Christmas Day 2022

NBA Christmas Day roundtable: What to know about 5 matchups

ESPN analysts Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Doris Burke weigh in on key storylines surrounding the teams playing on Christmas Day.

The Bucks take on the Celtics in 1 of 5 enticing Christmas Day matchups.

Despite his admiration for the NBA teams that will compete on Christmas Day, ESPN play-by-play announcer Mike Breen conceded he has one issue with the league’s holiday setup.

“I’m not going to be able to watch all of the games,” Breen mused.

Breen will handle play-by-play duties when the Golden State Warriors host the Memphis Grizzlies (8 ET, ABC/ESPN). He will then travel for the New York Knicks’ following three-game trip for his work with MSG. That won’t give him much time to watch the NBA’s other Christmas Day games.

Thankfully NBA fans have more of a luxury. They can binge-watch the matinee games (Philadelphia 76ers vs. Knicks at Noon ET and Los Angeles Lakers vs. Dallas Mavericks at 2:30 ET), the prime-time matchups (Milwaukee Bucks vs. Boston Celtics at 5 ET and Grizzlies vs. Warriors at 8 ET), and a late-night showdown (Phoenix Suns vs.  Denver Nuggets, 10:30 ET), all of which will be on ABC/ESPN.

Its an NBA Christmas tradition, a full slate of 5 games from noon to midnight on ABC and ESPN.

“I’m going to sound like a company man here,” Breen said, chuckling. “But all five of the matchups are really good.”

Breen and Jeff Van Gundy, who will work the Grizzlies-Warriors game, spoke by phone about the various NBA Christmas Day matchups storylines. Doris Burke, who will work the Bucks-Celtics game, emailed insightful game breakdowns.

Editor’s note: These separate one-on-one interviews have been edited and condensed.

76ers vs. Knicks (Noon ET)

The Knicks must try to contain high-scoring center Joel Embiid on Christmas Day.

Burke’s scouting report on Sixers-Knicks:

The Knicks’ winning streak has coincided with a team that is consistently getting stops and has finally started to make some shots. They have proven their coach prescient by predicting they could elevate their shooting at least to the middle of the pack. Julius Randle is once again producing in an efficient fashion. RJ Barrett, after yet another slow start, has found his game. Jalen Brunson has been as good as the Knicks could have hoped for with manning the point guard position. The consistent nine-man rotation includes quality, competitive tough-minded defenders in Quentin Grimes and Deuce McBride. The Sixers have a healthier Joel Embiid very much looking like an MVP. Tobias Harris has settled into his role as a catch-and-shoot threat and the Sixers seem closer to the contender we expected them to be.

What accounts for the Knicks’ recent success?

Breen: [Coach] Tom Thibodeau said, ‘I’m going to go to a nine-man rotation. I’m going to put my defensive guys first.’ Defense has become their calling card again like it was two years ago. That’s the main reason.

Van Gundy: They are rebounding and defending at a high level. Cutting down from a 10-man rotation to a nine-man rotation was essential. Adding toughness to their lineup by playing Grimes and McBride has helped immensely along with [Jericho] Sims playing at an unconventional two-center lineup with [Isaiah] Hartenstein off the bench. They’re a lot tougher and a lot more defensive-oriented. When you go from 10 to nine, you’re not squeezing peoples’ minutes as much.

Lakers vs. Mavs (2:30 ET)

Two of the NBA’s best all-around playmakers will square off on Christmas Day in Dallas.

Burke’s scouting report on Lakers-Mavericks:

Injury news continues to grab headlines for these two teams, and the loss of Maxi Kleber is a big one for Dallas. He has been a consistent, versatile presence for Dallas during his career. Couple that with his ability to be a threat from range, and he will be missed. Anthony Davis’ situation looms large, but hoping for good news. In the meantime, Luka Doncic and LeBron James on Christmas Day? That alone is worth the watch.

How do compare LeBron’s 20th season to his other seasons?

Breen: Whether you want to say he or Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, LeBron takes a backseat to no one in terms of individual talent, historic numbers and most importantly, winning. The last couple of years, that hasn’t happened. Injuries have been a part of it. That’s what happens when you get older. But he’s always been about winning championships. Has he shown signs of decline? I think the injuries are more a sign of that. Can he play defense like he used to? No, of course not. Does he rely on his 3-point shot more than on power moves to the basket? Sure. But to put up the numbers that he’s doing in his career is just remarkable. It frustrates me and confuses when I watch so many people want to criticize him. In terms of what you want out of a great player, he’s been everything that you want. He checks off all those boxes.

