Christmas Day is the best day of the NBA regular season. Even when the matchups aren’t great, the NBA owns the day, and we get to watch professional basketball from sunup to sundown. You only have to pay attention to one game at a time, and the league’s biggest stars will all take the court. So you definitely don’t need any more convincing to plop down on your couch for some unadulterated NBA action on Christmas. But if for any reason you’re a bit stressed with any holiday obligations, here are some hot storylines to focus your attention on before the basketball marathon.
Can Giannis Take Control of the MVP Conversation?
Giannis Antetokounmpo is already the MVP frontrunner for (seemingly) most voters, and he can take another absurdly long stride toward the award on Christmas. These national, spotlight moments can often become a crystallizing moment for someone looking to win the award for the first time. On a team on which he’s the only true star, a dominant performance from the Greek Freak in a showcase game could actually go some way in separating himself from the pack. It helps that the pack is kind of waning a bit as well.
The Lakers are struggling again, which hurts LeBron. The Warriors aren’t dominating thoroughly enough, which hurts KD and Steph. And Joel Embiid has taken a bit of a step back since the Jimmy Butler trade. Of course, all of these players will be participating in the NBA’s Christmas festivities. If Giannis has far and away the best game out of any of them, he’ll add another bullet point on his MVP case. For better or worse, narratives have always played some role in who wins this award. Giannis’s story is more interesting if he outplays all his peers (even against a blah Knicks team) on the regular season’s biggest day.
NADKARNI: Ranking Christmas Day Games
James Harden Will Have To Do It Himself
The Rockets are the streakiest team in the NBA. Since Oct. 17, the night of their first game: Lost five of six. Won eight of 10. Lost seven of nine. Won six of seven. That most recent stretch has been Houston’s most promising, but now the Rockets will be missing Chris Paul for an extended period of time with a hamstring strain, putting an immense burden on James Harden. Last season’s MVP is on a scoring binge right now. He’s averaging 34.2 points per game in December. He’s scored at least 35 in each his last four games. And he’s had a 50-point and a 47-point outing in the last week or so. Houston will continue to need these kinds of nights from Harden to keep its head above water.
The Rockets have snuck back into the eighth seed, but every team behind them (besides the Suns) is within three games of that spot, including the Grizzlies, Jazz, Mavericks, Wolves, and Pelicans. The margin of error in this conference is super slim, and any slippage from Harden could slide Houston behind a bunch of hungry squads. So far this season, the Rockets have actually been better in Harden’s solo minutes than during his shared time with Paul. That’s promising. But the team is atrocious when both of them are sitting, and Austin Rivers can only help so much. The Thunder will provide a defensive test, and Paul George will be unleashed on Harden as long the both of them are on the court. If Harden doesn’t dominate whenever he’s on the floor, on Christmas and moving forward, Houston could go streaking in the wrong direction. Again.
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This Is Why the Sixers Acquired Jimmy Butler
The Celtics easily beat up the Sixers in their opening night matchup, continuing the trend from last year’s East Semis, when Boston beat Philly in five games. The Sixers have always wanted a third star, and since these teams’ last tango, they went out and acquired Jimmy Butler. This is it, folks. How much closer does Butler bring Philly to Boston? Does he make the Sixers outright better? These are two major questions we can start to answer after Christmas Day.
The Celtics have had their own struggles this season, but have settled down since moving the Marcus Bros. (Smart and Morris) into the starting lineup, while sending Gordon Hayward and Jaylen Brown to the bench. Boston’s new opening five is 4–0, and both Morris and Al Horford should be closer to 100% for Philly after returning from injuries Sunday night.
The Sixers have been very good so far this year, but are definitely missing some of the spark their bench provided down the stretch of last season. This is potentially the kind of game that could put either of these teams on a little bit of a hot streak. I would expect a big night from Butler, who very clearly knows his acquisition was to move the needle in games like this one. No other Christmas game will matter as much as this one if these squads are in the middle of a tight one in the fourth quarter.
Will the Lakers Have the Warriors’ Attention?
Golden State has won four of its last five, and has practically sleepwalked into the second seed in the West. The Warriors are obviously still incredible, but they haven’t re-reached the heights they were at during their dominant start to the season. This team still often waits to turn it on, and I don’t blame them at all for not giving 100% focus until the playoffs. The Lakers are simply not in the Dubs’ class. An L.A. win would mean nothing. A Warriors win wouldn’t be news. I’m mostly interested in this game to see if the Lakers can make Golden State care.
Can L.A. poke the bear a little bit? Forcing the Warriors to try for a full 48 minutes is basically the biggest achievement a team like the Lakers can ask for in a matchup like this one. Even with LeBron staring them in the face, Steph Curry and Co. haven’t always felt the need to give his teams their most focused shot. If the Lakers somehow won in a blowout I wouldn’t really be convinced of anything. I’ll be more impressed if Curry, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green are having signature games and L.A. still manages to keep the game close by the final minutes of the fourth.
Who Will Fix Its Defense First, Portland or Utah?
Both the Blazers and Jazz are worse on defense this season, but it’s affecting them in different ways. Portland has made a big slide backward defensively, falling out of the top 10 into the bottom half of the league. The Blazers at least still have the offensive firepower to keep up with most teams every night, and that’s helped them stay in the middle of the pack in the West, even if their position feels a bit precarious. (They also made me look like an idiot for crowning their defense.)
The Jazz’s success last season was predicated on their first-place defense, and while they are still in the top-10 for now, Utah is too offensively challenge to afford its drop. I’ve mentioned this before, but I really wonder if the increased pace and scoring so far this year has simply changed the calculus for a team like Utah. Some thought the Jazz could win 50 games this season; they will be in a fight just to make the playoffs.
Neither Portland nor Utah can fix its problems in one night, but both these teams are realistically maxed out on the offensive end. The Blazers have the 10th best offensive efficiency, while the Jazz, uh, need more scorers than Donovan Mitchell. Whichever of these squads takes the first significant step in shoring up their defense—if they’re even capable of doing so—will be the first to look closer to the better version of them we saw last season.