• With Christmas Day right around the corner, it's time to consider what the NBA ensured will be a strong quintuple-header. From Warriors-Cavs to worst, we rank all five games.
By Ben Golliver
December 22, 2017

The NBA can’t force Stephen Curry to play through a bum ankle, but the league’s schedule-makers did everything else within their power to ensure a strong Christmas Day quintuple-header.

To help compensate for the absence of Golden State’s two-time MVP, the league lined up a series of phenomenal individual match-ups. Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid should open the festivities dueling for the Best Unicorn title. LeBron James and Kevin Durant, again the top two players on SI.com’s annual Top 100 NBA Players list, will go head-to-head in the showcase game. And then reigning MVP Russell Westbrook will trade buckets and insane stat lines with MVP runner-up James Harden. Along the way, Kyrie Irving will stare down John Wall, while the Timberwolves’ No. 1 picks (Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns) will battle the Lakers’ No. 2 picks (Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball).

For a schedule that is set months in advance, skewed towards large markets, and vulnerable to injury issues, that’s hard to top. San Antonio and Toronto have both played well enough for their fans to feel snubbed, but everyone else can settle in for 12 or 13 hours of basketball goodness.

Without further ado, here’s a full breakdown of Monday’s five-game slate, which doubles as a viewer’s guide. Each game is ranked on its “must-see” potential from 1 (halt all family affairs) to 5 (break out the board games). All stats through Dec. 21.

Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Game 1: Sixers at Knicks (12 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Previous meetings: None.

Main storyline: The rising East.

The league took a chance on both sides of the Christmas Day opener when it announced this matchup in August. New York, after parting with Phil Jackson and Derrick Rose, seemed destined for a Carmelo Anthony trade and a choppy rebuilding campaign. Philadelphia, even after an attention-grabbing trade for No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, was bound to be at the mercy of its youth and health. Fingers crossed, but the NBA’s bet appears ready to pay off on both sides: the Kristaps Porzingis-led, Anthony-free Knicks have been fun, loose and even occasionally potent offensively, while the Sixers have been appointment viewing all fall thanks to relatively good health for franchise center Joel Embiid and Rookie of the Year favorite Ben Simmons.

While Porzingis’s breakthrough as a 25 PPG scorer has gotten most of the attention, there have been additional points of pride and promise: rookie Frank Ntilikina has acquitted himself nicely, scoring guard Tim Hardaway Jr. has delivered on his big summer payday, Michael Beasley has somehow returned to playing rotation minutes in the NBA, and the oft-mocked Enes Kanter has even managed to enjoy a few moments in the sun. Despite a sub-.500 record, the Sixers are riding fairly high, too, even though Fultz has largely been missing in action due to a shoulder injury. At his best, Embiid has performed like an All-NBA First Team selection, captaining a long and active defense while punishing opponents with his wide offensive skillset. Simmons, meanwhile, has shaken off pre-draft questions about his shooting ability and character with drool-inducing no-look passes and rim-rattling dunks.  

In short, both teams enter the holiday with postseason aspirations after enduring multiple lottery-bound campaigns, and they have their 23-and-under stars to thank for the newfound hope. Christmas morning should offer a glimpse at two futures that are only getting brighter.

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Match-up to watch: Kristaps Porzingis vs. Joel Embiid. The Unicorn showdown speaks for itself. In one corner, a 7’3” shot-creator/three-point marksman/shot-blocker from Latvia with a full package of dribble moves. In the other, a 7-foot dream-shaker/glass-cleaner/shot-blocker from Cameroon with the ability to get to the foul line at will. With all due respect to Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic, the Porzingis/Embiid match-up features the NBA’s most intriguing and complete young big men. 

Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 3. Unfortunately, Porzingis (knee) and Embiid (back) have both missed time recently due to injuries, with the former struggling through an ugly 0–11 shooting night against Boston on Thursday. If either is a late scratch, this game’s watchability will fall off a cliff. As long as both are healthy, though, plan for an early start to the basketball festivities.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Game 2: Cavaliers at Warriors (3 p.m. ET, ABC)
Previous meetings: None since Golden State’s 2017 NBA Finals win in five games.
Main storyline: 2018 Finals preview?