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Burke: If LeBron feels any Father Time pressure, it is not evident. His efficiency is likely not where he wants it to be quite yet. He has historically taken enormous pride not only in what he produces but how he produces. But his points, rebounds and assist numbers continue to make us marvel.  I just worry that title contention feels such a long way off for one of the greatest ever to do it. 

Van Gundy: The numbers are going to be there. But when you get to that level, it’s about how much can you drive winning. The Lakers have not been good the last couple of years. It may not be his fault. But it is his responsibility. That’s how you’re judged. You set this incredible standard. He’s still playing individually well more so on offense than on defense. But they’re just not very good. He’s a part of that. He had a large part with who’s on the roster. It’s a hard position.

What do you make of Luka Doncic’s brilliant start and the Mavericks’ inconsistency?

Breen: I’d put Dallas in a tier underneath the teams that have a chance to get out of the West. Doncic is so special. He doesn’t appear to be quick and athletic. But then when you go and watch him in person, you can’t believe how he can do whatever he wants out there. It’s his instincts, basketball savvy, skill level, size and strength. He is a total package. But I don’t know about their supporting cast right now. I don’t know if he trusts his supporting cast enough. He has to trust them more. For them to advance in the playoffs, there’s going to be a lot of times where those guys have to come through. He’s amazing to watch. But I just don’t think they’re on the same level as the other teams in the West.

Van Gundy: Dallas’ biggest question mark is, ‘Has it done enough to replace Brunson, and can they even do more to replace him?’ The Mavs could’ve signed him back at $14 million a year ago. They chose to pass on that. They took it to free agency, and he got rewarded [in New York]. People thought he was overpaid. Now you can make a case that he’s underpaid. It’s hard. When you lose a talent like Brunson, it’s hard to replace. Last season, Dallas made a bold move with getting [Spencer] Dinwiddie for [Kristaps] Porzingis. That protected them to some extent from the loss of Brunson. But dealing with the greatness every night with Doncic offensively? In any given series, he is going to give you a chance.

Bucks vs. Celtics (5 ET)

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum are set for a big matchup on Christmas Day.

Burke’s scouting report on Celtics-Bucks:

These Eastern Conference foes square off at a moment when Boston is facing its first bit of adversity of the season. It was hard to imagine Boston sustaining the level of 3-point shooting it displayed over the course of the early season. While absorbing some losses, Boston’s defense has taken a notable uptick during this stretch. Coach Joe Mazzulla continues to take the inevitable ups and downs of an 82-game season in stride. Milwaukee continues to get consistent greatness from Giannis [Antetokounmpo], who is averaging a [career-high] 31 points and a [career-high] 12.5 free throws per game. The adjustment of staying a bit more attached to 3-point shooters continues to elevate a consistently excellent defense. Brook Lopez has been exceptional on both ends, shooting 39.5% on 3s and anchoring the aforementioned defense. Two titans square off in what looks like the best game of the day.

Which Eastern Conference teams have played the best so far?

Breen: Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Brooklyn and I will never doubt Miami as long as Jimmy Butler plays and Erik Spoelstra coaches. It was going to be interesting to see how Boston would return, especially with the drama and the change of head coach right before training camp. The Celtics haven’t missed a beat. They had a bad week recently, but they’re the favorites with Milwaukee. As far as which team is playing better? A week or so ago, I would’ve said Boston. Now Philadelphia is playing well. The team that is playing the best is Brooklyn right now. None of it matters in December. It all matters after the rosters are set after the trade deadline, after everyone is healthy and when the playoffs start. 

Van Gundy: The Celtics-Bucks matchup is the two best teams in the league. Both teams are good on both ends of the floor. They have star power to bring them home in close games. They are clearly the two best teams. The Eastern Conference is clearly the better conference this year. I would throw the 76ers into that group as well. You have Embiid and Harden. I think Tobias Harris is an outstanding complementary player. I think they have a chance.

Grizzlies vs. Warriors (8 ET)

Ja Morant and the Grizzlies renew their rivalry with the Warriors on Christmas Day.

Burke’s scouting report on Grizzlies-Warriors:

The Grizzlies continue to be one of the most fun teams to watch in the NBA, and it isn’t only about the magnificent and electric Ja Morant. Jaren Jackson Jr. has been sending shots back with emphatic regularity and has helped a Memphis defense immensely after a tough start. This is a group that genuinely seems to enjoy playing with and for one another. Golden State will have to hang on while Stephen Curry nurses his shoulder back to good health.

Which Western Conference teams have played the best so far?

