NBA Christmas Day games preview

Five marquee matchups are scheduled for the holiday.

Christmas Day NBA games, for many, are when fans start to pay attention. By the time the Christmas games arrive, teams start to get settled into their rhythm. While the inaugural In-Season Tournament was a nice wrinkle to make the early games more exciting, Christmas Day is when things start to really matter. It’s when the most exciting and noteworthy teams go head-to-head. 

Here is a preview of the 2023 Christmas Day NBA matchups:

Milwaukee Bucks at the New York Knicks 

The blockbuster trade right before opening day that sent Damian Lillard to the Bucks became one of the season’s biggest storylines. They currently sit as the second seed in the East, behind the Boston Celtics. The addition of Lillard hasn’t slowed down Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s having another MVP-caliber season. The concerns around the Bucks include their rookie head coach, a lack of consistent depth, and a perimeter defensive identity that’s taken some steps back.

The Knicks are solid as the sixth seed in the East. Point guard Jalen Brunson continues his All-Star level play, coming off a record-breaking 50 points, nine assists, six rebounds, five steals, and nine made three-pointers performance. This made him the first player in NBA history to have a 50-5-5–5-5 line. Despite consistently attracting the ire of fans, Julius Randle has been a strong complement to Brunson’s play.  

These teams have already played twice, with the Bucks winning handling on Dec. 5 by 22 points and by five when they played in November. The Knicks have trouble defending against bigger teams, they’re the second-shortest team in the league behind Golden State. They’re better suited defensively on the perimeter as they’re ranked second in the league for perimeter defense behind the Celtics. Antetokounmpo and Bucks Center Brook Lopez will likely have their way in the paint with Knicks starting center Mitchell Robinson out with an ankle injury. 

The only hope for the Knicks is that Brunson and guards RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley can take advantage of their matchups and attack the Bucks’ perimeter defenders, which is where the Bucks struggle. It won’t be easy with Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo waiting for anyone who gets past defenders on the perimeter. 

Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets 

It’s been nothing but turmoil in Golden State since the start of the season. Draymond Green has been suspended indefinitely, Andrew Wiggins has regressed, and Klay Thompson is having his worst season in years. The team relies on Steph Curry in a way they’ve never had to before. They can turn it around, but it’s been a nightmare to start as they sit outside the playoff picture. 

Meanwhile, the Nuggets have arguably the best player in the league who’s quietly averaging a near triple-double in Nikola Jokic. They’re a little banged up, with multiple starters dealing with a variety of injuries. As long as Jokic is healthy, they’ll be steady and near the top of the conference. 

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The Nuggets hosted the Warriors on Nov. 8 and won by four. Even though the Warriors are without their defensive anchor in Green, they’re the healthier team going into the matchup. The Nuggets have won four straight against the Warriors going back to last season, though all the games have been close except for the Feb. 2, 2023, matchup, which the Nuggets won by 17. 

The Warriors have gotten a couple of good games from Thompson recently and with Green out, some of the younger role players can hopefully give Coach Steve Kerr good minutes. They have to figure out a way to defend Jokic, though, and so far, no one in the league has a recipe for that. 

The Boston Celtics at the Los Angeles Lakers

The most significant rivalry in all of basketball, the Celtics and Lakers have given basketball fans classic Finals matchups and gone toe-to-toe in some great Christmas Day games. This one should be no different. The Lakers are coming off winning the inaugural In-Season Tournament Championship, and regardless of some pundits trying to minimize its significance, it was clear that the Lakers took the tournament seriously. 

LeBron James is defying all expectations around what a player his age (he’ll be 39 on Dec. 30 and averages 25 points, seven assists and seven rebounds) is supposed to be able to do on the court. Anthony Davis continues to show flashes of dominance. Austin Reaves looks much better coming off the bench. They have the 7th best defensive rating in the league. The Lakers are one of the teams whose regular season record won’t matter that much as long as they lock in a playoff spot. 

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Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics dribbles around LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers during a 122-118 Celtics overtime win at Arena on Dec. 13, 2022, in Los Angeles. The Celtics and Lakers will face off on Christmas 2023. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

The Celtics are currently the best team in the NBA (unless you want to make a legitimate argument for the Minnesota Timberwolves). What’s less up for debate is that the Celtics have the absolute best starting five in the league. The Jrue Holiday and Derrick White backcourt has been a defensive terror. Kristaps Porzingis adds an offensive dimension that the team didn’t have last year. While Jayson Tatum’s numbers have dipped a little from last year, he’s still among the six or seven best players in the league. Jaylen Brown is the X-factor for this team and is on a nice stretch of games right now. 

The previous matchup between these two teams last year was an overtime thriller that sparked quite a bit of controversy after a no-call when James drove to the basket at the end of regulation. The Celtics won in OT. The Lakers are dealing with some day-to-day injuries, but nothing that will keep the stars out of this game. The Lakers are one of the best defensive teams when they’re locked in. The Celtics have the second-best offensive rating in the league. This should be the best game of all the Christmas Day matchups. 

Philadelphia 76ers at The Miami Heat 

Joel Embiid, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player is off to an incredible start this season, averaging 35 points, 12 rebounds and six assists. His numbers this year are quite close to what he put up last year. The emergence of guard Tyrese Maxey as a legitimate All-Star and All-NBA candidate has the Sixers looking sharp. 

The defending Eastern Conference Champion Miami Heat can’t be taken for granted, regardless of their record. They’re the 7th seed in the East with the league’s 14th-best offensive and 13th-best defensive ratings. Jimmy Butler is putting up his usual 20, 5 and 5. Bam Adebayo is already an early contender for Defensive Player of the Year. And somehow, the Heat did it again by finding a rookie player that wasn’t on anyone’s radar and turning them into an effective rotational player with Jaime Jaquez Jr. It helps that they’re led by maybe the best coach in basketball with Erik Spoelstra. 

Christmas Day will be the first matchup between the two teams, who are both relatively healthy. The Heat have won four of their last five games against the 76ers. As former teammates, Butler and Embiid have a nice little rivalry between them, but the matchup between Adebayo and Embiid is always a fun watch. Butler loves the big stage, and this will certainly be a big-stage battle.

Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns 

The Mavericks are off to a nice start this season. Luka Doncic is his regular 33, 9, and 8 self while Kyrie Irving is (so far) having a controversy-free season. Some of the offseason additions like Grant Williams, Dante Exum, and Derrick Jones Jr. have brought defensive versatility to the team, though the numbers don’t fully reflect it (the team has the 22nd-best defensive rating in the league).

The Suns came into the season with high expectations after trading for Bradley Beal to add to Kevin Durant and Devin Booker. So far, injuries have kept them from really seeing how those three will play together. Beal has only played in six games this season. It’s a similar set of circumstances that Durant faced when he signed with the Brooklyn Nets. Durant is still unguardable, though. Booker is maybe the best two-guard in the league. They have the offensive firepower to compete with anyone. The question is health and defense. 

The final game of Christmas Day is usually the most uninspired of all of them. It’s easy to see why, with the start time at 10:30 pm EST. But this matchup is different. The Suns and Mavericks have an intense rivalry right now, thanks to their 2022 matchup in the Western Conference Semifinals. Durant has historically been a high-level performer on Christmas Day games. This may be the last game of the day but it should be an exciting finale.

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