The holidays are upon us and as sure as a tightly wrapped present for all that were nice comes a full slate of appetite whetting basketball games on Christmas day. The NFL may own Thanksgiving, but Christmas is all about the NBA -- a rare day in our football crazy world when the The Association takes center stage. The NFL playoffs right around the corner means that most fans whose teams are out of the race have unplugged their kegarators for the season. And with the barrage of college football games not kicking off until the week before New Years, indeed, the NBA reigns supreme on Christmas Day. December 25 is typically considered the unofficial start of the true basketball season. With more than a quarter of the games in the books, the contenders start to take shape from the pretenders and teams begin to size up their wish lists of players before the all-important February 21 trade deadline.
The schedulers did a good job of serving up a handful of marquee matchups on Christmas Day, but made intriguing by slightly different storylines than what many had expected when the season tipped off. The Brooklyn Nets hosting the .500 Boston Celtics? The 20-7 Knicks vs. the #11 seed in the Western Conference Los Angeles Lakers? The NBA-best Oklahoma City Thunder vs. the Eastern Conference-best Miami Heat? Okay, at least some order prevails in what has so far been a mixed up, crazy NBA season.
The day starts off with the Nets playing host to the Boston Celtics. Hello Brooklyn. Welcome to prime time. That the newly marketed Nets have moved from relative oblivion in Newark, NJ to a Christmas day lead-off spot comes as no surprise. More shocking, however, is that the Celtics -- so used to their first place perch looking down at the rest of the Atlantic Division at this point in the season -- find themselves mired in mediocrity. Losers of four of their last five, a .500 record has the Celts sandwiched in third place in their division and the eighth seed in the East. Life without Ray Allen has proven to be a steep learning curve for the guys in green.
The comfort and familiarity of their rotation has been swapped with a bunch of moving pieces that are still trying to fit together. Jason Terry, Allen’s “replacement,” spreads the floor a bit more than Ray did and big man Jeff Green, for all his athleticism, is seeing limited minutes per game after heart surgery sidelined him for all of last season. Paul Pierce has picked up his production dropping 30+ points in a string of recent games giving fans flashbacks of “The Truth” in the early 2000s. But father time is eternally undefeated and numbers like that can’t last for long for a 35 year old. It’s too soon to invoke the phrase “if the season ended today” (…the Celtics would face Miami in the first round of the playoffs) so we’ll just trust that there is plenty of season left for Doc Rivers to right the ship and put the Celtics in their presumed 4th-5th seeded slot.
The Nets aren’t necessarily in a groove themselves, stumbling along at 3-8 so far this month after a hot start to the season. There’s even locker room grumblings that star player Deron Williams is unhappy with the system that head coach Avery Johnson is running. But expectations in Brooklyn are longer stretched (it’s not as if fans aren’t going to flock to the Barclay’s Center should the Nets play just average ball). It’s all about respect for the Nets at this point. Respect that they deserve to be on the big stage. Respect that they can be among the league’s elite and win over some fans in basketball town USA.
If current trends hold, both teams are playing for second place in the Atlantic Division after the Knicks have created significant daylight with the rest of the pack. The second game of the NBA’s five course meal sets up possibly the most intriguing matchup of the day: the Knicks vs. the Lakers in La La Land. Talk about a tale of two cities that no one saw coming. The star studded Lakers were built to challenge the dominance of the ’96 Bulls or the 2012 Miami Heat. But a slow start and a string of injuries to key players has led to one head coach’s job and Kobe Bryant clamoring to play the Washington Generals just to get back on the winning track.
The Knicks, meanwhile, had tempered expectations heading into this season but have thus far been one of the league’s most dominating teams leaving everyone in Gotham wondering if 2012-13 could finally be the year. On paper and based on records the game doesn’t look close. The rematch comes less than two weeks after the Knicks beat the Lakers at the Garden in what was more of a systematic beat down than the nine point victory let off.
But not so fast. Since then, the two teams appear to be heading in opposite directions. Four straight wins have the Lakers just short of the .500 mark and energized by the returns from injury of key players Steve Nash and Pau Gasol. Nash’s performance on Saturday night -- returning from a 24 game absence to play nearly the entire game and dish out nine assists in an overtime win against the Warriors -- is especially encouraging. Tougher times, meanwhile, have fallen on the Knicks of late. A home loss against the Bulls on Friday exposed their weaknesses against a first rated defense, while stagnant ball movement led to a mere razor thin win over the Kevin Love-less Timberwolves at home on Sunday night. All this comes in the run-up to what appears to be Amar’e Stoudamire’s season debut on Christmas and with that, the first glimpse into the existential question of how he and Carmelo Anthony can coexist. Melo put up another top notch performance in his last game. After struggling mightily through the first three quarters, he blew up for 19 points in the fourth, including a clutch three pointer in the closing minutes and icing four free throws in the final seconds to seal the win. Regardless of recent team struggles, Melo’s MVP caliber play has been the consistent bright spot all season long. So regarding Amar’e’s return, Knicks fans nationwide hold the general philosophy that however you incorporate him, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
What you see is what you will probably get in the 5:30 game between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat in a rematch of last year’s finals. That is, expect a high flying offensive onslaught between two of the league’s best teams. The Heat have had a hard time getting up for games against lesser teams, so a visit from the league’s best Thunder should be just the trick. Two more games round out the day’s schedule – the Bulls hosting the Rockets and the Nuggets paying a visit to the league’s hottest team Lob City Los Angeles Clippers. But at that point, won’t we all be playing with our new gifts or checking out the opening night showtimes of Les Miserables or Django Unchained?!
And besides, the whole day is really just a curtain raiser for the true game on everyone’s minds: the December 26 showstopper between the 6-23 Cleveland Cavaliers and the hometown 3-22 Washington Wizards.
Merry Christmas to all, and to all enjoy the games!