We Wish You a Merry Basketball-mas: Previewing the NBA's Christmas Day Games
Christmas is to the NBA what Thanksgiving is to the NFL; a must-watch sporting marathon placed squarely on what is supposed to be a family holiday.
For hoops fans, watching basketball on Christmas Day is a tradition just as important as hanging the stockings or opening presents. Our families rarely understand what a full day of watching grown men throw a leather ball into a ten-foot hoop has to do with yuletide, but somehow basketball and Christmas go together like eggnog and rum; you're not really sure who originally thought it would be a good idea to put them together, but now you don't want to know what the holiday would be like if they were apart.
If you'll allow me a small personal aside, watching basketball on Christmas Day is a tradition I've held for over 20 years now. There's not a single other basketball fan in my entire family, so it's a constant balancing act of fitting in quarters when I can and putting in face time with the people I love in small, 15-minute bursts. Different family members always make an effort to watch a bit with me, ask about the game and such, but rarely do they make it a full quarter before moving on. Yes, it's a bit antisocial on my part, but basketball on Christmas is my anchor.
What I mean is that it's the one tradition that I can take with me wherever I go. An interesting wrinkle this year is that I won't be with my family for the first time in my 31 years on this planet and will instead be with my in-laws. I'm not quite sure how they'll react to my constantly being distracted by an undying desire to watch a five-game, 13-hour marathon of hoops in the middle of their own traditions, but we'll see how it goes. At the very least, my wife has always been very supportive of my obsession and will probably come to my defence. What's more, we're only a month away from welcoming our firstborn son into the world, so maybe I'll finally have someone to watch the games with me after this year!
Ok, enough personal mumbo jumbo, let's take a look at the matchups.
Washington Wizards @ New York Knicks (12:00pm EST)
Naughty: The Knicks are the 28th-ranked team on our NBA Team Power Rankings with a nERD of 27.0 (what we project their ultimate winning percentage to be). Their 5-25 record puts them 17.5 games behind the first-place Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference, somehow worse than the 4-23 Philadelphia 76ers that are only 17.0 games back. Reminder: the Knicks brought in Phil Jackson and Derek Fisher and re-signed Carmelo Anthony hoping to be good, while the Sixers want to lose basketball games.
Nice: John Wall is quietly having the best year of his career, averaging 17.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 10.4 assists, 2.1 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game, while shooting 45.2% from the field, 32.4% from long range, and 75.8% from the charity stripe. His name rarely comes up in early MVP talk, but he has his Washington Wizards humming at 19-8 (third in the East) and 8th in our Power Rankings with a nERD of 64.8.
Stocking stuffer stat: John Wall's 10.4 assists per game is a career high and is currently second in the NBA to Rajon Rondo's 10.6. 'Tis the season for giving!
If this game were part of a traditional Christmas dinner, it would be: the cranberry sauce. You'll probably eat it because it's there, but you know you won't really like it all that much. Christmas in the Garden is a staple, but the Knicks stink and the Wiz don't, so this game might not be all that close. If you can only budget a couple games with your family, this one isn't likely to make your list.
It'll be a Christmas miracle if: Melo drops 50-plus.
Oklahoma City Thunder @ San Antonio Spurs (2:30pm EST)
Naughty: Last year's MVP and one of the best basketball players on the planet, Kevin Durant, has only suited up for nine of the Thunder's 28 games so far this season. He missed the first 17 with a broken foot and has been out the last two with a sprained ankle. Not fair, basketball gods.
Nice: This rematch of last year's Western Conference Finals might actually be the best game of the day if everyone shows up healthy (even over you-know-who returning to you-know-where). Both the Thunder (13-16) and the Spurs (18-11) are off to slower starts than many would've thought, but neither have been very healthy. Still, these two teams could very well meet in the Western Conference Finals again this year and basically any year they exist as currently constructed.
Stocking stuffer stat: Russell Westbrook currently has a player efficiency rating (PER) of 32.7. If the season ended right now, that would be the best mark in NBA history by anyone playing more than 10 games in a season (well, he would share the honor with Anthony Davis, who also sits at 32.7 this year).
If this game were part of a traditional Christmas dinner, it would be: a glazed ham. Not usually the main course of any Christmas spread, but arguably better than the traditional turkey, depending on preparation methods. If all the important players suit up, this could be the best game of the day.
It'll be a Christmas miracle if: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, and Kevin Durant all play. Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili should all be a go, Kawhi hopes to play, and Durant is questionable. We'd take four out of five, but then again, maybe coach Gregg Popovich will be a total Grinch and rest his best players on Christmas.
