NBA Christmas Day preview: Five-game slate offers more than meets the eye

Tuesday December 24th, 2013

LeBron James Even without Kobe Bryant, Heat-Lakers still headlines the NBA's Christmas Day slate. (Lynn Sladky/AP)

At first glance, the NBA's 2013 Christmas slate looks like a giant lump of coal in our stocking. Four teams under .500? Both conference leaders -- Indiana and Portland -- stuck watching from home? A bunch of key players -- including Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose -- missing in action due to injuries? Add those facts up and that's a lot to overcome given the months of hype basketball fans are fed leading up to the holiday.

That might not sound like a ringing endorsement, but Wednesday's quintuple-header isn't quite as bad as it seems. Three division winners are on deck -- Miami, San Antonio and the Clippers -- and Oklahoma City sits just a half-game out of the Northwest Division lead. Five of the league's top seven offenses will lace up their sneakers, as will seven of the league's top nine defenses. There will still be star power -- LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry and Dwight Howard, to name more than a handful of All-Stars -- and at least the two worst teams in the mix, Brooklyn and New York, bring mega-market drama to add a little intrigue.

If you're into numbers, the 10 teams that played on Christmas last year entered the holiday with a combined 164-99 (.624) record, while this year's teams are a combined 160-117 (.578). Yes, it's a weaker group, but not dramatically so, and a little perspective in the face of all of the disappointed yelping is probably in order.

The entire five-game day of hoops could run 13+ hours, so use the following in-depth preview and viewer's guide to help manage the marathon.

Pregame Preparations

Game 1: Bulls (10-16) at Nets (9-18), 12 p.m. ET, ESPN

Bulls-Nets With no Brook Lopez (left), Andray Blatche will be tasked with Joakim Noah. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images)

Previous meetings: None this season, but Chicago and Brooklyn did face off in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, with the Bulls advancing in seven games.

Headline-dominating story: Stars missing in action. Not even the NBA's renowned marketing geniuses can get around the fact that the early game pits the two teams that have been most devastated by season-ending injuries in 2013-14. Derrick Rose made it just 10 games after an 18-month lay-off due to a knee injury before he suffered another knee injury. Meanwhile, Brook Lopez, the one reason for hope in Brooklyn, went down with a broken bone in his right foot, the third time he's broken the same bone since 2011. Both franchises are stuck under .500 after entering the season with the goal of competing for a title, and both have no choice but to wait it out until their big-dollar franchise players get back on the court. This is a cruel form of limbo that bears no resemblance to the party variety with flexible co-eds and island music.

Match-up to watch: Jason Kidd vs. The Guillotine. Brooklyn fired coach Avery Johnson just days after an ugly Christmas loss to Boston last season, and there's more than a little hot seat talk emanating from the Barclays Center these days. As's Chris Mannix reported, first-year Jason Kidd called out his team following a blowout loss to the Pacers on Monday. "It's getting very close to just accepting losing," Kidd said. "We're kind of getting comfortable with losing. We've got to make a stand with that because when things get tough, do we just give in? Most of the time right now, we do." Kidd's season has already included a DUI suspension, a soda-spilling saga, a demotion of key assistant Lawrence Frank and a defense that currently ranks fourth-worst in the league, better only than the Kings, Sixers and Jazz. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett both ducked their postgame interviews on Monday, and the Nets are 12th in the Eastern Conference despite a league-leading payroll. It's a good thing that their owner is patient. Oh, wait. If Kidd isn't sweating about what an ugly showing during a nationally-televised meeting on Christmas would mean for his future, he should be.

Priority order (from one to five, one being the best): 5. Your dentist's office is likely closed on Christmas so watch this if you find yourself needing a good substitute for a root canal. Otherwise, just sleep in and catch the highlight clips of Joakim Noah and Kevin Garnett barking at each other during the closing minutes of an 83-76 thriller.