After more than 10 million viewers watched or streamed Cavaliers/Warriors on Christmas Day last year, the NBA would have been foolish not to milk its top rivalry again in 2017. Yes, Cleveland and Golden State have faced off in three straight Finals. And yes, this will mark their third consecutive Christmas Day showdown. But any fear of viewer fatigue went out the window once Kyrie Irving forced his way to the Celtics. How will LeBron James and the new-look Cavaliers fare against the champs without Irving? Which of Cleveland’s new faces—Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Jeff Green and others—can find a way to pose problems for Golden State?

While clearly a bummer, Curry’s absence due to a sprained ankle does serve as a bit of an equalizer, given that the Cavaliers are still without Isaiah Thomas, their Irving replacement, due to a hip injury. Golden State has played winning, if somewhat choppy, basketball this month without Curry, reorienting its offense around Kevin Durant and rolling off a 10-game winning streak through Thursday. Without the star point guards on hand, the sport’s top two players—James and Durant—will be free to reconvene their mano-a-mano rivalry.

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Match-up to watch: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant. It took a full decade and a heavily-criticized departure from Oklahoma City, but Durant finally scored his first breakthrough victory over James last season. He played the series of his life (averaging 35.2 PPG, 8.2 RPG, 5.4 APG in the Finals), he hit the shot of his life (a pull-up three over James in Game 3), he won the first championship of his career, and he took home Finals MVP honors to boot. Yet an offseason of silly controversies, coupled with James’s ceaseless brilliance, has prevented Durant from mounting much of a claim to the throne. He’s still not as dominant as James, as well-liked, or as famous—a reality that only makes their head-to-head matchups that much juicier.

Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 1. Although Boston and Houston have looked like worthy challengers, Cleveland and Golden State remain the odds-on favorites to face off in June. Their regular-season contests have consistently previewed key Finals chess moves, making this game—even without Curry and Thomas—must-see TV.  

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Game 3: Wizards at Celtics (5:30 p.m. ET, ABC)
Previous meetings: None since Boston’s 7-game series win in the 2017 East semis.
Main storyline: Boston’s new faces enter a bitter rivalry.

At first blush, the idea of Boston/Washington is enough to get the blood going. They intentionally wore black and beefed their way through multiple “Funeral” games last season, they haven’t played since their riveting 2017 playoff series, they are both led by All-Star point guards, and they both have good reason to anticipate postseason success in 2018. Unfortunately, numerous key figures are missing this season, making Celtics/Wizards less about renewing past grievances and more about commencing a new chapter.

Isaiah Thomas, who poured in 53 points in a spectacular Game 2 win over Washington, is gone. Kelly Olynyk, the Game 7 hero with 26 points, is gone. Jae Crowder is gone. Amir Johnson is gone. In their place, the Celtics have assembled a young, hungry and disciplined supporting cast around Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Boston’s defense has rated well all season, especially during a 16-game winning streak, but its offense usually settles in closer to “good/very good” rather than “electric.”

For Washington, the faces are mostly the same, but the requisite determination hasn’t been there. John Wall has been less lethal and efficient, the Wizards’ strong starting-lineup chemistry has been tested by minor injuries, and they have just one truly impressive victory over top competition (beating Toronto in early November). Mike Scott has been playing out of his mind recently, but good luck telling your family that you’re skipping Christmas dinner to see whether a well-traveled, anonymous reserve forward will randomly go off for 20 points again.

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Match-up to watch: Kyrie Irving vs. John Wall. This need not be a game driven by individual heroics. When both these teams are clicking, their balanced, complete lineups produce quality contributions from all five positions. Even so, this will be a measuring-stick contest for Wall, who entered the year declaring himself the NBA’s “best two-way point guard” and crowing about “Wolf Season” after signing a $170 million max extension. That bluster has gone largely unfulfilled to date, with his numbers and efficiency slipping across the board.

In Irving, Wall has a familiar foe (15 career head-to-head match-ups) and a big target. Boston’s new point guard has received some early MVP buzz thanks to his team’s hot strong start, and he’s garnered nonstop media attention after leaving LeBron James and dishing out “wisdom” (read: nonsense) for six months straight. What more motivation does Wall, who frequently plays the “I’m underrated” card, need?

Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 4. Let’s hope Washington throttles up on the Christmas stage, with Wall and Bradley Beal, who scored a career-high 51 points against Portland earlier this month, leading the way. If not, Boston’s steadiness and defensive prowess could lull viewers into midday naps.

Bob Levey/Getty Images

Game 4: Rockets at Thunder (8 p.m. ET, ABC)
Previous meetings: None since Houston’s 5-game 2017 first-round series win.
Main storyline: The 2017 MVP debate rekindled.