Cleveland Cavaliers @ Miami Heat (5:00pm EST)
Naughty: Despite being the preseason favorites to be the top team in the NBA, the Cleveland Cavaliers currently rank 12th on our NBA Team Power Rankings with a nERD of 59.3. The process of putting together a super-team requires an adjustment period for working out the kinks and the trio of LeBron James, Kevin Love, and Kyrie Irving are clearly no different.
Nice: He may have missed the Heat's last five games with a strained calf, but Chris Bosh is showing everyone that he's had "Toronto Raptor Bosh" stored in a box in his garage, ready to unleash as soon as the opportunity (like the departure of LeBron) arose. This season, he's averaging 21.6 points, 1.5 triples, 8.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.8 blocks per contest, while shooting 47.9% from the floor, 38.6% from deep, and 77.9% from the line. His resulting 22.4 PER is his highest since joining Miami in 2010.
Stocking stuffer stat: The Cavaliers are 29th in the NBA in rim protection, giving up a 57.0% field goal percentage at the rim to opposing teams this season, while the Heat are 26th at 55.2%. The lane should be as open as a well-shovelled driveway on Christmas morn for this one, so look for lots of drives to the hoop.
If this game were part of a traditional Christmas dinner, it would be: the turkey. Some like the white meat, some like the dark meat, and some consider the bird to be the most overrated meal there is. Whether or not you like LeBron, his return to Miami after leaving them to get back together with the Cavs is the main course.
It'll be a Christmas miracle if: Bosh (calf) and Dwyane Wade (always hurt) play and we get to see the big three face off as foes for the first time. Anything either of them does - good or bad - will make for a compelling story.
Los Angeles Lakers @ Chicago Bulls (8:00pm EST)
Naughty: The Lakers currently have a defensive rating of 113.4 according to Basketball-Reference, which ranks as the 9th-worst of all time. The worst mark in the history of the league is 114.7 (done three separate times) and could very well be within reach for the Lakers before the end of this season.
Nice: Jimmy Butler is an early favorite for the Most Improved Player Award, currently rankings sixth in our NBA Player Rankings with an individual nERD of 16.1 (which suggests that a league-average team would finish approximately 16 games over .500 with Jimmy as a starter). He's averaging career highs in points (21.7), rebounds (6.2), assists (3.3), blocks (0.6), field goal percentage (48.0%), three-point percentage (34.2%), and free throw percentage (82.5%), while throwing in 1.5 steals in a league-leading 40.0 minutes per game. He good.
Stocking stuffer stat: The Lakers have a -13.3 net rating (points scored minus points allowed per 100 possessions) with Kobe on the floor this season and a +11.1 with him off. Merry Kobe-mas!
If this game were part of a traditional Christmas dinner, it would be: the stuffing. It's an essential part of the meal, even if it's not the main attraction. In kind, this will be Kobe Bryant's 16th game played on Christmas Day, a continuation of the all-time record. Even if he's no longer the marquee player or on a powerhouse team, Kobe is NBA Christmas.
Golden State Warriors @ Los Angeles Clippers (10:30pm EST)
Naughty: The Los Angeles Clippers currently rank 18th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, allowing 104.4 points per 100 possessions. That's a pretty sizeable departure from last year, when they ranked 8th in the league at 102.1. (Honestly, I'm reaching; there's very little not to like about this game. Here's what should be considered naughty: Chris Paul alley-oops to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.)
Nice: Everything about the Warriors. They have the best record in the NBA at 23-4 and the top net rating of +11.1, based on the strength of having the league's top defense (96.9 points allowed per 100 possessions) and the fifth-best offense (108.0 points scored per 100 possessions). Their starting lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green, and Andrew Bogut has been the best in the league with a net rating of +28.0 in 245 minutes of action. On top of that, they bring former All-Stars Andre Iguodala and David Lee off the bench. For all that, they are currently the number one team on our NBA Team Power Rankings with a nERD of 78.5 and hold our best championship chances at 19.5%.
Stocking stuffer stat: The Warriors have had a net rating of +62.6 in 31 minutes of crunch time this season (when a game has a point differential of five or less in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime). That's due to an offensive rating of 135.6 points scored per 100 possessions and a defensive rating of 73.0 points allowed per 100 possessions. That is flat out ridiculous.
If this game were part of a traditional Christmas dinner, it would be: whatever dessert your family traditionally serves. Pies, cobblers, cakes, yuletide logs, etc; there is no one definitive Christmas dessert. Regardless, by the time you've gotten to it, you've eaten far too much and are far too bloated to take it on. Still, you eat it because it was really what you were waiting for all along and you're allowed to be a glutton on Christmas. That's this game. After more than 10 hours of basketball and enough family time and turkey to require a 14-hour night's sleep, you're still going to watch this game. Again, you're allowed to be a glutton on Christmas.
It'll be a Christmas miracle if: this game goes to three overtimes. Last year's seven-game series in the opening round simply wasn't enough.