The NBA games to watch on Christmas Day and the ones you can skip

Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics will host Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day. (Morry Gash/AP)
7 min

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The NBA’s annual Christmas Day quintuple-header hasn’t felt the same during the pandemic, given that the 2020 edition was held in mostly empty arenas and last year’s slate was wrecked by the omicron wave.

Happier times should be here again when the festivities tip off Sunday, though there will be stiffer competition than usual from the NFL, which is hosting its first Christmas triple-header, and some notable superstar absences.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and Los Angeles Lakers center Anthony Davis will be sidelined with injuries. Kevin Durant, whose summer trade request cast a shadow over the Brooklyn Nets, and Zion Williamson, who didn’t play at all for the New Orleans Pelicans last season because of a foot injury, were snubbed when the schedule was set in August.

Nevertheless, the NBA will be serving up compelling playoff rematches and high-profile superstar battles on Christmas. Here’s a viewer’s guide to navigate the five games, which will be broadcast on ABC and ESPN (all times Eastern).

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Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks, noon

The opening slot would have had a lot more juice if the 76ers were facing the Nets in a grudge match following the blockbuster swap of James Harden and Ben Simmons in February. Instead, Joel Embiid and company will visit a superstar-less Knicks team that has strung together seven straight wins entering Monday.

The 76ers survived a month-long stretch without Harden and remain firmly in the East’s playoff picture, winning seven straight after enduring an uninspiring start. Embiid is on track to be the NBA’s scoring leader for the second straight season, but Philadelphia’s offense and its collective efforts have been mediocre.

New York has gotten strong production from point guard Jalen Brunson, its big offseason addition. Still, the Knicks haven’t exactly captured hearts and minds, in part because RJ Barrett has plateaued during an underwhelming fourth season. Even if Coach Tom Thibodeau guides New York back to the playoffs, it’s hard to envision a path to the franchise’s first series victory since 2013.

Verdict: Despite Madison Square Garden’s charm, this is probably the most skippable game on the menu. Too much of a grind on both sides.

Los Angeles Lakers at Dallas Mavericks, 2:30 p.m.

The Lakers and Mavericks have left a lot to be desired, but pitting LeBron James against Luka Doncic is a simple formula that’s guaranteed to deliver fireworks. The 37-year-old James is set to make his 17th appearance on Christmas, which would move him past Kobe Bryant for the NBA record. Fresh off the first Western Conference finals trip of his career, Doncic will seek revenge for a blowout loss to the Lakers on Christmas two years ago.

Los Angeles salvaged its season after a 2-10 start, only to lose Davis to a foot injury that will complicate a playoff push. James’s game has shown signs of slippage, and a major deal, perhaps involving Russell Westbrook, hasn’t materialized. First-year coach Darvin Ham has turned to smaller lineups for an extra scoring punch, but the Lakers have struggled to defend and rebound well enough to string together wins against quality opponents.

Brunson’s offseason departure left Doncic without a dependable secondary playmaker, turning the Mavericks into obvious buyers before the trade deadline. In the meantime, Doncic has picked up the slack by posting a career-high usage rate, but Dallas’s offense has been held back by subpar shooting from several members of his supporting cast. Don’t write off the Mavericks just yet; they were 15-17 after a loss on Christmas last year before taking off down the stretch.

Verdict: The combined showmanship of James and Doncic will be worth the time, and trade speculation is fun for the whole family.

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Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics, 5 p.m.

Styles make fights, and the East’s best teams are perfect rivals. Milwaukee sports an elite defense and a physical identity; Boston’s top-ranked offense thrives in space. Giannis Antetokounmpo bulldozes to the rim while Jayson Tatum drains feathery jumpers, but both established themselves as early leaders in the MVP race.

The Celtics beat the Bucks in an epic second-round series in May, a victory that was aided by the absence of Khris Middleton. Milwaukee’s star forward finally returned from injury in early December, and he will play a key role in making life difficult for Tatum, who is enjoying a career year as a scorer.

Milwaukee’s offense has been hit or miss, and it must exploit its interior size advantage against Boston. Robert Williams III returned from offseason knee surgery last week, giving the Celtics an athletic shot-blocker to pair with center Al Horford as they try to slow Antetokounmpo’s relentless attacks.

Verdict: Schedule the festivities around this must-see playoff rematch, which could double as a 2023 Eastern Conference finals preview.

Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors, 8 p.m.

Curry’s shoulder injury sucked much of the fun out of this matchup, which had the potential to be the game of the day. Golden State knocked out Memphis in a tense second-round series in May that included flagrant fouls, a Draymond Green ejection and healthy doses of trash talk from both sides.

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Memphis left the series with regrets over Ja Morant’s fluky knee injury, and the star guard campaigned last summer for a Christmas rematch. The young and hungry Grizzlies enter Sunday tied for the West’s best record even though Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane, two core pieces, have missed extensive time with injuries. Morant, 23, is headed for his second straight all-star selection, and he adds to his reputation as the league’s No. 1 highlight machine on a near-nightly basis.

The Warriors were off to a shaky start even before Curry’s injury, mired in a championship hangover and forced to deal with the fallout from Green’s inexplicable punching of teammate Jordan Poole during the preseason. In Curry’s absence, Golden State has coped with its persistent depth questions by unleashing Poole as its lead playmaker and go-to scorer.

Verdict: Give Morant a chance to dazzle, but feel free to bail early if the Warriors can’t hold up their end of the bargain.

Phoenix Suns at Denver Nuggets, 10:30 p.m.

In a better world, the NBA would swap in Williamson’s Pelicans to replace the Nuggets. After all, New Orleans and Phoenix have played four riveting games following their entertaining first-round playoff series last spring. Williamson angered the Suns by throwing down a windmill dunk in garbage time of a Dec. 9 win, and Devin Booker responded eight days later by lighting up the Pelicans for 58 points.

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Unfortunately, the Suns and Nuggets, who faced off in the second round of the 2021 playoffs, don’t have that same degree of animosity. The good news: Back-to-back MVP Nikola Jokic has the Nuggets fighting for the West’s top seed thanks to a balanced offense that can put up points with anyone. Jamal Murray, who missed last season with a knee injury, still hasn’t hit sixth gear. Fair warning: Denver believes defense is optional.

Phoenix won’t shy away from a shootout. Booker has supplanted Chris Paul as the focal point of an ultraefficient offense, keeping the Suns on track despite Jae Crowder’s contract holdout and Cam Johnson’s knee injury. The depleted Suns haven’t been as dominant as last season, and center Deandre Ayton will need to be more dependable if they are going to make a deep playoff run.

Verdict: Die-hards will savor Jokic’s brilliant passing and Booker’s craftsmanship, but there might not be enough intrigue to keep East Coast audiences up past midnight.