Christmas Day NBA is the best. Here are fun nuggets (and Nuggets) to watch for
Christmas Day basketball is a tradition unlike any other. As a kid, I’d wake up, excitedly open presents, eat lunch with the family, and then ignore all my new toys and visiting relatives to watch games for as long as my parents would tolerate (never long enough). It’s definitely a healthy way to celebrate the holidays!
But I loved everything about it. The marquee teams and players, the unique jerseys, the classic advertisements, the pomp, the circumstance. Some of that has changed over the years (where are the new uniforms??), but the important stuff hasn’t.
This year, as always, we have a fun slate of games to carry us through the day. Here is something to watch for in each game. (As an aside, I’ll be off Tuesday for the holiday, but I’ll be back next Friday with another article.)
Milwaukee Bucks vs. New York Knicks: Can the Knicks slow the Bucks’ shooters?
This game will be a chance for the Knicks to see how they measure up without their biggest man, Mitchell Robinson, who will likely miss the rest of the regular season. It’s a tough blow for Robinson, who is having the best season of his career. His absence will be felt against the twin giants lineup of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Brook Lopez.
Isaiah Hartenstein is a more than capable backup, but I worry that the team’s lack of depth behind him will be exposed in this game. New York has sold out to prevent Giannis from dominating at the rim in the past by sending extra bodies and crowding the paint; without Robinson, that will become even more paramount.
The Knicks want to force Giannis to become a distributor, and he’s been happy to oblige — Giannis has averaged 7.4 assists in his last five games against New York, all wins. With Damian Lillard on board and Khris Middleton quietly rounding back into pre-injury form, I’m not sure that strategy will be any more successful this time.
These two teams have played twice this season, the second a 146-122 beatdown by Milwaukee in the quarterfinals of the In-Season Tournament. That game was close for a half but featured an endless rain of threes from the Bucks after the break to blow it open. I wouldn’t count on a repeat shooting performance by Milwaukee, but New York also needs to do a better job contesting outside shots. Look at this absurd picture, in which five Knicks attempt to guard Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s leaving Damian Lillard, Malik Beasley, and Khris Middleton (three excellent shooters) alone on the perimeter:
Please, New York, I’m begging you: no more of that.
In two games this season, the Bucks are a combined 43 of 77 (56%) from downtown. That number is absurd! But it seems slightly more plausible when you look at what’s happening above.
Golden State Warriors vs. Denver Nuggets: Who stops Jokic?
The Warriors are feeling a little better about themselves after a trio of close wins, including an OT victory against the Celtics. They’ve broken out a new starting lineup following Draymond Green’s suspension and Andrew Wiggins’ demotion to the bench, starting Jonathan Kuminga and rookie Brandon Podziemski alongside Klay, Steph, and Kevon Looney. Rookie big man Trayce Jackson-Davis has also entered the rotation.
It’s been an infusion of fresh blood for a Warriors team whose playoff hopes were in the ICU, and they are 3-1 since the Draymond Green suspension started. I love to see coach Steve Kerr finally embracing the youths on the team, even if it took a Green meltdown to get there.
But there’s one problem specific to Christmas Day: nobody allowed to suit up for this roster has a chance of slowing Jokic.
Looney has performed admirably in that role in the past, but he was dependent upon a tag-team partnership with Green. Jokic doesn’t even notice that rookie big men exist. And the only other big who gets minutes is Dario Saric, a high-level offensive player whose defense can best be described as opportunistic. But Jokic’s offensive inevitability leaves no opportunities for subpar defenders.
Jokic has had some uncharacteristically un-amazing games in December, including a controversial ejection against the Bulls and going a combined 18-for-58 in two straight games against the Clippers and the Rockets. But he remains the ultimate prosector, taking apart his foes and displaying their weaknesses in a clinically efficient and ruthless manner.
The Warriors have led the league in preventing shots at the rim for three straight years. It’s the hallmark of their defense. But it’s hard to do that against Jokic, who meanders to his spots with the slow unstoppability of a glacier, and it’s harder still without Green.
We’ve already seen this movie: The Warriors (sans Green) and Nuggets (without Jamal Murray) battled in an early-season matchup, a three-point Denver win. Jokic had 35 and 13 on 56% shooting, but those numbers undersell his impact — he was just 1-for-8 from deep, an uncharacteristically poor (and aggressive!) shooting night for him. He was 13-for-17 from two-point range and also drew 10 free throws.
The Warriors’ best chance of winning this game is leaning into the unpredictability of its new pieces. Golden State can’t stop Denver. But the league hasn’t seen much of these new Warriors, so the Bay Area faithful have to hope the youngsters are willing and able to make some shots.
Boston Celtics vs. Los Angeles Lakers: Can the Lakers get to the rim?
The NBA’s fiercest rivalry takes center stage on Christmas Day.
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