Christmas Day 2019 Viewer Guide

Reasons to watch NBA on Christmas Day

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith

Merry Christmas from the NBA!

Today is all about basketball, from start to finish and sea to shining sea.

The stars will shine on the 72nd NBA Christmas Day showcase, featuring five games featuring some of the biggest stars of the game. There are 28 players on rosters today who have made All-Star teams. You don’t have to be a math wizard to figure out that breakdown.

The reigning Kia MVP, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, as well as a host of former MVPs (LeBron James, James Harden, Russell Westbrook) and MVP hopefuls for the future (Anthony Davis, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid and more).

More than individual stars, the gift of NBA Christmas provides tentpole matchups that mean more to both sides than just a regular season Wednesday game.

So we’re digging in on all five matchups on the menu for this special day:

Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors

> Noon ET (ESPN)

Why you should be watching?: The Celtics (20-7) are heating up at the right time, with Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown doing their best Big 3 impersonation in what was supposed to be a season defined by dynamic duos. What better place for this rejuvenated Celtics team to make a statement than on the floor of the reigning NBA champions, who limp into the affair without the services of their MVP candidate Pascal Siakam, who heads a pile of Raptors rotation players — Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Stanley Johnson, Matt Thomas and rookie Dewan Hernandez — on the injured list. That shouldn’t be a problem for the healthy Raptors (21-9), led by Eastern Conference Player of the Week Kyle Lowry, who relish every opportunity to silence any doubters.

Keep an eye on: Walker and Lowry provide an All-Star point guard matchup that should be as entertaining a one-on-one battle as we’ll see all day. Walker is every bit as crafty as Lowry is gritty and they’ll be amped up to show out on the big stage. What Walker is trying to do this season alongside Tatum and Brown is what Lowry did a year ago alongside Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, and that’s finish the season with a championship parade.

Schuhmann’s 5 Stats to Know (via NBA.com’s John Schuhmann):

1. The Celtics have scored 10.6 more points per 100 possessions at home (117.1, league’s best home OffRtg) than they have on the road (106.5, 16th). That’s the league’s biggest home-road OffRtg differential. They’ve allowed 4.0 fewer points per 100 possessions on the road (101.7, league’s second best road DefRtg) than they have at home (105.7, 14th). That’s the league’s biggest road-home DefRtg differential.

2. The Raptors are one of three teams – Dallas and New Orleans are the others – that rank in the top 10 in both 3-point percentage (37.2%, 4th) and the percentage of their shots that are 3-pointers (40.6%, 7th).

3. Jayson Tatum enters Christmas having scored at least 20 points in three straight regular season games (24, 26 and a career-high 39 against Charlotte on Sunday) for the first time in his career. He did score 20 or more in seven straight playoff games in 2018.

4. Among individuals, the Celtics’ Enes Kanter leads the league in offensive rebounding percentage, having grabbed 15.8% of available offensive boards while he’s been on the floor. Among teams, the Raptors rank 28th in defensive rebounding percentage.

5. The Raptors are the only team that hasn’t lost (they’re 18-0) after leading by double-digits.

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Milwaukee Bucks vs. Philadelphia 76ers

> 2:30 ET (ABC)

Why you should be watching?: The chance to see Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid battle to dominate the floor is reason enough to dive into this one. But there’s so much more meat on the bone than just the two superstar big men. The Bucks (27-4) have manhandled one elite team after another on their way to the league’s best record through Christmas for the second straight season. The Bucks rank in the top five on offense and defense and boast the league’s best overall net rating. Meanwhile the Sixers (22-10) have feasted on struggling teams (11-3 vs below .500 teams) and still haven’t found their form as a unit, despite a roster loaded with the sort of versatile, long and athletic players every franchise desires. Giannis and Embiid provide the marquee matchup but it’s the supporting casts that will tell the story of what is potentially an Eastern Conference finals preview.

Keep an eye on: Sixers point guard Ben Simmons remains one of the most physically imposing matchup problems in the league. And he’s coming off his second triple-double of the season; he schooled the Pistons for 16 points, 13 rebounds and a career-high 17 assists Monday night. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has a choice to make in terms of how to best defend Simmons. He can go big or small and it might not matter if Simmons is at his aggressive best. Either way, Simmons is the key to this game for the Sixers.