Breen: I could see five different teams making it out of the West: Phoenix, Denver, Memphis, New Orleans and Golden State. With Phoenix, if Chris Paul stays healthy and Cam Johnson comes back, they’re as good as anybody in the West. Devin Booker has become a legitimate star. He’s gone to another level. Denver has meandered at the beginning with guys out. But they’ve had so many playoff experiences. [Nikola] Jokic might be the most unique player we’ve seen in decades. Memphis is a team I love because they’re so connected. Ja Morant gets the headlines. But Desmond Bane is a star. If the Grizzlies get him back, they’ll be tough to beat considering they also have Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks and a great coach in Taylor Jenkins. New Orleans is loaded. The Pelicans have played really well, even with [Brandon] Ingram missing so much time. Among Zion [Williamson], Ingram and [CJ] McCollum, you have three guys that can get you 30 [points] on any night. Their defense is really good. They have good role players. They have good depth.

The Warriors are going to be a force to be reckoned with so long as Curry is not out for an extended period. These young guys, whether you’re talking about Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody, are the type of athletic, young players that can be a real boon for them. I’m looking at as it might be a positive for them.

Van Gundy: New Orleans has the best chance to elevate themselves to a [championship] level along with the Clippers. So long as the Clippers ever get to where they have a semblance of their roster from a health standpoint. Along with New Orleans, the Clippers are the second-most talented team in the West. Are they ever going to achieve any level of continuity that will give them a try chance to play for it all? That would be my major question. But nothing trumps talent. 

I’m amazed at what Memphis has achieved despite injuries. They continue to impress with the quality of depth throughout their roster. I love the way the Suns play. They’re not overly talented. Chris Paul has been hurt and has struggled at times. Booker is hurt, but he has been really good [before his injury]. I love Mikal Bridges. He’s one of my favorite players in the league.

Suns vs. Nuggets (10:30 ET)

The Suns and Nuggets are meeting for the 1st time this season.

Burke’s scouting report on Suns-Nuggets:

Jokic continues to work his magic. The passing, intellect and the skill displayed on a nightly basis is something to behold. He will have to move mountains to win a rare third consecutive MVP award, but he certainly looks capable. Bruce Brown has been a seamless fit. Aaron Gordon’s high level of play has been a huge part of the Nuggets’ success. I’m anxious to see Jamal Murray continue his journey back and I’m hoping Michael Porter Jr. can get healthy. Booker’s shoulders seemed broad enough to carry a huge nightly weight, averaging career highs in both scoring and assists. The Suns need his groin injury to heal quickly and to resolve the Jae Crowder situation.

Which players have had the best start of the season? 

Burke: One of the things that stands out is the number of players legitimately in the conversation for league MVP. Injuries and/or team performance have a way of drawing this conversation into sharper focus by season’s end. But in the meantime, it feels like a credible case could be made for at least seven guys. Certainly, Tatum and Giannis deservedly garnered most of the early attention. But Luka, Joel, Nikola, Steph and Devin are performing at incredible levels.

Breen: Tatum, Embiid, Giannis, Durant, Curry, Booker, Jokic and Morant. Tatum has a complete game. He’s always a talented scorer. But with his playmaking, his rebounding and his defense, he’s really becoming a complete player. With Embiid, the key is always what shape is he in. He’s in great shape. He can dominate a game on both ends. He’s a special defensive player when he wants to be. I think he’s tired of falling short in the playoffs. There seems to be a little extra hunger in him right now to have playoff success.

I can’t get enough of watching Giannis play. With his team-first attitude and how hard he plays, I think he’s the ultimate role model for any young basketball player. I find him to be a remarkable man and one of the all-time great players. He doesn’t have much of a jump shot and is iffy on free throws. But it’s amazing what he can accomplish. Booker has gotten to another level. He could’ve played in any era. But at the same time, he has this modern-day charisma and coolness to him. Jokic could be the most unique player. He takes such joy in his teammates’ success. I think that’s why his teammates will do anything for him. I don’t like to say definitively that he’s the best passing big man I’ve ever seen. But he could be the best passing big man.

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Van Gundy: Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have been the best tandem in the league. They’re efficient. They play every night for the most part. And they come ready to play. They don’t take nights off. Brown doesn’t get as much credit as Tatum. I still think he’s underrated. Tatum has really grown as a playmaker. Brown isn’t at that level yet as a playmaker. But he’s improved in that area. I think they both try to guard really hard. I have immense respect for all that those two have achieved together. They never paid attention and never gave in to the whole notion that they can’t play together.

Jokic has also been incredible. I know he’s won back-to-back MVPs. But look at all the advanced stats and his impact on winning. He’s going to be right there again. Doncic is one of the most elite offensive players ever to have played. There are a bunch of guys that have played well, including Embiid and Davis when they have been healthy.

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Mark Medina is a senior writer/analyst for You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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