To many casual fans, Christmas Day is when they truly start watching the NBA — and, to those fans, an up-and-down showcase lineup awaits. There was not much the NBA could have done about a couple of likely duds — aside from creating some unprecedented form of flex scheduling — but injuries have rendered two of Wednesday’s five games as expected blowouts with lopsided star power.
Nonetheless, it will be a day worth watching, even if that comes at the expense of a few hours spent conversing with your family. Frankly, many of us welcome a few hours less of that this week, so let’s focus on what will be enjoyed Wednesday in place of small talk.
Boston Celtics at Toronto Raptors, 12 ET, ESPN
The perks of winning the NBA Finals befall the Raptors even if the impetus to their title, Kawhi Leonard, is no longer around. In addition to opening night honors, Toronto hosts a Christmas Day game. What no preseason prognostications expected, however, is that the Raptors are as worthy of playing in the national spotlight as nearly any other Eastern Conference team is.
To the casual basketball fan — and there is no shame in being one as casual basketball fans are preferable to a vacuum of basketball fans; we here at Basketball Insiders understand, there are only so many hours in a day, you have rationed them, and now those rations return to the hardcourt — this may be your chance to reacquaint with the Celtics you thought you were going to know last season.
Swapping in Kemba Walker for Kyrie Irving has pushed Boston back to No. 2 in the East. Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown all take turns handling the lead role, complementing each other as they do so. Walker is the purest scorer of the bunch and averages 22.6 points per game thanks to 40.8 percent from deep, while the two young swingmen each average seven rebounds per game. While Brown is ruthlessly efficient offensively, shooting 50.4 percent from the field, Tatum brings a defensive presence that makes him arguably the most complete player of the trio.
In other words, the Celtics’ insistence on keeping both Tatum and Brown is finally paying off.
With Toronto swingman Pascal Siakam sidelined indefinitely by a stretched groin, the Raptors may have trouble keeping up with Boston — but they’ve won the two games Siakam missed this week, so underestimate the Raptors at your own risk.
Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers, 2:30 ET, ABC
Winning 21 out of their last 22 may not sound as notable as if the Bucks were on a 22-game winning streak, but one loss should not take away from just how much of a roll Milwaukee has been on. It has not, however, yet had to face the team many expected, and may still expect, to win the conference. For that matter, the Bucks and the 76ers will not meet again until February.
Philadelphia might be all the way down at No. 5 in the Eastern Conference as of Monday morning, but it still has the best array of personnel to slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo. While it is possible to beat Milwaukee even when Giannis goes off — that sole loss in this late streak came to the Dallas Mavericks despite the MVP favorite scoring 48 and grabbing 14 rebounds — but if he approaches his averages of 31 points, 12.9 rebounds and 5.6 assists, life will be difficult for the 76ers, both Wednesday and possibly in the postseason.
Watching how Philadelphia handles the Greek Freak may offer a preview of a key spring series, perhaps the Eastern Conference Finals.
Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors, 5:00 ET, ABC
With hindsight, the NBA certainly would not include Golden State in its Christmas Day lineup, as hard as that is to believe on the surface. To give an idea of how this game should go, 538’s RAPTOR projections expect it to have a 10-point spread.
That aside, would anyone be surprised if Rockets star James Harden cracked open a 40 for the 13th time this season or reached 50 for the 6th time?
He has only one 60-point game yet this year, against the Atlanta Hawks, who rank No. 28 in the league in defensive rating with 113.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. The Warriors’ 112.5 is not all that much better. . . ahem.
Los Angeles Clippers “at” Los Angeles Lakers, 8:00 ET, ABC
The top game of the day without question, featuring a landlord and a tenant, featuring the biggest star duo in the league against another duo bolstered by a bench to be reckoned with, featuring Vegas’ co-favorites to win the NBA Finals.
Despite all that hype, it would be foolish to put too much stock into one game — but a loss could turn this into a critical juncture for the Lakers. After rattling off 17 wins in 18 games as part of a 24-3 start, they have now lost three in a row. None of the three were particularly egregious on their own, though Los Angeles should not have had trouble with the Indiana Pacers, although stringing them together made it into a worrisome stretch.
Especially with the reason strain on LeBron James’ health to boot.
If the Lakers lose to their locker-room neighbors on Wednesday, not only would it be a fourth defeat in a row, but they would also fall to 0-2 against the Clippers. That alone is worth monitoring. For what it’s worth, 538’s RAPTOR suggests the Lakers should be favored by two points.
New Orleans Pelicans at Denver Nuggets, 10:30 ET, ESPN
The Pelicans handed off the ignominy of being on the league’s longest losing streak directly to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday, ending their 13-game troubles. To celebrate, New Orleans promptly fell Friday to the only Western team worse than them, the Warriors.
Zion Williamson playing would not solve all of the Pelicans’ problems, but he would at least create some late-night allure here for the NBA. As is, this nightcap may serve as nothing but a chance for New Orleans’ guard Jrue Holiday to polish his trade stock. And for you to sneak out on any late-night debates over politics and pie one final time — so don’t relinquish that get-out-of-jail card just yet.
In any case, no matter your flavor, desire or level of league-wide interest, the annual Christmas day spread has something for everybody. Even if it’s just escaping your family for a few precious moments, as always, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and others will have your back once more.
Happy holidays from everybody at Basketball Insiders!
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