Schuhmann’s 5 Stats to Know:

1. The Bucks have outscored their opponents by 18.1 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter, the best mark for any team in any quarter. The first quarter has also been the Sixers’ best (plus-13.4 per 100 possessions).

2. The Bucks rank first in both opponent field goal percentage in the restricted area (54.4%) and the (lowest) percentage of their opponents’ shots that have come in the restricted area (25.6%).

3. The Sixers lead the league with 19.8 post-ups per game, according to Second Spectrum tracking. Joel Embiid leads individuals with 10.7 per game, while Al Horford (4.6) and Ben Simmons (3.9) also rank in the top 20.

4. Giannis Antetokounmpo has averaged 18.4 points in the paint per game, the most since Shaquille O’Neal averaged 19.6 in 2002-03. Antetokounmpo has shot 75.5% in the restricted area, the second best mark among 88 players with at least 100 restricted-area field goal attempts.

5. Though the Sixers rank 19th in total 3-pointers (346), Simmons leads the league with 119 assists on 3-pointers (to 10 different teammates). LeBron James (101), Antetokounmpo (100) and Jrue Holiday (93) rank second, third and fourth, respectively.

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Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors

> 5 ET (ABC)

Why you should be watching?: No one outside of the Bay Area would blame the Rockets (21-9) for seeking revenge against the shell of the Warriors’ dynasty team (7-24) that sits in the bottom three of the league standings after five years of dominating the entire league. No team suffered more at the hands of the Strength in Number Warriors than the Rockets. And you know James Harden and Russell Westbrook won’t spare a soul in trying to demolish the home team in their sparkling new arena. It’s just too easy a narrative for a mismatched Christmas showdown that looked so much better on paper when we assumed it would be an old fashioned shootout between Stephen Curry and D’Angelo Russell against their Houston counterparts.

Keep an eye on: Harden draws the most intense spotlight for the Rockets, and for good reason. He’s flirting with a 40-point scoring average this season and continues to amaze with his ability to score at the highest level we’ve seen in a generation. But lately it’s been the work of Westbrook that has stood out most as the Rockets have won four straight games and eight of their last 10. He’s averaging 28.0 points (on 47 percent shooting), 8.3 rebounds and 7.4 assists in his last 10 games. The Rockets know how critical Westbrook is to their playoff hopes, so seeing him in a groove like this is inspiring hope that bigger things are in store.

Schuhmann’s 5 Stats to Know:

1. James Harden has averaged more than a point per minute played (1,158 points in 1,128 minutes). In NBA history, only one qualified player (Wilt Chamberlain in 1961-62) has averaged more than a point per minute played. Entering Christmas Day, Harden has attempted 98 more shots, 108 more 3-pointers and 68 more free throws than any other player. He is on pace to break both Stephen Curry’s record for 3-pointers made in a season (402 in 2015-16) and Jerry West’s record for free throws made in a season (840 in 1965-66).

2. D’Angelo Russell has shot 54.3% from mid-range, the third best mark among 78 players with at least 50 mid-range attempts. Teammate Jordan Poole has the worst mark (23.6%) among that same group.

3. For the seventh straight season, the Rockets lead the league in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (49.5%). They’ve outscored their opponents by 8.8 points per game from 3-point range. That’s the league’s second best mark. The Warriors rank 28th in the percentage of their shots that have come from 3-point range (32.7%) and 30th in point differential from beyond the arc (-11.3 points per game).

4. The Rockets’ starting lineup – Harden, Russell Westbrook, Danuel House Jr., P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela – has allowed its opponents to score just 95.8 points per 100 possessions, the best mark among 15 lineups that have played at least 200 minutes together.

5. The Warriors have won two straight games for the first time this season, holding their opponent under a point per possession for just the third and fourth time.

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LA Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers

> 8 ET (ABC)

Why you should be watching?: It’s a tradition, the Lakers playing on Christmas. They’ve done it 21 straight times, the longest of any team in the league, and they are the all-time winningest team on the holiday. The underlying bitterness between the Lakers (21-8) and Clippers (18-9) from the free agent summer only adds to the intrigue in this intra-city clash. The Lakers thought they had Kawhi Leonard on board with LeBron James and Anthony Davis to form the latest Super Team until it became painfully clear that they did not, and that he was instead joining the team down the hall at STAPLES Center, with Paul George in tow, in an attempt to vanquish the Lakers’ title hopes for the foreseeable future. The Lakers will likely keep us guessing about the availability/status of LeBron and AD right up until the last minute, which is fine (although both are reportedly expected to play). Some things are worth waiting for on Christmas.

