Christmas Day has long held a special place in NBA lore, featuring a slate of marquee matchups and memorable moments for over three decades. Recent Christmas games have featured Shaq and Kobe battles, Warriors-Cavs matchups and rare bright spots for Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks. What will fans be treated to this season? Look to the west coast, where the Lakers and Clippers kick off what could be a yearly tradition at the Staples Center.
The battle of Los Angeles isn’t the only matchup in an action-packed Christmas slate. Giannis and the Bucks will face Philadelphia in a battle of Eastern Conference powers, while James Harden will look to earn a sweet revenge win in Golden State. Whether you’re with family or desperately avoiding them this Christmas, there will plenty of quality hoops to indulge in.
Let’s dive into The Crossover’s top Christmas Day storylines as the NBA’s premier holiday approaches.
Can the Lakers Contain Clippers’ Wings?
This isn’t necessarily news, but the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George pairing is pretty damn effective. Leonard and George are outscoring teams by 13.5 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor together, locking down teams with a 98.9 defensive rating. The Clippers are a sea of arms defensively, jumping passing lanes and wreaking havoc on careless offenses. The first Finals in franchise history is certainly in play.
The Clippers’ dynamic duo presents plenty of problems for opposing defenses. Both players are imposing athletes, quality shooters and heady passers, built as though a factory accidentally spit out two copies of the same All-NBA player. Their games aren’t incongruous. Their athleticism is jarring. It’s no wonder Los Angeles was the projected Finals favorite entering the season.
The pair of wings present serious problems for opposing contenders, most notably the Lakers. LeBron and Co. feel a wing short against their crosstown rivals, forced to either exhaust James or rotate through a slate of middling options. Kyle Kuzma is a subpar defender. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope can’t quite handle the assignment. Danny Green is the best option to cover Leonard and George, and while effective, Green can be a bit undersized against the Clippers’ mammoth wings. The Lakers will rotate plenty of bodies onto Leonard and George and hope to hold on through three quarters. Look for James to slide onto one of the Clippers’ stars in the fourth quarter.
Watching Giannis’ Jumper
Giannis Antetokounmpo drained five threes in the Bucks’ win over the Lakers on Thursday night, generating a key question throughout the NBA: should we all just duck for cover? The Bucks currently sport the NBA’s best record, and Giannis is running away with the MVP. Good on Antetokounmpo for upping his three-point volume. Better on him for making a (relatively) respectable 33.8% of triples. If he can creep toward 40% on a consistent basis, we might as well bring the Larry O’Brien trophy to Milwaukee right now. A shaky shooting night from Giannis opens the door to the rest of the field.
Philadelphia has the personnel to potentially slow Antetokounmpo on Christmas Day. The Sixers are perhaps the league's most imposing defense, and Ben Simmons has the size to at least battle Antetokounmpo in the paint and in transition. The Sixers are well-positioned to steal a victory if Giannis struggles with his shot. If the jumpers are falling, the Bucks can win in a runaway.
Can Harden Drop 50?
The Rockets’ trip to San Francisco for Christmas Day originally looked like one of the season’s marquee matchups before opening night. The Warriors have ended Houston’s season in each of the last two years, and with Kevin Durant now in Brooklyn, a satisfying revenge game awaited James Harden and Co. The Rockets will be heavily favored in the afternoon matchup on Tuesday, though beating this iteration of the Warriors won’t hold the same satisfaction as defeating a Steph Curry-led Golden State squad. So what are we excited for in the third matchup of Christmas Day? Look no further than the NBA’s current scoring leader.
James Harden is currently averaging 38.5 points per game this season, with five 50-point efforts in 2019-20. Perhaps another is in store at the Chase Center, especially if the Warriors don’t choose to double Harden from the opening tip. Only three players in NBA history (Rick Barry, Bernard King, Wilt Chamberlain) have scored 50 points on Christmas. Harden would be a worthy addition to the club.
Can the Banged-Up Raptors Keep Up?
The battle of Eastern Conference contenders was shaping up to be perhaps the best matchup of the day until the Raptors caught the injury bug of late. Pascal Siakam is out indefinitely with a groin injury, and Marc Gasol will miss multiple weeks with a hamstring injury. Toronto has rolled through the first quarter of its schedule without Kawhi Leonard, holding off the trade rumors for Gasol and Kyle Lowry. Nick Nurse and Co. could face some serious struggles without two of their top talents.
A speed bump could arise on Wednesday. The Raptors host the Celtics, who roll into the matchup north of the border with nine wins in their last 12 games. Boston is cruising with the Kyrie Irving melodrama in the rearview mirror, thriving behind Kemba Walker. The Celtics’ young wings have been particularly impressive thus far, with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown averaging 20 points per game in 2019-20. The first game of the day may unfortunately be a dud after some pre-December hype.
Will the Pelicans Keep Us Awake?
The last game of Christmas Day is often a right of passage for young Western Conference teams, with unproven squads thrown the final-game scraps to close the first marquee day of the NBA calendar. Karl-Anthony Towns earned his first Christmas appearance in 2017. The D’Angelo Russell Lakers closed the night one year prior. We were supposed to see Zion Williamson on Christmas this year, but his knee had other plans. Instead, we’ll see if Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram can keep pace with the Nuggets at the Pepsi Center.
The Pelicans will enter Christmas Day as heavy underdogs in Denver. New Orleans allows 113.5 points per 100 possessions–good for the league’s No. 27 defensive–and the Pelicans are undermanned in the frontcourt. Good luck stopping Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets’ bigs. Perhaps the Pelicans keep things close in a shootout. But expect a game you can turn off by halftime, or keep in the background as you lay in an eggnog-induced coma.