NBA Christmas Day preview: Rivalries, rising stars headline five-game slate
The NBA’s 2014 Christmas slate isn’t a perfect collection of top-flight matchups, but there’s still something for everyone if you’re willing to dig a bit.
Two major themes are likely to dominate the five-game schedule: juicy rivalries and the showcasing of a number of ascendant young stars.
On the player-centric rivalry front, Cavaliers forward LeBron James will return to Miami for the first time since he left the Heat in free agency, while Bulls big man Pau Gasol will face his former Lakers teammates since he left last summer. Team-wise, the Thunder and Spurs will pick up where they left off in an entertaining Western Conference finals before the Clippers and Warriors add another chapter to their ongoing California rivalry.
While familiar faces like James, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony are expected to headline the festivities, the next generation of impact players is angling to steal the show. Look for a host of rising floor generals (John Wall, Russell Westbrook, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry) to take a run at Paul’s “Best point guard in the league” status. Meanwhile, a trio of 25-and-under shooting guards (Jimmy Butler, Klay Thompson and Bradley Beal) will be aiming to take their turn on center stage.
The presence of two weak big-market teams (Knicks and Lakers) drags down the collective record of the 10 teams playing on Christmas to 155-128 (.548). That’s down from 160-117 (.578) last season and 164-99 (.624) in 2012. Toronto (No. 1 in the East at 22-7), Atlanta (No. 2 in the East at 21-7), Portland (No. 2 in the West at 23-7), and Memphis (No. 3 in the West at 21-7) all have reason to grumble over their snubs. Surely, all four of those teams -- and their fans -- are used to being overlooked by now.
Use the following in-depth preview and viewer’s guide to manage Thursday’s five-game marathon.
- Don't miss the Christmas Day jerseys by Adidas, which are sleeveless (hooray) and feature the player's first name on the back (huh?).
- Check out Nike's Christmas sneakers for James, Bryant and Durant.
- SI.com selects the NBA's best moments of 2014.
Game 1: Wizards (19-8) at Knicks (5-25), 12 p.m. ET, ESPN
Previous meetings: The Wizards beat the Knicks 98-83 in New York on Nov. 4.
Headline-dominating story: The Knicks are terrible. Last Christmas, the Knicks were embarrassed by the Thunder 123-94. There’s no great reason to believe that New York will fare significantly better this time around. The Knicks have a grand total of one win against a plus-.500 team this season (their shocking win over Cleveland during the Cavaliers’ season-opener) and they’ve lost 15 of their last 16 games. First-year coach Derek Fisher doesn’t have much besides Anthony to work with, and the Knicks’ defense is fourth-worst in the league. Washington, on the other hand, has slipped comfortably into its “Eastern Conference sleeper” role by getting out to a nice start despite Beal’s early-season absence due to a wrist injury. As long as the Wizards can handle the Madison Square Garden glitz and the extra Christmas attention -- they haven’t played on Christmas since 2008 -- they should be expected to win comfortably.
Matchup to watch: Wall vs. Whichever Knicks try to stay in front of him. Wall has been on a respect-seeking mission for a few years now, and his reputation is currently at an all-time high thanks to Washington’s nice record and his pretty averages (17.8 points, a career-high 10.4 assists and 2.1 steals). Westbrook compiled a triple-double against the Knicks on Christmas last year and the super-charged Wall will surely be looking to make a similar imprint against New York’s uninspiring backcourt.
Priority Order (from one to five, one being the best): 5. Cross your fingers that Knicks president Phil Jackson can figure out how to put out a better product by Christmas 2015. For now, feel free to sleep in or handle presents in the morning rather than subject yourself to this unnecessary torture. Check for Wall’s YouTube highlights and the celebrity row photos later in the day.
Game 2: Thunder (13-16) at Spurs (18-11), 2:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Previous meetings: None this season. San Antonio eliminated Oklahoma City from the 2014 Western Conference finals in six games.
Headline-dominating story: Injuries put perennial favorites behind the eight ball. San Antonio and Oklahoma City have dominated the West in recent years; the last team to represent the conference in the Finals was Dallas in 2011. This season, though, injuries to Westbrook, Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker (among many others) have the Spurs in the No. 7 seed and the Thunder trying to work back into the playoff picture. The good news? Both teams have been playing some seriously entertaining basketball lately: San Antonio played back-to-back triple-overtime games against Memphis and Portland this week, while Oklahoma City fell to Portland in a rollicking overtime on Tuesday. The biggest question for Thursday is the status of Durant, as the reigning MVP has missed three straight games with an ankle injury.
Matchup to watch: Westbrook vs. Westbrook. Despite a hand injury that sidelined him for multiple weeks, Westbrook has been generating a little MVP buzz. His numbers (28.2 points, 7.1 assists, 5.8 rebounds and two steals) are insane, and his influence on games continues to increase. Although he’s always must-see TV, Westbrook is sure to play with a little zest on Thursday following a sensational but bewildering performance against the Blazers on Tuesday. He finished with 40 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and three steals, but he managed to kick away the game in the final minute by committing a bad foul, receiving a technical foul and missing a crucial free throw. Rest assured, his turbo boosters will be fully charged to make amends for that one.
Priority Order (from one to five, one being the best): 2. The absence of Leonard and Durant’s uncertain status (he’s gotta play, right?) prevent this rematch from earning top honors. Still, fans of entertaining basketball know that Thunder/Spurs always delivers. Whet your appetite with this over-the-head, no-look pass from Manu Ginobili or this rim-shaking tomahawk dunk from Westbrook.
