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How to watch the NBA on Christmas: A guide for the avid, casual and non-basketball fan

Ben Rohrbach
·11-min read

The NBA’s Christmas Day slate features five games, four MVPs, three All-Stars making their holiday debuts, two 17-time champions and a partridge in a pear tree. There is something for everyone. Allow me to explain.

New Orleans Pelicans at Miami Heat, 12 p.m. (ESPN)

For the avid fan

The Heat made a remarkable run through the Eastern Conference in Orlando, keyed by Jimmy Butler’s superstar turn, Bam Adebayo’s rise, Tyler Herro’s emergence and Goran Dragic’s resurgence, but there is some concern that the fifth seed’s performance was an anomaly made possible by the quirks of the restart.

Christmas offers a chance for Miami to make a statement. Not only might the Heat reestablish themselves as a bona fide contender with a dominant win against a young New Orleans team also expected to make some lower-seeded noise, they can put the league on notice that the East is no longer a lesser conference.

For the first time in forever, we could see equal depth of playoff talent in both conferences, especially if Miami — still projected to finish in the middle of the East’s pack — rolls over a team on the West’s fringes.

For the casual fan

We were first introduced to Zion Williamson as a high-flying, rim-rattling prep star on Instagram. During his freshman season at Duke University, he established himself as a lock for the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, the most anticipated draft selection since LeBron James in 2003. Only, we were robbed of a rookie showcase.

A knee injury kept Williamson from making his NBA debut until Jan. 22, and he played just 19 games before the suspension of the season, all but removing himself from Rookie of the Year consideration. There were flashes of brilliance that faded with the memory of a poor bubble performance marred by knee soreness.

The 20-year-old has yet to play more than 35 minutes in a game and has not eclipsed 30 since March. It is time to unleash an athlete who has the potential to one day seize James’ reins as the face of the league.

For the non-NBA fan

On one side, you have the Heat, a team that fits the mold of Miami’s well-conditioned culture. They are the South Beach diet of NBA locker rooms, supremely fit, even by comparison to other professional athletes.

On the other, you have the Pelicans, starring the 6-foot-6, 284-pound Williamson in New Orleans, home to jambalaya, po-boys and beignets. It is a matchup designed to split folks like Christmas dinner: Fit vs. fat.

Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo will meet for the first time in two seasons. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Stephen Curry and Giannis Antetokounmpo will meet for the first time in two seasons. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Golden State Warriors at Milwaukee Bucks, 2:30 p.m. (ABC)

For the avid fan

Another glimpse at the new-look Bucks, who added one-time All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday but lost several more key contributors from a dominant regular-season team. Holiday and fellow newcomers D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis, Bryn Forbes and Torrey Craig look to replace minutes left behind by Eric Bledsoe, George Hill, Wesley Matthews, Ersan Ilyasova and Marvin Williams. Collectively, Milwaukee could be worse.

The key lies in Holiday, for whom the Bucks paid a hefty sum (Bledsoe, George, three first-round picks and two pick swaps). On paper, the 30-year-old is an upgrade from Bledsoe and a perfect complement to Giannis Antetokounmpo. Holiday can play on or off the ball, spacing the flooring offensively for the two-time reigning MVP, and he is arguably the best backcourt defender in the league. In practice, we will have to see.

For the casual fan

Stephen Curry is back! The two-time MVP and three-time champion has played just twice since breaking his left hand in October 2019. He is the most electrifying player of his generation, now carrying a heavier load this season than at any other time in his career. Without the injured Klay Thompson at his side, the greatest shooter to ever live should be shooting more than ever. There are few better reasons to watch basketball.

For the non-NBA fan

Everyone likes loyalty, right? In the age of player movement, when superstars demand trades once a team has served its use, Antetokounmpo and Curry have a chance to join the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki as legends who remained with the teams that drafted them throughout their careers.

They also happen to be two of the more likable superstars the league has ever seen.

Other than 40-year-old Udonis Haslem, a glorified assistant coach with the Heat for several years running, Curry is the longest-tenured player with one team. Drafted in 2009, he helped transform the Warriors into a dynasty. Antetokounmpo is looking to do the same in Milwaukee after signing a five-year, $228 million extension that will keep the 2013 draft pick under contract with the Bucks through his 13th NBA season.

Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics, 5 p.m. (ABC)

For the avid fan

Chemistry is a delicate balance. In the NBA, it is customarily built over time through trials and tribulations. Amid the turmoil that led to the free-agency exits of All-Stars Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, youngsters Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart have quietly been the bedrock of a Celtics team that has reached three Eastern Conference finals in four years. The spotlight is fully on them now, especially with Kemba Walker still rehabbing to start the season, and Tatum is getting awfully comfortable in that glow.

While the Celtics have built the current iteration of their roster through the draft, the Nets are inserting two marquee free-agent signings into a roster that has relied on cohesion to reach the playoffs each of the last two seasons. They are not just marquee free agents. They are Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, melodrama personified, bringing with them the possibility of a chemistry disaster in the NBA’s biggest media market.