Game 2: Thunder (22-5) at Knicks (9-18), 2:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Thunder-Knicks Kevin Durant and the Thunder will play on Christmas for the fourth straight year. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images)

Previous meetings: None this season.

Headline-dominating story: A showdown between elite scorers. The logic behind this small market vs. Big Apple clash was surely to pit Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony against each other in a good old-fashioned duel of scoring leaders, as the two finished just decimal points apart last year and currently rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on the charts this season. That match-up was thrown into question on Monday, when Anthony rolled his left ankle during a win over the Magic. The 2013 scoring champion plans to have his ankle evaluated on Tuesday and he expressed a desire to play on Wednesday; it goes without saying that his absence would take a lot of the luster off of this one. With or without Anthony, this is the Thunder's contest to lose. OKC is one of the league's most balanced teams (No. 6 offense and No. 3 defense), and the Durant/Russell Westbrook pair can be counted on to step up their games under the bright lights. The national showcase environment should make for a nice reintroduction to Reggie Jackson, who has stepped up into the super-sub role for Oklahoma City after filling in admirably for an injured Westbrook during the 2013 playoffs.

Match-up to watch: Westbrook vs. ??? Knee injury? What knee injury? When Westbrook underwent surgery on the same knee for the second time in 2013 back in October, it was initially expected to keep him out until mid-December. Instead of watching Westbrook work himself back into shape, Christmas viewers will be treated to All-Star quality from a player averaging 21.6 points, 6.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds while boasting a PER that ranks in the top-five league-wide at his position. His opposite number, Raymond Felton, was recently named to's All-Atrocious Team (comprised of the worst starters in the NBA), and that was before he suffered a strained right groin against the Magic, which will keep him out of Wednesday's game.. Pablo Prigioni is also out injured for New York, meaning that Beno Udrih will get the call against Westbrook. That sound you hear is the entire NYC metropolis gulping as it rewinds the video of Bradley Beal torching Udrih for a game-winner earlier this month.

Priority order (from one to five, one being the best): 4. The Knicks have had some pathetic showings in games with early start times this season, and Oklahoma City's +7.1 point differential is evidence of their ability to put away weak competition. Cross your fingers that New York taps into a reservoir of pride that's been well-hidden so far this season. Hey, at least Tyson Chandler is back.

Game 3: Heat (21-6) at Lakers (13-15), 5 p.m. ET, ABC

Heat-Lakers The two-time defending champions travel to Los Angeles for their Christmas clash. (Evan Gole/NBAE/Getty Images)

Previous meetings: None this season.

Headline-dominating story: A budding dynasty vs. a crumbling dynasty. This was supposed to be LeBron James vs. Kobe Bryant, but the Lakers' All-Star guard suffered a knee fracture earlier last week that is expected to sideline him until the very end of January, at the earliest. Bryant's absence will be one of many for the Lakers, who have had to cobble together lineups and make a D-League call-up after Steve Nash, Steve Blake and Jordan Farmar (who was cleared to return on Tuesday) all went down to injuries. Dwight Howard is gone, Pau Gasol isn't close to being the same player he was during L.A.'s championship years, and the Lakers are left with a psuedo-underdog identity with cast-offs like Nick Young, Wesley Johnson, Xavier Henry and Shawne Williams all playing key roles. Predictably, that group has been inconsistent overall and below-average on defense, and they are ripe for a blowout loss if Miami decides to bring its A-game. There's a good chance that happens: an overtime win over the Hawks on Monday marked the Heat's fifth consecutive win and their 17th victory over their last 20 games as they plug forward on their three-peat quest.

Match-up to watchLeBron vs. poster victims. Sky-walking, levitating, posterizing -- whatever you want to call it, James has been in fine form this week, dunking over Kings guard Ben McLemore on Friday and then giving Paul Millsap the business on Monday. Both slams were powerful, graceful and had a certain "launchpad" feel; perhaps Las Vegas should be putting up odds on who gets YouTubed next. The Lakers are no stranger to highlights either, as Henry still holds the "Dunk of the Year" title and Young is always up to something.