Game 3: Cavaliers (17-10) at Heat (13-16), 5:00 p.m. ET, ABC
Previous meetings: None this season.
Headline-dominating story: James takes his talents back to South Beach (briefly). When in doubt, the headlines go to James, and there’s plenty of doubt around both the Cavaliers and the Heat. Cleveland has picked up its game recently, winning 12 of its last 14, but there’s still plenty of work to be done in the chemistry, defense and depth departments. Miami, for its part, hasn’t yet carved out a consistent, winning identity; the Heat are 4-8 in December and have lost Josh McRoberts, a major offseason addition, to season-ending knee surgery. James’ numbers (25.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 7.8 assists, 25.3 Player Efficiency Rating) are mostly down, and he’s looked slightly less transcendent so far this season. Christmas Day viewers will be hoping that James emerges from this haze to turn in a signature performance.
Matchup to watch: James vs. the American Airlines Arena crowd. Cheers? Boos? The Miami home crowd can be a fickle bunch; some Heat fans famously departed early from multiple Finals games and there have been plenty of empty seats this season. James’ departure after a four-year, two-title stint in Miami potentially opened the door for some lingering bitterness, but it shouldn’t be anything compared to what he endured in Cleveland following “The Decision.” Also of interest: will Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh welcome James back with open arms or iciness?
Priority Order (from one to five, one being the best): 3. This looked like the potential “Game of the Year” back in August, but James’ departure robbed Miami of most of its intrigue and Cleveland isn’t yet performing to its full, potent capabilities. Even so, you -- and the rest of the country -- will be watching to see how James is received.
Game 4: Lakers (9-19) at Bulls (19-9), 8:00 p.m. ET, TNT
Previous meetings: None this season.
Headline-dominating story: Gasol moves on (and up). Gasol looks like one of the offseason’s biggest winners, as he traded all of Bryant’s “Big Boy Pants” cracks for a big-time role on a winner in Chicago. His fit with the Bulls has been strong, as he’s averaging 18 points, 11.5 rebounds and two blocks for an offense that has improved from No. 28 to No. 8 this season. After losing Dwight Howard and Gasol in successive summers, the Lakers have struggled mightily this season, posting the league’s second-worst defense and running far too much of their offense through Bryant. Chicago enters Christmas having won seven of its last eight games; and oft-injured point guard Derrick Rose, in particular, has enjoyed a great week, posting 29 points against Kyle Lowry and the Raptors on Monday and 25 points against Wall’s Wizards on Tuesday.
Matchup to watch: Bryant vs. Butler. If all of the league’s shooting guards were put into a draft, Butler just might be the second player taken after Rockets guard James Harden. SI.com profiled Butler back in November as he was riding a breakout start to Player of the Month honors. He hasn’t fallen off at all since then, averaging 21.3 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.5 steals in December. Bryant, on the other hand, enters Christmas facing criticism for his ball dominance, aggressive shot selection, and late-game struggles. The Lakers played arguably their best game of the season without a resting Bryant, upsetting the Warriors 115-105 on Tuesday, and a rough shooting night on a big stage could further the criticism of the future Hall of Famer’s role. One thing is for sure: Butler will eagerly approach the task of making life tough for Bryant.
Priority Order (from one to five, one being the best): 4. These two teams played a tight game back on Christmas 2011, but a lot has changed since then. The Lakers, losers of six of their last nine games, can’t be counted on for much more than intrigue at this point. Although Bryant and Nick Young are capable of putting on a show, the Bulls’ balance should produce a home victory -- and perhaps a comfortable one.
Game 5: Warriors (23-4) at Clippers (19-10), 10:30 p.m. ET, TNT
Previous meetings: The Warriors defeated the Clippers 121-104 at home on Nov. 5. The Clippers eliminated the Warriors from the 2014 playoffs in a seven-game first-round series.
Headline-dominating story: Bad blood (again). These two teams faced off last Christmas in a game that predictably ended in fireworks (two flagrant fouls, three technical fouls and the disputed ejection of Blake Griffin). The rivalry has only grown more intense following the 2014 playoffs, and Golden State’s league-leading start should provide even more fuel for L.A.’s fire. A quick list of incidents involving these two teams includes Blake Griffin stepping on Mark Jackson’s foot, Jackson refusing to participate in chapel service with the Clippers, Jackson calling Griffin a “great actor,” the Warriors’ bench mocking Griffin for badly missing a three-pointer, Draymond Green sticking out his tongue near Griffin earlier this season, and multiple controversies during the 2014 playoffs. That list will certainly be updated with a new entry (or entries) on Thursday.
Matchup to watch: Paul vs. Curry. Again, not much has changed since last year, when these two electrifying point guards headlined the nightcap game. In 2013, Paul finished with 26 points, 11 assists and the win, while Curry put up 15 points, 11 assists and six rebounds. Curry would go on to bump Paul out of the 2014 All-Star Game starting lineup, and he currently tops Paul on the Player Efficiency Rating charts (Paul has led all point guards in PER for each of the last seven seasons). At 26, Curry has emerged as an MVP candidate under first-year coach Steve Kerr, improving his defense and continuing to hit steely shots late in games. A strong showing for Curry on Christmas would represent go-to ammunition for those who are ready to move him past Paul on the point guard ranking lists.
Priority Order (from one to five, one being the best): 1. Despite a stinker from the Warriors against the Lakers on Tuesday, the NBA’s nightcap should have it all: star power, two quality teams with rich history, and the potential for drama. Pace yourself. Passing out at halftime (or earlier) could prove to be a major mistake.