Bucks vs. Knicks (Noon ET, ESPN)
Why you should be watching: Two words; Giannis Antetokounmpo. The most dominant force in the league this season resides in Milwaukee. That’s right, the Greek Freak sits atop the Kia Race to the MVP Ladder heading into the Christmas Day showcase games. And with good reason. The Bucks are riding the wave their dynamic superstar forward has created in his first season in Mike Budenholzer’s system.
Open it up and enjoy because …: The Bucks are more than a one-man show. Antetokounmpo should be joined on the All-Star team this season by Khris Middleton, who is playing at that level, and point guard Eric Bledsoe is shooting better than he ever has in Budenolzer’s aggressive, shooter-friendly system. Watching the Bucks try and set a record for 3-pointers taken and made should be entertaining enough. But the Knicks will offer some entertainment value of their own as they attempt to match the Bucks shot-for-shot with Tim Hardaway Jr. leading the way.
The gift we’re hoping for is …: The Knicks could use a statement win before a global audience to jump start the post-Christmas portion of their season-long grind. The Bucks have spent most of this season frightening the competition, both in the Eastern Conference and beyond. They’ve got the gift that’ll keep on giving for years in Antetokounmpo, who’ll get another chance to show the basketball public that what they’ve hard about a contender rising in the Central Division is real.
Why you should be watching: Do we really need anyone to remind us to tune in for every Russell Westbrook-James Harden matchup for the foreseeable future? Didn’t think so. The matchup of the last two Kia MVPs winners is enough of an incentive to lock in on this one. And the fact that the Thunder occupy the space in the standings most thought was reserved for the Rockets only adds to the intrigue.
Open it up and enjoy because …: The real showstopper in this one isn’t either one of the MVP winners. Thunder swingman Paul George is the player you need to lock in on as he continues his dark horse MVP campaign for a much-improved team (the Thunder are light years away from the group that started the season 0-4). There are few soap operas better right now than the Rockets, who are dealing with yet another injury to All-Star point guard Chris Paul (hamstring) and a failure to play up to expectations that threatens to swallow up their season before Santa’s finished off his cookies and milk.
The gift we’re hoping for is …: What Westbrook and Harden wear into the building is worth a few moments of your time as these two fashion-forward superstars never fail to make an impression. But it’s the competitive fervor on the court that should provide the ultimate viewing pleasure. The Thunder would love to take over the position the Rockets held last season, as the legitimate threat to the Golden State Warriors’ stranglehold on the Western Conference throne. In the absence of a Christmas tilt against the two-time defending champs, the Rockets make an ideal fill in.
Why you should be watching: The Eastern Conference version of Thunder-Rockets, the schedule makers look pretty good slotting the Sixers and Celtics in this spot. No one relishes an opportunity to take down a projected heavyweight the way the Sixers do (what else would you expect with Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid leading the charge?). The suddenly chummy Celtics, however, appear to be the team most eager to prove that they are indeed who we all thought they were in the summer, when they were the consensus pick to ascend to the top of the heap in place of Cleveland.
Open it up and enjoy because …: Kyrie Irving has embraced his role as the leader of this disjointed Celtics bunch in ways that fans in Cleveland have to be enjoying with an eyebrow raised. Kyrie trying to convince his young teammates to follow his lead is rich, given his reluctance to do exactly that when he was in their shoes. As far as rivalries go, this is perhaps the day’s deepest and most volatile. The Sixers are still smarting from that playoff ouster at the hands of the Celtics. And they won’t have ant sympathy for the Celtics as they continue their search for good health and better chemistry.
The gift we’re hoping for is …: A Ben Simmons-Kyrie point guard duel will make this game shine even brighter than usual. And they’re both more than capable of going off on the big stage. But the real treat here is going to be watching Jimmy Butler and Jayson Tatum match wits in what could be a preview of fireworks to come in a potential playoff matchup. Tatum’s sophomore season has been a bit choppier than expected. And Butler, whose shown a penchant for schooling youngsters (teammates and opponents) is surely betting on himself in this game within the game.
Why you should be watching: With all of the recent history dripping off of this LeBron James-Warriors rivalry, the inclusion of the Los Angeles Lakers into the mix only serves to take this spectacle to the next level. LeBron insists this isn’t a measuring stick game for the upstart Lakers, not against a Warriors juggernaut that has won three of the last four Larry O’Brien trophies. Yeah, whatever you say big fella. Folks who haven’t watched a minute of NBA basketball season will be tuned into this one. Count on it.
Open it up and enjoy because …: Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant have moved into that cosmic zone that only the all-time greats are capable of locating (see their work in Sunday’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers for proof). We already know how the superstars respond in a matchup of this nature. The great unknown is how the likes of Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball will react to the marquee spotlight at Oracle Arena. The Lakers’ youngsters have thrived at times and struggled at others in their first season inside the LeBron bubble. But they haven’t seen anything like what they’ll experience in Oakland on this night.
The gift we’re hoping for is …: Draymond Green hasn’t had a true breakout game since returning from his extended injury absence. With Lance Stephenson in uniform on the other side, the opportunity for fireworks would appear to be extremely high. We’d settle for some Finals-level intensity from both of the world class agitators in the building. That and vintage performances from LeBron, Steph, KD and Klay Thompson are expected. Anything else beyond that is really gravy on the best basketball meal of the day.
Trail Blazers vs. Jazz (10:30 ET, ESPN)
Why you should be watching: We’re dubbing the nightcap of the Christmas Day showcase the “Respect Bowl.” The Trail Blazers are always on the hunt for more respect and the Jazz, one of the trendy summer picks as a team poised to become a contender in the Western Conference this season, could stand to show a little self-respect in the way they tackle the remainder of this season.
Open it up and enjoy because …: Second-year Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell is suffering from the same sophomore spell that has plagued Jayson Tatum in Boston. It’s one thing to surprise the basketball world as a rookie and another to come back better and even more dangerous the second time around. We’re betting on Spider showing up and showing out for the Christmas Day crowd. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Damian Lillard will not allow someone else to steal the spotlight from him. He warmed up for Mitchell and the Jazz by finishing off Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks Sunday night. You know his swagger travels, so expect to see his competitive best against Mitchell and the Jazz.
The gift we’re hoping for is …: Joe Ingles stealing the show would make for an ideal end to a day full of some the league’s biggest and brightest superstars. And the sweet-shooting Jazz swingman is one of the league’s criminally underrated stars. It would also be nice to see the rest of that Jazz team we expected to make things interesting this season make an appearance. Christmas Day games have always served as a launching pad/turning point for teams willing to dive in. And the Blazers and Jazz both seem like prime candidates to take advantage of the opportunity.
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