Credit the schedule-makers again: They didn’t overthink it. The NBA intelligentsia spent months last spring arguing the MVP merits of Russell Westbrook and James Harden, so of course that conversation should carry over into a head-to-head holiday showdown.

While MVP voters ultimately sided with Oklahoma City’s triple-double machine, Harden and the Rockets first knocked the Thunder out of the first round and then took their play to new heights this season. As Oklahoma City’s offense has sputtered under the weight of too many contested long twos and too much ball-stopping, Houston’s has soared thanks to Harden’s brilliance and Chris Paul’s seamless integration into D’Antoni World.

Despite choppy early-season play and somewhat disappointing starts for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, the Thunder have maintained one of the league’s best and most versatile defenses all season. They also possess the requisite athleticism and versatility—on paper—to match up with the Rockets’ interchangeable lineups.

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Match-up to watch: Russell Westbrook vs. James Harden. Duh. Harden, who leads the league in scoring, Real Plus-Minus and Win Shares, will enter Christmas at or near the top of most 2018 MVP lists, while Westbrook’s shooting woes (40 FG% and 31 3P%) and Oklahoma City’s bottom-10 have moved him back closer to the All-Star bubble. Nevertheless, Westbrook led the Thunder to a smashing home victory over the Warriors in late November, and his best work—like his 38/9/6 outburst versus Denver earlier this week—remains sublime.

Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 2. The Rockets are fun because of their consistency: they play sharp, focused, explosive basketball virtually every night, as evidenced by their recent 14-game winning streak. The Thunder are fun because of their inconsistency: their offense produces highlights and head slaps in equal doses. With the trade deadline inching closer, the “every game is a referendum on the Thunder’s star trio” sensation will only intensify, especially under the Christmas glare. Don’t miss this one.  

Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Game 5: Timberwolves at Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET, TNT)
Previous meetings: None.
Main storyline: The dynamics of rebuilding.

Will the Lakers spend Christmas getting a look at their own future? At this time last year, the Timberwolves were a lot like the current Lakers: young, talented and losing more than their fans would hope. Tom Thibodeau’s response was to fast-track the rebuilding effort, signing veteran point guard Jeff Teague and trading youngsters Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn to acquire a proven All-Star wing in Jimmy Butler. Those moves, together with development from Karl-Anthony Towns and modest development from Andrew Wiggins, have the Timberwolves sitting in the West’s No. 4 seed as one of NBA’s biggest year/year gainers.

The Lakers—armed with a young core, Julius Randle as a trade chip, 2018 cap space, and big free-agency dreams—could theoretically be headed for a similar trajectory. Insert Paul George, another standout to be named later (LeBron James or otherwise), 12 months of growth for Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma, and L.A. would have a chance to cut through some of the West’s cluttered middle tier in 2018–19.

But Minnesota’s path does have some cautionary downsides: Butler’s arrival may prove to pigeonhole Wiggins, Teague may not be good enough to be a postseason difference-maker, Thibodeau’s short-term focus and short rotation may lead to longer-term costs, and parting with Dunn and LaVine may come back to bite the franchise once contract extensions for its young stars kick in. If they’re smart, the Lakers should be carefully monitoring both the good and bad of the Thibodeau Timberwolves. 

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Match-up to watch: Jimmy Butler vs. Brandon Ingram. With rookies Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma soaking up most of the hype and attention, Ingram’s growth in year two has flown somewhat under the radar. Although the lean 20-year-old forward is still waiting to fill out, he’s ramped up his scoring, rebounding, and efficiency while displaying star flashes and improved aggressiveness on offense. Some of his best moments have come in big games, as he poured in 32 points against the Warriors and 26 points against the Cavaliers this month. The physical, relentless Butler will make him work (and might make his life miserable).

Christmas Day rank (1 to 5): No. 5. The Lakers are the only team playing on Christmas that isn’t within spitting distance of .500, and most NBA fans have already gotten their fill of Lonzo Mania during L.A.’s numerous national television appearances. For their part, the Timberwolves haven’t quite been as exciting or impressive as their record would indicate, held back by spotty team defense, too many minutes for their stars, and weak bench play. Give this one a chance due to the sheer volume of high draft picks (Towns, Wiggins, Ball, Ingram, Randle), but don’t be afraid to call it a night at halftime if necessary.