Keep an eye on: George missed the Clippers’ season-opening win over the Lakers while rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery. So he’ll be charged up for his first crack at the rival Lakers. But the two guys to watch in what should be a feisty affair are Clippers point guard Patrick Beverley and Lakers point guard Rajon Rondo. Two of the most relentless and fierce competitors in the league, neither one of them will back down from the slightest challenge. And you know both of them will be issuing them every second leading up to and through the opening tip until the final buzzer. And quite frankly, anything else would be a let down.

Schuhmann’s 5 Stats to Know:

1. The Clippers and Lakers are two of the four teams – Boston and Milwaukee are the others – that rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

2. Anthony Davis has a field goal percentage of 62.9% on shots in the paint and an effective field goal percentage of just 38.7% on shots from outside the paint. That’s the second biggest difference among 149 players with at least 75 field goal attempts both in and outside the paint.

3. The Clippers are the only team with four players averaging at least 18 points per game. Only two other teams – Boston and Oklahoma City – have three players averaging 18 or more.

4. LeBron James has 90 assists to Davis, 17 more than any other player has to a single teammate. The most assists James has had to a single teammate in any season is 142 to Chris Bosh in 2013-14.

5. The Clippers are 11-3 with both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and they’ve outscored their opponents by 14.6 points per 100 possessions in 356 minutes with both on the floor. They’ve outscored their opponents by 13.8 points per 100 possessions in 365 minutes with Leonard on the floor without George, but by just 0.3 points per 100 possessions in 287 minutes with George on the floor without Leonard.

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New Orleans Pelicans vs. Denver Nuggets

> 10:30 ET (ESPN)

Why you should be watching?: For all of the handwringing about the Nuggets’ uneven start to this season, they’re currently looking like the team everyone expected to challenge for the top spot in the Western Conference playoff chase. They are off to the best 29-game start in franchise history (21-8) and just two and half games behind the Lakers for the top spot. They’ve also got their first team All-NBA center Nikola Jokic looking more like himself, after a rocky start to his season. The Nuggets are hosting a Christmas game for the first time since 1994, so the Pepsi Center crowd should be even more energized than usual, and it’s always an electric atmosphere. What looks like a mile-high ambush for the the Pelicans (8-23) could be anything but. After weeks of struggling to get it right, Alvin Gentry’s crew has finally put together, having won two of their last three games with Jrue Holiday and Brandon Ingram leading the way. If JJ Redick can get hot and the Pelicans shoot from deep the way they did in Portland Monday (15-for-35, 43%), this one could get interesting.

Keep an eye on: Zion Williamson in the nightcap on Christmas sounded so good when the schedule was released in the summer. But knee surgery wiped out that dream scenario. Anyone looking for a young star to watch, though, will love what they see from Denver’s Jamal Murray. He’s built for showcase games like this. He’s the team leader in points (17.8) and steals (1.4) and is the perfect perimeter complement for an exquisite passing big man like Jokic. He’ll be looking to put on a show before the home crowd with the whole world watching.

Schuhmann’s 5 Stats to Know:

1. The Nuggets’ starting lineup has already played 509 minutes together, more than it played together all of last season (430) and 118 more than any other lineup has played this season.

2. The Pelicans rank in the top two in both ball movement (377 passes per 24 minutes of possession, second in the league) and player movement (12.3 miles traveled per 24 minutes of possession, first), according to Second Spectrum tracking.

3. The Nuggets rank second in defensive efficiency, having allowed just 103.5 points per 100 possessions. They rank 24th in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (57.3%), but first in both opponent mid-range field goal percentage (32.6%) and opponent 3-point percentage (30.7%).

4. Jrue Holiday leads the league with 4.6 deflections per game. Lonzo Ball ranks 13th with 3.1

5. The Nuggets rank second in assist percentage, having recorded assists on 65.2% of their field goals. Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray have assisted each other 120 times (63 assists from Jokic to Murray, 57 from Murray to Jokic). No other pair of teammates have more than 31 assists going in each direction.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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