Just like Santa Claus and exchanging gifts, marquee matchups on Christmas Day have become an annual tradition. Most of the focus will be on the Celtics-Magic and Heat-Lakers, but there are three other games spread across the ESPN family of networks. If you’re so inclined, you can watch a quintuple-header of NBA holiday games beginning with Bulls-Knicks at noon (all times Eastern Standard Time) and concluding with Blazers-Warriors at 10:30. Here’s what to watch for this Saturday.
Bulls at Knicks (12:00, ESPN)
The streaky Knicks were brought back down to Earth last week in losses to the Celtics and Heat, and culminated a fruitless week with another loss to the moribund Cavs. Saturday’s game falls in the middle of a tough four-game stretch for them (OKC on Wednesday and then a Florida road trip to face the Heat and Magic next week), and it will be important for New York’s confidence that they secure a win over an Eastern Conference contender in Chicago. The Bulls are without Joakim Noah, the heart and soul of their defense, so look for the Knicks to feed Amar’e Stoudemire early and often. With a healthy Noah, Chicago is the better team, but without him this is a much closer matchup, especially if the Knicks get their running game going. The Bulls quietly had a seven-game win streak snapped on Saturday against the Clippers and a win over the Knicks would help them make their case as the East’s third-best team. This is Chicago’s first appearance on Christmas Day since 1997, the final year of the Jordan era, while the Knicks hosted the Heat last year, falling 93-87.
Celtics at Magic (2:30, ABC)
For the second consecutive year, Boston will travel to Orlando on Christmas Day (Boston won 86-77 last year). The matchup also provides a chance for revenge for the Magic, as this is the teams’ first meeting since Boston took last year’s Eastern Conference Finals 4-2. The game is the third in a difficult homestand for Orlando that will show just how much the Magic improved (or regressed) by acquiring Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu. A win over Boston would validate that the Magic are for real, but the way the Celtics have been playing of late, that is going to be a tall order. Rajon Rondo will be out with an ankle injury, but Shaquille O’Neal is back to face his rival Dwight Howard, and Kevin Garnett has been playing at a very high level this season. Boston will also be well-rested, as their only other game this week was on Wednesday at home to the Sixers. The Celtics always seem to go on long winning streaks this time of year: not only do they have a 13-game streak going right now, but they had a 10-gamer in December last season, and had a 19-gamer snapped on Christmas Day two years ago. A win would keep them ahead of Miami for the inside track to the one seed in this year’s playoffs. They’ll also want to avoid the post-Christmas malaise that set in last year, as they went just 27-27 after the holiday.
Heat at Lakers (5:00, ABC)
This is the game that every fan circled on their calendars as soon as the NBA announced the 2010-11 schedule this summer. Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and the Miami Heat travel to Staples Center to take on Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. If you’re an NBA fan, I shouldn’t have to list the reasons why you should watch this game, but here are some things to consider on Saturday. Miami has been on a tear since a rocky 9-8 start and seems to have figured things out offensively, while the Lakers have been inconsistent after their 8-0 start. Pau Gasol has been playing a lot of minutes recently, but the Lakers will need him to do the same against the Heat’s weak front line. The matchup of Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum versus Chris Bosh, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and Joel Anthony will be the one to watch, as it features LA’s greatest strength versus Miami’s greatest weakness. Obviously Kobe, Wade, and LeBron are three of the league’s most exciting players, and watching them all go at it will be a real treat as well. LeBron’s Cavs’ got the best of Kobe’s Lakers on Christmas Day last year, so Bryant will be out for revenge. In addition, in what could be a Finals preview, each team will try to gain the upper hand and show that they are the team to beat. This will be the twelfth consecutive year that the Lakers have played on Christmas Day, and the fourth time in the last seven seasons that their opponent will be the Heat.
Nuggets at Thunder (8:00, ESPN)
If you haven’t had your fill of hoops by now, Carmelo Anthony versus Kevin Durant headlines another quality matchup. It’s been hard to get a read on the Nuggets so far this season, mainly because of the constant trade rumors circulating around Anthony. When he’s on, the Nuggets can compete with anyone, as evidenced by wins over the Mavericks and Lakers along with last week’s last-second loss to the Spurs. But it’s clearly not good for locker-room morale when everyone knows that your best player would rather be in New York. With Melo, the Nuggets aren’t a title threat, but they’re still a good team, making for an interesting divisional matchup with Oklahoma City. Both teams have a chance to win the Northwest Division this year, though OKC trails division-leading Utah by a half game, while Denver is 2.5 back. You’ll want to watch this one to see Durant and Russell Westbrook, two of the league’s most exciting young players. Durant leads the league in points per game, averaging just over 27 per, while Westbrook is 12th with 23 a game. The schedule doesn’t get any easier for OKC, as they have to face Dallas just two days after playing Denver. This is the Thunder’s first appearance on Christmas Day since moving to Oklahoma City (the Sonics last played on Dec. 25 in 2007), while Denver lost to the Blazers last year, 107-96.
Blazers at Warriors (10:30, ESPN)
The last game on the schedule is also the least interesting from a fan’s standpoint. Portland’s winning percentage has been hovering right around 50%, while Golden State is already well out of contention at 9-17. By this point, you might just want to go to bed and sleep off a long day of eating and schmoozing with the family.
Here’s what’s going on if you do stay up to watch. The Warriors may be at a slight advantage, as six of their nine wins have been at home, while the Blazers are just 5-11 on the road. What once looked like a promising young team in Portland is now an injury-plagued nightmare. For the second time in his career, Greg Oden will miss the entire season with a knee injury, and Brandon Roy, once one of the NBA’s best young players, has battled his own knee injuries, limiting his effectiveness. Neither team might be that good, but at least the up-tempo Warriors are fun to watch, and their style has allowed both Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry to average over 20 PPG. The teams’ just played last Saturday, with the Blazers winning 96-95 in Portland. The last five times that the Warriors have played on Christmas Day, they’ve played the Blazers, and they’ve lost. But the most recent of those came in 1984, a 106-97 loss at the old Memorial Coliseum where Bill Walton once ruled.
No matter how you spend your Christmas this year, happy holidays from Hoops Karma!