Christmas is the marquee day on the NBA’s regular-season schedule, but it is especially important for the 2020-21 season. With the season tipping off on Dec. 22, two months later than usual, Christmas Day will serve as a sort of opening ceremony for the season, and as such, the league has loaded the holiday with some of its biggest matchups. The following five games have been tentatively chosen for Christmas Day, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.
The league’s entire schedule has not yet been released. The schedule for the first half of the season is expected to be announced shortly, but the second half will have to wait in case the NBA needs to leave some extra time to make up games missed because of COVID-19. A separate slate of marquee games is expected for opening night on Dec. 22, and a month later, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Jan. 19), the league typically offers a full day of games with several meaningful matchups.
But with Christmas acting as a sort of second opening day, the league needed to nail the matchups it put on the board to help fans reacclimate to basketball so quickly after last season’s conclusion. They’ve done so with this slate, fitting all four of last season’s conference finalists, two returning contenders and a boatload of superstars onto a single day on the calendar. Here are our rankings of all five games.
1. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Dallas Mavericks
No, it’s not the game we expected. Lakers-Clippers Part V will likely be their second-consecutive opening night tilt rather than another Christmas duel, and with the Miami Heat seemingly starting the season at home, it might be a little while before the NBA gives fans a Finals rematch. That should suit the viewing audience just fine. Lakers vs. Mavericks is still the best basketball game on the board.
The Lakers took three of their four bouts with the Mavericks last season, including a controversial November game that went to overtime after the officials missed an obvious illegal screen on Dwight Howard that set up Danny Green’s game-tying shot. The narratives are simple enough to sell. LeBron James, after capturing his fourth Finals MVP award, is once again the NBA’s undisputed best player. Luka Doncic is the odds-on MVP favorite, but perhaps also the favorite to take LeBron’s throne. This game will be his first attempt at doing so this season. It won’t be his last.
2. Boston Celtics vs. Brooklyn Nets
If not for COVID-19, this would hold the top spot. But alas, with many arenas either limiting attendance or banning fans outright, Kyrie Irving has managed to duck the wrath of Boston’s fans yet again. Fortunately, he is no longer Brooklyn’s headliner. All eyes are on Kevin Durant as he mounts his comeback from the torn Achilles tendon that cost him the 2019-20 season. All reports from those who have seen him work out and play pickup games have been positive, but nothing can match the intensity of an actual NBA game. This will presumably be his second, with Brooklyn expected to play a major part in the NBA’s opening night lineup as well.
In it, he’ll face the NBA player that most closely matches his playing style. Jayson Tatum isn’t on Durant’s level yet, but he flashed MVP potential as a tough shotmaker last season. With Gordon Hayward gone and Kemba Walker battling an injury, this is going to be Tatum’s team from the start. That could create one of the best scorer’s duels of the season.
3. Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Clippers
The rivalry between Irving and Boston fans might be off, but the bad blood between the Clippers and Nuggets and is very much on. The Clippers are still nursing the wounds of their blown 3-1 lead, and reserve forward JaMychal Green seemingly threw salt in them by signing with the Nuggets and seemingly slighting the Clippers by praising Denver’s heart and fighting spirit.
The Clippers believe they’ve cracked the Nikola Jokic code by signing Serge Ibaka. The Nuggets lost Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee, two important elements of their upset. On paper, that would make the Clippers the favorites in this game. But, well, if you think that means you don’t have to watch it, you clearly don’t remember what happened the last time the Clippers were favorites against the Nuggets.
4. Miami Heat vs. New Orleans Pelicans
The unstoppable force meets the immovable object. In one corner stands Zion Williamson, perhaps the most efficient rookie scorer in NBA history, a 280-pound pogo stick that can finish at the basket against anyone. In the other corner stands Bam Adebayo, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and one of the breakout stars of the bubble. The appeal is obvious. If Williamson’s push to become the face of the NBA is going to gain any ground this season, beating the defending Eastern Conference champions and their star defender on their home floor is probably the right place to start.
The downside here is two-fold. We all remember what happened last year when the league put the Pelicans on national TV at every opportunity only to watch Williamson miss most of those games with various injuries. Given his track record, we won’t know for certain whether or not he is playing until the game is about to tip-off. If he sits? This is a dud. Even if he plays, there isn’t exactly a rivalry between these two teams. They don’t even play in the same conference. That’s hardly a prerequisite for Christmas Day basketball, but a little narrative juice never hurt.
5. Milwaukee Bucks vs. Golden State Warriors
If Klay Thompson were healthy? We’d have a possible Finals preview on our hands. Instead, we probably have a mismatch. We saw an admittedly thinner version of the Warriors try their hand at Klay-less basketball last season. It didn’t go particularly well, as the Warriors were outscored by 47 points in the first four games of the season before Stephen Curry went down with an injury. This year’s squad will be better, but good enough to hang with the two-time defending regular-season champions on their home court? Probably not.
But hey, It’s not every day that you get to see two two-time MVPs share the floor. The bromance between Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo will surely create some social media buzz before and after the game as well. The No. 2 overall pick, James Wiseman, will likely be playing in his second NBA game, and Jrue Holiday will similarly be playing what is likely his second game as a Milwaukee Buck. There are storylines to soak in here even if the Bucks run away with the game early on.