The NBA has long viewed Christmas Day as the highlight of the young season, a made-for-television show that brings together many of the top teams and top players for a day-long basketball fireworks extravaganza. ball.
This year? Not exactly.
Dozens of players have gone through NBA coronavirus health and safety protocols in recent days, forcing teams to improvise by signing dozens of replacement players on 10-day contracts. So if you expect to see Kevin Durant lead the Nets in their game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, you’ll be disappointed: Durant on Friday stayed in protocols. But fans should be able to witness the surprise return of Joe Johnson, who the Boston Celtics signed on Wednesday to consolidate their own battered team – the same Joe Johnson who is now 40 and last appeared on an NBA pitch. in 2018.
The pandemic has taken its toll during the holiday season, and the NBA has not been spared. The league even issued a note this week to teams scheduled to play on Saturday, stating that their tip times could be changed if any of the prime-time games were postponed. (The Nets, for example, have already had three games scuttled over the past week due to low player numbers.)
For now, and keep in mind that this is subject to change, here’s a look at the five games in pencil for Saturday:
Every hour in the East.
Atlanta Hawks (15-16) vs. Knicks (14-18), noon, ESPN
Surprising runs to the playoffs last season led these teams to meet in the first round, sparking discussions about the resurrection of both franchises. The Hawks then easily took out the Knicks, with Hawks star Trae Young delighted to calm abrasive Knicks fans down, while Knicks top player Julius Randle had a terrible streak.
The game seemed to spark a rivalry between two promising teams on their way to the top flight in the Eastern Conference.
But this season, the two teams, far from being resurrected, have been two of the most disappointing teams in the league. The Knicks’ new additions Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker have been for the most part disappointing, although Walker, after being benched for several games, was in tears during a recent return to the squad. And while Atlanta had one of the worst defenses in the NBA, its stellar attack wasn’t enough to make up for it. Young, already one of the best offensive players in the league, is have the best year of their career, while Randle struggled.
The good news is that the same thing happened last season and both teams enjoyed impressive second-half turnarounds to advance to the playoffs.
The Christmas game will undoubtedly lose some of its luster with several key players likely to miss the game due to health and NBA protocols including Young, Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari of Atlanta and Nerlens Noel of the Knicks. . One of the Knicks’ only strengths against Atlanta in the playoffs, Derrick Rose is set to miss several weeks with an ankle injury.
Boston Celtics (16-16) vs. Milwaukee Bucks (21-13), 2:30 p.m., ABC
Fresh out of their first NBA Championship since 1971, the Bucks knew the first part of their schedule would pose challenges. For starters, last season’s playoffs dragged into the end of July. Next, two of the team’s top players, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, helped the United States men’s basketball team win gold at the Tokyo Olympics in August. The Bucks then reunited for the start of their season and lost eight of their first 15 games.
Despite a changing roster – Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo are among the players who have missed games after landing under league health and safety protocols – the Bucks appear to be finding their place as they contemplate another title. That’s not a big step, thanks to the presence of two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner Antetokounmpo who still seems determined to expand his game. He is set to play on Christmas after missing the last five games.
The Celtics, meanwhile, are suffering from growing pains under Ime Udoka, their first-year coach. From the start of training camp, Udoka stressed the need for his players to pass around the perimeter more willingly. But too often the ball gets stuck – often in the hands of Jayson Tatum, a talented young player who has struggled to shoot this season. The Celtics were also hampered by Jaylen Brown’s injuries.
Boston needs to play a much more complete brand of basketball to stand a chance of landing in the playoffs, let alone challenge players like the Bucks.
Golden State Warriors (26-6) at Phoenix Suns (26-5), 5 p.m., ABC
This game features the top two teams in the Western Conference. The Suns hope to improve their run in the final last year, while Golden State looks to continue its resurgence.
In November, the NBA began investigating Robert Sarver, owner of the Suns, after ESPN issued accusations of racism and sexism against him by what ESPN said were current and former employees of the Suns. Suns. While the specter of this investigation affected the team, it did not show up on the pitch.
Phoenix looked formidable in Coach Monty Williams’ third year with the franchise. After a 1-3 start to the season, the Suns enjoyed an 18-game winning streak, which set a franchise record for consecutive wins. It included a victory over Golden State and ended in a loss against Golden State. Helped by the stable veteran hand of point guard Chris Paul (he leads the league in assists per game), they have withstood injury. Deandre Ayton missed eight games with a leg injury and illness, and Devin Booker missed seven games with a hamstring injury.
Golden State is awaiting the return of Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry’s sniper counterpart, who has been out for more than two years with two serious injuries. He might come back soon, but not in time for this game. The team rose to the top of the conference even without him.
Curry set the NBA career record 3 last week and has played well enough to deserve consideration for his third MVP Award. Actors such as Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II also made major contributions.
Nets (21-9) at the Los Angeles Lakers (16-17), 8 p.m., ABC and ESPN
Ideally, it would be a clash between Kevin Durant of the Nets and his longtime elite contemporary, LeBron James of the Lakers. And in theory, there would be other stars too, like Kyrie Irving for the Nets and Anthony Davis for the Lakers.
But this is not the case. Davis was out for several weeks with a knee injury. And the Nets are so short on players due to the league’s health and safety protocols – including Durant and Irving – that their last three games have been postponed. Nets coach Steve Nash announced Thursday that James Harden has quit protocols, making him available against the Lakers.
For this game, the Nets, who sit first in the Eastern Conference, face a Lakers team who are fighting just to stay in the conversation and advance to the playoffs.
The Lakers’ supporting cast around James and Davis, so far, has proven ill-suited, and the roster has faced a scourge of injuries. Russell Westbrook, the Lakers’ most prominent off-season addition, has struggled at times. James is posting exceptional numbers for a 36-year-old, but finally seems to be slowing down: he’s more dependent on his jumper than ever, averaging a career-high 3 points per game attempt and a career low in free-attempts to throw per game. James is still one of the best players in the league, but it’s not clear that he can deliver an attack on his own like he once did.
With the Nets supposedly without so many key players, this should have been marked as an easy win for a team led by James. But not this year. These Lakers, even at full strength, are mediocre and prone to walk through games. Right now it’s a tossup.
Dallas Mavericks (15-16) at Utah Jazz (22-9), 10:30 p.m., ESPN
What is unsuccessful regular season domination in the playoffs? The Utah Jazz faced this question last season when they finished the regular season with the best NBA record, but only reached the second round of the playoffs.
This means that so far this season their goal from game to game is not just their early wins and losses, but also the lessons they can learn for the playoffs.
“If you’re perfect in November, nobody’s going to care when it comes to the playoffs,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said.
Mitchell led the Jazz offensive with over 25 points per game, while Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson, the league’s sixth reigning man of the year, were also important pieces.
Defensively they are led by Rudy Gobert, who is the best in the league with 15.1 rebounds per game and also contributes over 2 blocks per game.
They will face a Mavericks side who have suffered injuries all season, especially to keep Luka Doncic, their best player, who is expected to miss this game due to the league’s health protocols.
While Doncic leads the team with 25.6 points per game, the Mavericks aren’t statistically very different when he’s on the pitch. But they are more fun to watch. If Doncic misses the Christmas Day game, a virus-ravaged and injury-ravaged Dallas team will struggle to make a game against the Jazz worthwhile.