The NBA’s schedule-makers had one job when it came time to construct the annual Christmas Day quintuple-header, and they didn’t screw it up.
That task? Make sure that the Cavaliers and Warriors, fresh off back-to-back Finals matchups, were pitted against each other on network television. The other four games are trivialities compared to the Warriors’ first shot at redemption after they frittered away a 73-win season with an unprecedented Finals collapse.
While the rest of the slate lacks a signature showdown, the 10-team field is representative of what’s been a strong start to the 2016–17 season. Five of the league’s six best teams will take the court on the holiday, with the perma-snubbed Raptors being the only exception. As many as 15 members of the 2016 All-Star teams are scheduled to play, pending any late health-related scratches; James Harden is the only leading MVP candidate whose team is off, and Blake Griffin, who recently underwent knee surgery, is the only A-lister who will miss the party for health reasons (so far).
Without further ado, here’s a full breakdown of Sunday’s five-game slate, which includes an intracity rivalry and multiple under-23 studs in addition to the much-anticipated Finals rematch. The following preview is meant to double as a viewer’s guide, with each game being ranked on its “must-see” potential from 1 (gather around the new HDTV) to 5 (go ahead and drown in egg nog).
Game 1: Celtics at Knicks (12 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Previous meetings: The Celtics beat the Knicks 115-87 in Boston on Nov. 11.
Main storyline: Are the Knicks for real?
With Houston getting the day off, New York gets to wear the “Biggest Surprise Team” tag for the day. At 16–13, New York has sailed above its depressed preseason expectations thanks to a productive and healthy start for Carmelo Anthony, the continued blossoming of superstar-in-the-making Kristaps Porzingis, and a mediocre offense that has been consistently good enough to make up for a weak defense when pitted against lesser competition. Although the Knicks are 7–4 so far in December, all seven wins came against below-.500 teams and two of the losses came in blowout fashion to the Cavaliers and Warriors. New York’s minus-2.7 point differential ranks 11th in the East and 21st overall, suggesting that its current spot in the conference standings could be difficult to maintain.
Boston, meanwhile, has finally generated some sustained positive momentum since welcoming back Al Horford, entering Friday with a 7–4 record in December and riding season-best four-game winning streak. If the Celtics are serious about closing the gap on the Atlantic-leading Raptors, this is the type of game they should win. But Anthony, Porzingis and company have proven they aren’t pushovers this season, making the early game worth waking up to watch.
Matchup to watch: Carmelo Anthony versus George Karl. Sure, the longtime coach won’t be directly involved, but he opened a giant can of worms this week when excerpts from his new book “Furious George” leaked online. The excerpts included criticisms of a number of Karl’s former players, including Anthony, who was singled out for his alleged lack of commitment to defense and his upbringing in a single-parent household. Anthony took the high road on Thursday, dodging questions and telling reporters that he “hopes [Karl] finds happiness,” but he will get his chance to make a bigger statement in front of a gigantic audience on Sunday.
Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 3. The 7’3” Porzingis and the 5’9” Isaiah Thomas are arguably the most delightful players at their respective heights in NBA history. With Anthony, Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings all vying for time on the big stage, the Madison Square Garden crowd should get its money’s worth.
Game 2: Warriors at Cavaliers (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Previous meetings: None this season.
Main storyline: The Warriors blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals.
This one writes itself. Golden State won in 2015. Cleveland won, in pinch-yourself fashion, in 2016. The rest of the world hasn’t let the Warriors forget about it and, in turn, the reloaded Warriors have reclaimed their pride by wreaking havoc all season long. At 26–4 entering Friday, Golden State was quietly on a 71-win pace, even though Stephen Curry has rarely had to hit sixth gear and even though coach Steve Kerr had to rework his playing rotations after a decent amount of off-season roster turnover.
Cleveland’s early-season run has been exceedingly comfortable. LeBron James and company have jogged out to the East’s top seed, smacked the Raptors in all three of their meetings, and generally handled their business like a team that fully expects to hold up its end of the bargain on the Finals three-match. The only bummer? J.R. Smith is set to miss 12–14 on his thumb that will cause him to miss an extended period of time, including the Christmas game. It’s a shame that the single most exciting matchup of the season to date won’t be played at full strength.
Matchup to watch: James versus Kevin Durant. There are intriguing positional matchups and strategic questions up and down this roster, but the showdown between these longtime rivals deserves top billing. The biggest story of the 2016 off-season was Durant’s decision to leave a certified title contender in Oklahoma City for the title favorite in Golden State. That move gives Durant his best shot yet at dethroning James, who has compiled a whopping 17–4 head-to-head record (including playoffs).
Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 1… and it’s not close. Expect monster television ratings and humongous postgame overreactions, regardless of the outcome.
Game 3: Bulls at Spurs (5 p.m. ET, ABC)
Previous meetings: The Bulls beat the Spurs 95-91 in Chicago on Dec. 8.
Main storyline: New eras for familiar faces.
