzling basketball right now. Since Kevin Durant returned from a minor leg injury on Nov. 23, the Thunder have the league’s third-best record (12-3) and the league’s second-best point differential (+12.8). The Durant/Westbrook pairing is as relentlessly entertaining as ever.

Game 3: Cavaliers (19-7) at Warriors (27-1)
[5 p.m. ET, ABC]

Previous meetings: None this season, but Golden State beat Cleveland in the 2015 Finals in six games.

Main storyline: The NBA’s best start ever faces its toughest test yet. After winning an NBA-record 24 games to start the season, Golden State enters Christmas at 26-1, the best pre-Christmas mark in league history. It’s been a joyous ride—but one that has been aided by a back-loaded schedule. To date, the Warriors have yet to face the Cavaliers, Spurs or Thunder.

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That makes Christmas’s marquee matchup even more interesting: 1) This is a showdown between LeBron James and Stephen Curry, the two most popular players in the league, 2) This is a rematch of the 2015 Finals that pits the West’s current No. 1 seed versus the East’s current No. 1, and 3) This is easily the biggest test yet for a Warriors team that has crazy aspirations (70 wins? 73 wins?). That sound you hear is NBA commissioner Adam Silver cackling in anticipation of this game’s TV rating.

On the injury front, Kyrie Irving’s return only pushes this game to the next level, as it gives Cleveland a strong positional counter to Curry’s MVP play. Kevin Love, who missed the entire Finals, will also get a chance to enter the fray. For the Warriors, forward Harrison Barnes is expected to miss the game due to an ankle injury that has sidelined him since Nov. 28.

Matchup to watch: Lineups, lineups, lineups. LeBron James and Curry might play different positions and with vastly different styles, but they are both as bankable as it gets when it comes to entertainment value. The league’s two most popular players are clearly the top matchup here.

Past that, though, there should be some lineup intrigue for diehards. Will the Warriors elect to start 2015 Finals MVP Andre Iguodala against James rather than keeping him in his sixth man role? How often will Warriors interim coach Luke Walton opt to use Draymond Green at center in the small ball orientation that helped Golden State capture three straight games to win the Finals? Will Cleveland elect to stay big with center Timofey Mozgov or try out some more interchangeable lineups with either Tristan Thompson, Kevin Love or James at center? Or, will both teams decide to keep their aces up their sleeves? 

Christmas Day rank: No. 1. And it’s not even close. Schedule your entire life around this freaking game.

Game 4: Spurs (25-5) at Rockets (15-15)
[8 p.m. ET, ESPN]

Previous meetings: None this season. This will mark the first of four meetings between now and the end of February for the Southwest Division rivals.

Headline-dominating story: Stability versus instability. The fourth game of the day will pit the NBA’s longest-tenured coach against its shortest-tenured coach. And it’s quite the gap. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will have been on the job since Dec. 10, 1996—a span of 6,954 days. Meanwhile, Rockets interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff will have been on the job for just 37 days since taking over for the fired Kevin McHale last month.

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That contrast reflects the state of both franchises. In one corner, the ageless Tim Duncan is surrounded by perhaps the most talented roster of his storied career thanks to the continued development of Kawhi Leonard and the offseason arrival of LaMarcus Aldridge. The Spurs have been so good this season that they actually have a better point differential than the Warriors, which seems impossible. The Rockets, on the other hand, are trying to pull themselves together after an unexpectedly slow start. Although Houston was easily the biggest disappointment of November, given that it advanced to the Western Conference finals last year and returned most of its roster, things have been looking up. Since Dec. 1, the Rockets are 8-4 with a top-five point differential.

Matchup to watch: San Antonio’s ball movement versus Houston’s defense. While San Antonio owes much of its success to its league-leading defense, the offense remains as pretty as ever. The Spurs’ attacking style, which is heavy on ball and body movement, produced trips to the 2013 and 2014 Finals, and is stacking up the blowout wins this season. During its current seven-game winning streak, San Antonio is averaging 110.4 points per game and winning by an average of 21.4 points.

Clearly, Houston’s defense will be tested. After ranking sixth in defensive efficiency last year, the Rockets have slipped to No. 23 this year. Attentiveness, hustle and willingness to sacrifice have all been issues. Beating San Antonio will require a full mental and energy commitment from all parties.

Christmas Day rank: No. 3. Highly, highly, highly recommended. Don’t turn the tube off once Warriors/Cavs is over. If any team besides last year’s two Finalists is going to win the Larry O’Brien trophy, odds are good that it will be the Spurs. Leonard is no longer the unassuming player his own Finals matchups with LeBron James; he’s grown into a polished offensive player and MVP candidate. He, alone, is worth your time on Christmas, to say nothing of Harden (the league’s second-highest scorer) and the other stars on both rosters.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images Sport

Game 5: Clippers (16-13) at Lakers (5-24)
[10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN]

Previous meetings: None this season. The Clippers swept the Lakers 4-0 last season.

Headline-dominating story: Kobe’s final Christmas. On merit, the Lakers have no business playing on Christmas. The Lakers have the West’s worst record and only the tanking Sixers have been less competitive this season. The following stat is real and not an exaggeration: The Thunder beat the Lakers by a combined 75 points in two games this week, even though both games featured extensive (EXTENSIVE) amounts of garbage time to help make the final scores look more palatable.

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But the Kobe Bryant factor tends to trump all, and there is actually good news on that front. While the 37-year-old Bryant has had a tough go this year, following three straight season-ending injuries, there’s been an uptick recently. In December, Bryant is averaging 19.4 PPG on 38.4% shooting, up considerably from his pre-December averages of 15.5 PPG on 30.5% shooting. The aesthetic quality of his play has improved as well: there are fewer airballs, more plays with purpose, and even an occasional dunk or two.

Does that mean the Lakers have a real chance against the Clippers? No, it doesn't. Only the Clippers can beat the Clippers in this one.

Matchup to watch: The Clippers versus the rim. Even with the addition of center Roy Hibbert this summer, the Lakers’ interior defense has been pitiful. Entering Christmas, the Lakers have the league’s worst defensive rating, they are allowing opponents to shoot 61.8% from within five feet of the hoop (the third-worst mark in the league), and they conceded a whopping 76 points in the paint to the Thunder on Wednesday.

That’s really bad news, obviously, given L.A.’s well-known dunking tandem of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. If Chris Paul and company come out with a purpose, this could turn into an alley-oop parade. The Clippers have been a little shakier this season than Doc Rivers would like, but they still boast a top-five offense that can score on anybody.

Christmas Day rank: No. 5. As long as you watch Bulls/Thunder, Cavaliers/Warriors and Spurs/Rockets, you’ll have earned the right to pass out midway through the first quarter of the nightcap. You can always catch up on whatever zany stuff Lance Stephenson did once you emerge from your food coma on Saturday morning.

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