This Nets-Celtics matchup is the fruition of two divergent team-building tactics, tied together. Boston used the high-end picks it got from trading Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to Brooklyn in 2013 to draft Tatum and Brown. Once known for chasing overpriced stars, the Nets smartened up under a new front-office regime. They shed contracts, acquired undervalued assets and built a roster worthy of two All-NBA talents. Seven years later, which roster would you rather have for the 2020-21 season? Christmas grants us a preview.

For the casual fan

Of course, Irving was once on those Celtics, playing alongside Tatum and Brown. Irving was supposed to be the leader who ushered Boston into a brighter future, except the two young stars reached a conference finals without the injured Irving, who responded by submarining their second season together. Irving’s tension-filled tenure culminated with a broken promise to the Celtics and a ghosting departure for Brooklyn.

Irving missed both trips back to Boston last season with a shoulder injury. He did play a preseason game in front of no fans at TD Garden, where he burnt sage on the sidelines as a pregame ritual. A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Irving said he was “just [cleansing] the energy” around him. He will be playing in an empty arena again, and it remains to be seen whether he will rid the building of bad energy once more.

For the non-NBA fan

If you do not like a good comeback story, you are the Grinch. Kevin Durant, who was threatening to unseat James as the game’s best active player at the time of his Achilles tear in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals, has made the long road back from one of the game’s most devastating injuries. The Nets are confident he can achieve a similar level of success in Brooklyn, which would be an inspiration to the smallest of hearts.

How close is Luka Doncic to taking over as the face of the NBA from LeBron James? (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
How close is Luka Doncic to taking over as the face of the NBA from LeBron James? (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Dallas Mavericks at L.A. Lakers, 8 p.m. (ABC)

For the avid fan

With the Golden State Warriors devastated by Klay Thompson’s injury and the Houston Rockets dealing with James Harden’s trade request, the Mavericks are in line to seize control as the West’s most prolific offense — and a championship contender as a result. Led by wunderkind Luka Doncic, Dallas finished last season with the highest offensive rating in NBA history and gave the Clippers a scare despite injury issues.

If Doncic submits the MVP season some believe he will, the Mavs could be a serious threat to unseat the Lakers. To start the season, they are without the injured Kristaps Porzingis, who would be an integral part of an underdog title run, but a competitive game without him against James and company would go a long way in underscoring the belief that Dallas belongs on the shortlist of teams capable of dethroning the King.

For the casual fan

LeBron freaking James. You need no other to reason to watch him hoop. He is padding a resume that already ranks him second on most lists of all-time greats, and each MVP-caliber season draws him closer to No. 1.

For the non-NBA fan

Divide the room into old vs. young and place bets on their stats. One side takes 35-year-old James, the oldest player ever to average a 25-7-10, and the other gets 21-year-old Doncic, the youngest to average a 28-9-8. The NBA’s most marketable player vs. the kid who could take that moniker. Every old head knows the feeling of a young gun coming for the throne, and it sure feels good to find out you have still got it.

L.A. Clippers at Denver Nuggets, 10:30 p.m. (ESPN)

For the avid fan

Clippers-Nuggets is a fascinating contrast in styles. L.A. is built from the wings out, the modern approach to roster construction, and Denver is built from the center and point guard in, an older school model.

Nikola Jokic brings a modern approach to an old-school game. He can bang bodies in the post and drop a hook shot over the top of the defense, but he is also arguably the greatest passing big man in NBA history and a threat to shoot from distance. Likewise, Jamal Murray is bigger than you think and more of a score-first point guard than a traditional one, but Jokic’s playmaking complements Murray’s style of play perfectly.

On the flip side, Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George should be a dynamic pairing. They are among the best two-way wings on the planet, locking down the opposing team’s best players on one end and carrying an offense on the other. Only, their games have not been so complementary, and neither have their leadership styles. This game is a window into why team-building is more than just fantasy basketball.

For the casual fan

This game is also a rematch of one of the more shocking series in league history. The Clippers blew a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals, including sizable edges in Games 4, 5 and 6, but the Nuggets also seized those meetings with a more cohesive brand of ball. It was an embarrassing loss for the Clips, who should now have some vengeance on their side after talking all that talk and failing to walk the walk.

The Lakers dominated the Nuggets in the conference finals, and — again, theoretically — the Clippers would have been a more formidable opponent, with both Leonard and George capable of neutralizing James. These two teams should again threaten the Lakers, but one has to get through the other first.

For the non-NBA fan

No holiday season is complete without some good old-fashioned family in-fighting. Much has been written about how preferential treatment of Leonard and George did not sit well with teammates who previously had done the work to get the Clippers to the playoffs, and that disdain boiled over in the bubble, where too much time spent together raised those issues to the surface. There is no greater metaphor for 2020.

Merry Christmas.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach

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