The NBA showcases its stars on Christmas Day, and this year there will be big names to watch, like LeBron James, Jayson Tatum and Joel Embiid.
There will also be a new face in the mix (Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant is playing for the first time over the holidays) and a familiar face missing (Golden State’s Stephen Curry is injured).
In each of the five games, there’s something to look forward to, from young players trying to make their mark to older foes avenging playoff losses.
Here’s what you need to know.
All times are Eastern and all games will be shown on ABC and ESPN. Statistics were up to date for Friday night’s games.
Philadelphia 76ers at Knicks, noon
After a rocky start, these teams are finally clicking. The Knicks jumped up the Eastern Conference standings on a recent winning streak, while Philadelphia compiled a streak of their own.
They met on Nov. 4, with the Knicks winning, but Philadelphia was missing its two best players: center Joel Embiid and guard James Harden. That makes Sunday’s game the teams’ first real game. The Knicks have played Christmas more often than any other team, but this is the first time they will have Jalen Brunson, their big free agent signing of the offseason.
Brunson, a guard who spent his first four seasons in Dallas, leads the Knicks in assists and is the team’s second-highest scorer, behind forward Julius Randle. During the first quarter of the season, the Knicks struggled to string together wins. But then December came and they found their groove.
It was then that fortunes turned for the Sixers as well. Harden had missed more than a dozen games with a foot injury, but returned this month to produce several impressive games with double-digit assist totals. The Knicks will of course also have to watch out for Embiid. Last month, in a game against the Utah Jazz, he had this crazy stat line: 59 points, 11 rebounds, 8 assists and 7 blocks.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Dallas Mavericks, 2:30 p.m.
Fans can apparently still count on seeing the Lakers come Christmas – it’s the 24th year in a row – but nothing else on the team has been so consistent.
Even though LeBron James, who turns 38 on Friday, continues to defy reason with his youthful play, minor injuries continue to drag him to the bench. Then there’s the major injury to center Anthony Davis, who is out indefinitely with right foot pain. Other ailments trickled down the roster, and the Lakers’ sub-0.500 record reflects that. But it is also a reflection of an aging team which got off to a disastrous start (0-5) and which has not settled into a performing rhythm since.
All this to say: the Lakers have been everywhere.
Dallas was too. Luka Doncic is playing and scoring more than last season, but the Mavericks are losing to bad teams just after beating good ones. The Lakers could fall into either category on Sunday. At the very least, it should be a fun game, with Doncic and James battling it out to see who can put on the better show. They are both capable of keeping even early risers waiting for the midday nap.
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics, 5 p.m.
Boston’s Jayson Tatum responded to his disappointing NBA Finals appearance in the best way possible: by playing better than ever. He leads the league in minutes per game (37.2) and he puts it to good use, averaging a career-best 30.6 points per game on about half his shots.
The Celtics will face a Bucks side with its own not-so-shabby star in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Last season also ended in playoff disappointment for him too, with Milwaukee falling to Boston in seven games in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Sunday will be his first chance for a little revenge.
The Bucks and Celtics are vying for the top spot in the East, although they are battling it out with different strengths. Boston has the second-best offense in the league, while Milwaukee has the third-best defense. The playoffs are still a long way off, but it would be a surprise not to see one of these teams in the NBA Finals. Their Christmas game should help each team see what they need to work on to make sure they’re the ones playing for a title.
Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State, 8 p.m.
No one can argue the Grizzlies didn’t deserve this, their Christmas debut.
Playmaker Ja Morant is the quick, soaring and confident heart of the team, but Memphis is more than its brightest star – and Morant would be the first to say that. He’s averaging a career-high 7.8 assists per game as he and his teammates keep the Grizzlies near the top of a hotly contested Western Conference.
They finished last season as the No. 2 seed in the West and could have made the conference finals if Golden State (and injuries) hadn’t gotten in their way at the second turn. Sunday will be the teams’ first meeting since then.
Both teams have had their share of injuries this season, but Golden State has a particularly big one: Stephen Curry has been out since suffering a shoulder injury against Indiana on Dec. 14, and we don’t know. when he comes back.
Golden State is currently ranked in the bottom half of the West, but the intensity of last season’s playoff series with Memphis should continue and make Sunday’s game a good contest nonetheless.
Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets, 10:30 p.m.
The last game of a long day of basketball is easy to forget. But Denver’s Nikola Jokic is sure to make at least one pass worthwhile. It’s kind of his thing: one minute he has the ball, then the next his teammate on the other side of the pitch has it, and no one really knows how it happened. The Suns are a top 10 defensive team, but some things just can’t be stopped.
Phoenix is also the league’s best on offense, which could be a challenge for the Nuggets, who are among the NBA’s worst on defense. Suns goaltender Chris Paul is one of the best players ever to pass the ball to his teammates. Paul led the league in assists last season, his fifth time, and is averaging nine per game this season.
If the late start to this game isn’t a deciding factor, it should be a great opportunity to see some great passers and talented shooters get their assists.
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