Previews, where to watch five top-tier matches

As it has with so many things, the pandemic has given the NBA’s Christmas game slate a bit of a shine.

The unofficial start to the NBA season — at least when more casual fans start paying attention — is still set with some high-profile games, including a showdown of the NBA’s top two teams so far this season. However, some of the game’s biggest stars – Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, Luka Doncic and more – will likely be sidelined due to COVID health and safety protocols.

It’s always an impressive day of NBA games. Here’s a look at every game, plus when and where to watch. All times are Eastern. If you’re looking to stream the games, they’re all on the ESPN3/ESPN app.

ATLANTA HAWKS at NEW YORK KNICKS, Noon, ESPN

Trae Young took over Reggie Miller’s honorary title of “most hated man in Madison Square Garden” — and the accompanying “f*** Trae Young” chants — after not only outshining the Knicks the final postseason, but also a bit of showboating, bowing and rubbing salt into the wounds of Knicks fans while he did it.

It was to be his glorious return, but he – along with Clint Capela, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter and Lou Williams – is absent due to health and safety protocols. Add to that key Hawks players like De’Andre Hunter are out and Cam Redish is questionable through injury.

That opens the door for the Knicks, who have their own COVID (Kevin Knox, Immanuel Quickley) and injury (Derrick Rose) issues. Kemba Walker has stepped up in recent games – he scored 44 on Thursday – and could put on a show against a depleted Hawks defense, but New York keeps losing because he can’t stop, as well as Julius Randle and Evan Fournier. did not respect their new contracts. The Hawks and Knicks are both below .500 and having disappointing starts to this season, both are fighting to get into the play-in rankings solidly and then think about the playoffs, and within that it becomes kind of match that both teams need to win.

BOSTON CELTICS at MILWAUKEE BUCKS, 2:30, ABC

As of this writing, it’s unclear if Giannis Antetokounmpo will be cleared of health and safety protocols to play over Christmas (center Bobby Portis entered protocols on the same day, Dec. 16, and the two could test early with a few negative tests in 24 hours). However, we do know that other Bucks starters won’t be playing: Brook Lopez (back) and Donte DiVincenzo (health and safety protocols). The Bucks are shorthanded and lean on Olympian Khris Middleton leading the offense and great DeMarcus Cousins ​​minutes to center. It’s a makeshift roster, but the Bucks have won two in a row.

The Celtics have their two biggest stars — Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown — healthy, but that hasn’t led to consistent play from Boston this season. Boston’s defense has been good, but the offense is 17th in league standings for the season, 22nd in its last six games, and they’re quickly becoming a predictable isolation team all too easily. That said, the Celtics got up for the game and beat the Bucks in two previous meetings this season.

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS at PHOENIX SUNS, 5 p.m., ABC

It’s the best game of the day: The two best teams in the NBA this season, two legitimate title contenders and the biggest names playing (although the Warriors will be without Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole due to COVID protocols, more Klay Thompson’s comeback will take place next month, not Christmas as hoped).

Stephen Curry has played at MVP level this season: 27.7 points per game, 40.2% shooting on 3, 5.9 assists per game. He had been a little slumped after breaking Ray Allen’s all-time NBA 3-point record, but he got away with it Thursday night with 46 points. Plus, Curry has a history of great Christmas Day games.

While Curry grabs the headlines, the Warriors’ defense makes him a title threat — it’s the best defense in the NBA this season. Draymond Green has been brilliant and is the quarterback for a defense that comes back in transition, makes quick rotations and just makes plays. That defense has been good, not great the last two weeks, due to COVID and injuries.

And that defense will be tested by the best team in the NBA this season.

Phoenix has its stars — Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, and don’t sleep on Mikal Bridges, who played at All-Defensive Team level this season — but watch them play, and they’re a great team. of basketball. This versatile roster can beat you from three or beat an inside team. Tuesday night, when the Lakers went small with LeBron in the center of the lineup trying to play Ayton off the court, he’s mobile and good enough to defend defensively on the perimeter and then make LA pay on offense. The Suns are also always balanced on the field — the ground is spread with shooters, and that positioning means they get back on defense and take easy buckets. Call it culture or system or whatever word you want, Monty Williams made up the Suns.