Priority order (from one to five, one being the best): 1. Even without Bryant, the schedule's centerpiece remains its most appetizing course thanks to James and his "Big 3" partners, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Game 4: Rockets (18-11) at Spurs (22-6), 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

Spurs vs. Rockets Tony Parker vs. Jeremy Lin is the matchup to watch in Spurs-Rockets. (Stacy Revere/Getty Images Sport)

Previous meetings: The Rockets beat the Spurs 112-106 in San Antonio on Nov. 30. 

Headline-dominating story: Can San Antonio capture a signature win? It sounds a bit silly considering that no franchise has less to prove after 15+ years of sustained excellence and a thrilling 2013 Finals appearance, but the Spurs are seeking to quiet a vocal minority of critics who look at their impressive 22-6 record and wonder why there aren't any "elite" teams among their 22 victories and why all six of their losses have come against quality opponents (Oklahoma City twice, Portland, Indiana, Houston, and the Clippers). A high-profile victory against a Southwest Division foe might help silence some of that talk. For the Rockets, who hope to have James Harden back from an ankle sprain, Christmas provides the opportunity to show that their high-octane (No. 6 in pace), high-efficiency (No. 3 in points per possession) offense is now complemented by a Dwight Howard-led defense that ranks No. 10 in the league, improved from No. 16 last year.

Match-up to watch: Jeremy Lin vs. Tony Parker. Both point guards have missed time recently with injuries, as Lin was sidelined with bask spasms and Parker sat out a few games with a shin contusion. Lin did not play during the first match-up between these two teams, leaving point guard duties to Patrick Beverley, who is now sidelined with a hand injury. Lin will have his hands full with Parker, who is shooting above 50 percent from the field for the third time in four seasons, while also enjoying his lightest minutes load since his rookie year (just 30 minutes per game). This won't be a mano a mano show though. If he's active and approaching 100 percent, Harden will surely try to repeat his 26-point, 6-assist, 5-rebound effort in a blowout win over the Bulls on Christmas last year. Let's not forget that the contrasting personalities of Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard always makes for a gripping subplot too.

Priority order (from one to five, one being the best): 2. Two balanced teams, plenty of fun positional match-ups, oodles of star power and lots of three-pointers should make for high-quality theater. With any luck, this game won't turn into three hours of mind-numbing Omer Asik trade rumors after thousands of gallons of ink were spilled on that topic over the last three weeks, with no actual trade to show for it.

Game 5: Clippers (20-9) at Warriors (16-13), 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

Clippers-WarriorsBlake Griffin has notched a double-double in 20 of 29 games this year. (Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images)

Previous meetings: L.A. scored a 126-115 home win over Golden State on Oct. 31. 

Headline-dominating story: Bad blood. The rivalry between these two teams is full of random, quirky episodes. Remember Blake Griffin and Mark Jackson exchanging words after Griffin stepped on Jackson's foot? Remember Jackson's Warriors refusing to participate in chapel with the Clippers? Remember Jackson calling Griffin a "great actor" back in January? Remember Kent Bazemore and the Warriors' bench goofing off after Griffin missed a three-pointer off the side of the backboard a few weeks later? The odds of something popping off during this game with Griffin, Jackson, Matt Barnes, Stephen Jackson and Andrew Bogut all involved? Approximately 100 percent.

Match-up to watch: Chris Paul vs. Stephen Curry. Duh. The numbers and the casual fans are in full agreement on this one. Paul and Curry currently rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in PER at their position. And, to no one's great surprise, they also happen to be the top two 2014 All-Star vote-getters among Western Conference floor generals. Exciting ball-handling vs. limitless range. Clutch shots vs. clutch shots. Fierce competitor vs. fierce competitor. This one sells itself.

Priority order (from one to five, one being the best): 3
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