There are plenty of good reasons to be down on this game. No real history or rivalry between the two franchises. No “glamour” names for the Spurs. No hope that Rajon Rondo suddenly disappears from Chicago’s roster. No way to know which version of the inconsistent Bulls show up against a disciplined and talented opponent on the road. No Tim Duncan.
But this game does have one major theme: change. Bulls guard Dwyane Wade, a Christmas Day staple with the Heat, is back with a new squad. Spurs big Pau Gasol will square off against his former team. Gregg Popovich will take his place on San Antonio’s sideline with No. 21 hanging in the AT&T Center’s rafters above him. Even the game’s two most reliable—Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler—are working through adjustments, as both are posting career-high usage rates in alpha roles.
Matchup to watch: Leonard versus Butler. The 2011 first-round picks both rank in the top 10 by Real Plus Minus and the top 11 by Player Efficiency Rating this season, and both are strong candidates to make the All-NBA and All-Defensive Teams. Their numbers, through Thursday, are eerily similar:
Butler: 24.4 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 1.7 SPG, 45.2 FG%, 25.8 PER, +6.6 RPM
Leonard: 24 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 2 SPG, 46.7 FG%, 26.6 PER, +6.0 RPM
Besides James/Durant, this is easily the most intriguing individual matchup on Christmas.
Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 4. Unfortunately for Butler, Leonard has more help and he’ll be playing at home. This game has sneaky blowout potential, especially if Chicago’s league-worst three-point shooting continues.
Game 4: Timberwolves at Thunder (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Previous meetings: The Thunder beat the Timberwolves 112-92 in Oklahoma City on Nov. 5.
Main storyline: The “Next Big Thing” faces the “The Next Big Thing That Never Quite Was.”
Let’s be honest: the NBA’s schedule-makers took a little bit of a chance here, praying that the ultra-young Timberwolves would enjoy a breakthrough under new coach Tom Thibodeau. That decision meant leaving an established playoff team like the Raptors and an A-list megastar like Harden at home in hopes of showcasing Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and company. Unfortunately, Thibodeau hasn’t been able to turn things around overnight, as a bottom-five defense and a bad habit of blowing leads has left the Timberwolves near the bottom of the West standings.
At the same time, this matchup was an intelligently hedged bet. At some point last summer, NBA Executive 1 turned to NBA Executive 2 and asked, “But what happens if the Timberwolves just aren't ready for prime time?” Then, NBA executive 2 smirked and replied, “Well, Russell Westbrook will get to go nuts against a young defense.” Then they both started laughing maniacally and called it a day.
Hanging over this game, of course, will be Westbrook’s status as the last remaining member of the Durant/Westbrook/Harden trio. While Minnesota’s young core hasn’t proven that it deserves the “Next Oklahoma City” tag quite yet, the Timberwolves’ long-term outlook is about as bright as it gets. Even if the Thunder’s title window is currently closed, Westbrook has no interest in passing the torch or going quietly into the night. The stakes here are much lower than Warriors/Cavaliers, but there’s still plenty of explosive potential.
Matchup to watch: Westbrook versus the world.
Westbrook enters Friday’s action averaging a league-best 31.3 PPG, 10.5 RPG and 10.8 APG, numbers that haven’t been matched in all three categories during the modern era. Not even by Oscar Robertson! His 41.9 Usage Rate is also the highest of the modern era, topping Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson during their respective shot-launching primes. The Warriors, Cavaliers and Rockets have been more entertaining as teams, but Westbrook has been the individual show of the 2016–17 season, bar none. The best part? He knows it.
Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 2. Westbrook is good for two or three or four (or 10) “wow” moments that will brighten the holiday. There’s also too much young talent on both teams for this game to be boring, even if the Timberwolves prove to be in over their heads.
Game 5: Clippers at Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Previous meetings: None this season.
Main storyline: Stumbling into the holiday.
There’s no snow advisory for Southern California, but both LA teams have suffered through some tough sledding in recent weeks. After an unexpectedly strong and jolly start to a rebuilding campaign, the young Lakers have plummeted down the standings during a 1-11 December (entering Friday). Unfortunately, even the win bears an asterisk, as it came against the dreadful Sixers.
The Clippers have also slipped a bit after a franchise-best 14-2 start, but the bigger issue of late has been – surprise, surprise – injuries. Griffin is expected to miss at least a month after minor knee surgery, while Chris Paul is “day to day” after sustaining a hamstring strain against the Spurs on Thursday. Unfortunately for the Christmas Day audience, the Clippers are far, far more enjoyable at full strength.
Matchup to watch: Paul versus his hamstring. No offense to the frisky “Baby Lakers,” but this game hinges on Paul’s availability. If he plays, the Clippers are likely to roll, as they’ve compiled an overwhelming 15-1 record and a +16.6 point differential against the Lakers since the start of the 2012-13 season. If Paul joins Griffin in street clothes, the resulting star void will be tough to overcome for the casual fan. Either way, consider it a win for the Lakers if D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Brandon Ingram and company can push this one into the second half.
Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 5. Whether or not Paul suits up, this game would have had a whole lot more buzz if Christmas Day had happened to fall during mid-November.