“I think a lot of it comes down to our team culture, how the guys step into situations and we stay ourselves,” Cameron Johnson said. “You can see our identity on the pitch when we have everyone. It’s a group of guys who like to play together and we play for each other.

Or, you could just use the Suns’ post-game breakdown from interim Lakers coach David Fizdale: “They’re kicking ass.”

BROOKLYN NETS at the LOS ANGELES LAKERS, 8 p.m., ABC/ESPN

When the schedule was released, we thought it was for the Christmas Day finale preview game.

Now… well, the Nets look like they could make it to the Finals, but this team will look nothing like this team. And the Lakers are a sub-.500 mess.

Much of the star power for this game is set aside. For the Nets: Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are both in health and safety protocols and won’t play, but the Nets are fresh off having 10 guys in protocol and have three straight games postponed because they don’t have enough players. LaMarcus Aldridge is in protocol, Joe Harris is out after ankle surgery. The Lakers are without Anthony Davis due to a sprained knee, as well as actors Trevor Ariza, Malik Monk, Austin Reaves and Avery Bradley due to protocols.

The Lakers still have LeBron James – he turns 37 next week and is still playing at an All-NBA level lately and carrying the Lakers, averaging 26.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game. If LeBron scores 12 points in this game, he’ll pass Kobe Bryant for the most points scored on Christmas Day in NBA history.

It’s as simple as that with the Lakers: when LeBron is on the court, they play virtually even teams (+0.7 net rating), when he sits, they’re outplayed (-4.7 rating). Against the Suns on Tuesday, Los Angeles played Phoenix even in LeBron’s 34 minutes, but they were outplayed in the 14 minutes he sat by 18. Los Angeles has Russell Westbrook, and he’s racking up numbers and is a threat on nights when his sweater falls, but he didn’t carry the load to give LeBron more rest.

Without Davis, the Lakers defense is a mess.

Brooklyn will have James Harden back for this game, the only player from their “big 3” who can play right now. He had a slow start to the season and his conditioning — coming from a hamstring rehab offseason — but was showing signs before being sidelined with a positive COVID test. In this game he can be a full-fledged vintage Harden with the ball in his hands, Patty Mills is the only other playmaker on the active roster.

Brooklyn, despite all the drama — Harden’s start, Irving thinking he’s making a statement or whatever — is 21-9 and has the best record in the East. Durant played at MVP level and carried this team for periods. The Nets, when mostly healthy, looked like legitimate title contenders. Which is more than the Lakers can say. However, what this means for Christmas Day is very difficult to say.

DALLAS MAVERICKS at UTAH JAZZ, 10:30 p.m., ESPN

No Luka Doncic in this one, he’s in health and safety protocols. The Mavericks will also be stripped of rotation Tim Hardaway Jr., Maxi Kleber and Reggie Bullock due to protocols.

Utah deserves this moment in the spotlight: 22-9 record, NBA’s best offense, sixth-best defense, Donovan Mitchell is averaging 25.1 points per game and cutting through defenses, and inside Rudy Gobert is playing the best basketball of his career — 15.5 points, 15.1 rebounds and Defensive Player of the Year-level defense in the paint again.

While the Suns and Warriors have been the top two teams in the NBA this season, the Jazz are knocking on that door and should be considered contenders. It’s easy to fire them after a Clippers team without Kawhi beat them in the playoffs going small, but that Jazz team wasn’t healthy (not Mike Conley, when Mitchell basically played on a leg) and with the addition of Rudy Gay and others, they won’t be easily beaten by getting small now. This jazz team has a chance to be the Bucks of last year, finally putting it all together in the playoffs and proving the doubters wrong.

A healthy Mavericks team would be an interesting test for the Jazz. This Mavs team led by Jalen Brunson (and Brunson knows the kind of season that will PAID next summer) isn’t much of a threat if the Jazz haven’t had too much eggnog before the game.


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