There’s a point on every Christmas day when the presents have been opened and the eggnog is flowing, and you come to the realization that there’s a reason why you only see certain members of your family once a year. You need to get out and distract yourself with some quality entertainment, but your horrible Aunt Ruth doesn’t have Netflix and you used up all your phone battery buying all the stuff on Amazon you didn’t get under the tree. The only thing on TV is yet another round of A Christmas Story and a huge slate of NBA games.
But what if your knowledge of professional basketball begins and ends with LeBron James’ work in Trainwreck? Fret not! We’re here to help. Hoops has become as synonymous with the Christmas holiday as football is on Thanksgiving, and unlike the hulks lurking beneath those helmets in the NFL, NBA players are unencumbered by equipment and allowed to express the full measure of their personalities on the court. “It’s such a star-based league,” explains ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth, who hosts NBA Tonight and NBA Coast to Coast and will be on the sidelines on Christmas. “You can really get a sense of who these guys are in the games.”
While the Christmas Day games typically represent the launch of the basketball season’s major narratives, this year’s games already have a number of engrossing storylines already built in. With the help of ESPN’s Hubbarth, here’s the guide to Christmas basketball for those out there looking for a way into the wild world of the NBA.
The Game: New Orleans Pelicans vs. Miami Heat (Noon)
The Narrative: The coming-out party for future MVP Anthony Davis
Though his team has been underperforming this year, New Orleans Pelicans fourth-year center Anthony Davis has finally grown into his potential and has graduated to the league’s upper echelon. He’s a flashy, powerful player with a great nickname: “The Brow,” thanks to his pronounced unibrow. “He’s already said to be the next MVP,” says Hubbarth. “Unfortunately, he’s been having some issues with a new head coach and guys around him not being healthy. But keep your eye on him and see what he can do against a Heat team that has a lot of stars but who are still trying to find their groove.” The Miami Heat have a ton of stars but have also been underperforming. “This is a must-win for both teams — or not a must-win, but a must-prove that they have a handle on this season a quarter of the way through,” says Hubbarth. “It’s a good game to kick off the day because of the intrigue of both teams needing to show something to the national stage.”
The Game: Chicago Bulls vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (2:30 p.m.)
The Narrative: Two of this generation’s best point guards go head-to-head
The Thunder are currently on a roll, and their top two guys — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — are both remarkably talented and incredible showmen. They should roll the Christmas-staple Bulls, unless their star player Derrick Rose steps up. “I’m a diehard Bulls fan, but right now, he just looks like not even close to an elite point guard,” says Hubbarth. “He looks mediocre — his shot is off, the offense is not working. The big thing to look forward to in this game is he always steps up against another elite point guard, and with a guy as fiery as Russell Westbrook right now — he reminds me of what Kobe Bryant used to be on the court. It will be interesting to see if Derrick Rose can step up and prove he still has it. That’s what’s intriguing.”
The Game: Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Golden State Warriors (5 p.m.)
The Narrative: Who owns this league — Steph or LeBron?
If you can’t get excited for this game, then maybe basketball isn’t for you. This is a rematch of last season’s NBA Finals, which saw the Warriors top the Cavs in six games. This is the first time these two teams are meeting since Golden State took the crown, and it boils down to a struggle between the game’s two biggest crossover stars. “We live in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, and at the moment, this is Steph Curry’s league,” says Hubbarth of Golden State’s star player and the league’s reigning MVP. “But don’t get it twisted: LeBron James is still a huge force. With Cleveland and Golden State, you’ve got to look at how LeBron and Steph interact. I think LeBron figured this was his league for a couple of more years, but Steph is coming for that King James crown. I’ll be interested to see how personally LeBron takes it on the court.”
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The Game: San Antonio Spurs vs. Houston Rockets (8 p.m.)
The Narrative: A classic case of good versus evil
Though neither of these teams are very high-profile, this may be the purest squaring off of heroes and villains on Christmas. The San Antonio Spurs are consistently excellent and are playing stellar under-the-radar ball. Just a few miles away in Houston, the Rockets are a mess — they’ve already gone through one coach and have had to deal with persistent rumors of intra-squad dissension. “This is a real good versus evil game — it’s ‘Team Ball’ versus ‘Me Ball’,” explains Hubbarth, who also notes that one of her primary assignments in her first sideline reporter gig is interviewing famously cantankerous Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “I’m getting some tips from other sideline reporters. I’m a housecat — I’m typically in studio on Christmas Day. I’ve been told just keep it short, and whatever you do, do not give your own opinion to Greg Popovich. It’s going to be very interesting, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
The Game: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers (10:30 p.m.)
The Narrative: Kobe’s last Christmas
Controversial and often transcendent superstar Kobe Bryant recently announced this will be his last season in the league, and he is in the midst of a farewell tour. Here’s the twist: Kobe has been terrible, hurling up dozens of terrible shots per game and moving like he’s got concrete in his shorts. “This should be a blowout, but here’s the thing: The best possible situation for Lakers fans is Kobe goes off, but then they still lose,” says Hubbarth. “I don’t think anybody would be upset if Kobe Bryant just chucked it up on Christmas Day.”