The 2020/21 NBA season is starting later than usual, but the Christmas Day schedule is every bit as important. Rather than a chance to reinforce or rebuff narratives from the first half of the season, this is an opportunity to set a marker down.
These are the five Christmas Day matchups in order:
- New Orleans Pelicans at Miami Heat
- Golden State Warriors at Milwaukee Bucks
- Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics
- Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers
- Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets
These games are littered with storylines. Giannis Antetokounmpo faces one of the teams he was linked with most frequently just days after he signed the supermax. Luka Doncic takes on LeBron James after an epic encounter last season. Kyrie Irving returns to Boston. The Nuggets and Clippers matchup after a seven-game showdown in the second round of the bubble playoffs.
There are so many fascinating angles to consider for the Christmas Day games – here are our five players to watch…
The Mavericks swapped Seth Curry for Josh Richardson in the offseason. It was a trade which compromised their offence to bolster the defence, a move which made sense for a team that struggled on the defensive end last season and owned the most efficient offence in NBA history.
Richardson will need to do a bit of playmaking against the Lakers. Frank Vogel will throw doubles and traps to take the ball out of Luka Doncic’s hands. Richardson’s ability to make plays off the bounce is important to how the Mavericks will operate this season – he also faces the unenviable task of helping on LeBron James’ drives without leaving shooters wide open.
Heading for unrestricted free agency, how Richardson fares in games like this will go a long way to deciding his next contract.
This is a big season for Lonzo Ball. He did not reach a contract extension before the season, and with Jrue Holiday gone, the former second overall pick will have the keys to the Pelicans’ offence. Ball has already shown a phenomenal on-court understanding with Zion Williamson – how will the Heat counter act the seemingly unstoppable alley-oops?
A break through shooting year in 2019/20 needs to be repeated before it’s believed. There is still some scepticism about Ball as a primary playmaker with teams not necessarily respecting the jumper and his continued reluctance to drive (1.2 free throw attempts per game last season).
The Heat upgraded their backcourt defence with the signing of Avery Bradley. Ball will still have opportunity to attack off the bounce – New Orleans needs him to drive more frequently, particularly against a Heat defence with notable weak links in Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson.
In the second NBA game of his career, James Wiseman will have to deal with the two-time reigning MVP. Wiseman isn’t going to be Antetokounmpo’s primary defender, but there will be plenty of paint encounters between the Greek Freak and the second overall pick.
With Klay Thompson injured, a big rookie year from Wiseman is the Warriors’ best chance to boost their ceiling. This is a big challenge for the former Memphis Tiger – Brook Lopez and Antetokounmpo were two of the best interior defenders in the NBA in 2019/20, and Antetokounmpo is one of the most efficient paint scorers in league history.
Wiseman doesn’t need to be spectacular. If he can hold his own against the Bucks this early in his career, it’s a great sign for the Warriors.
It’s a shame there’s no crowd in for Kyrie Irving’s return to TD Garden. Irving would have got a spicy welcome from the Celtics faithful after his turbulent final season with the team. Instead, he faces an on-court challenge against his former franchise and teammates. The young talents, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, who struggled alongside Irving, have blossomed into stars – how will Irving perform in just his second competitive game since January?
Attention is understandably on how Kevin Durant looks upon his return from injury, but Irving’s recent injury history is every bit as worrying for the Nets. He needs to get back to his best for Brooklyn to be legitimate title contenders.
The Lakers’ defence against Luka Doncic will go a long way to deciding their Christmas Day matchup. Wesley Matthews, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and LeBron James will likely all take turns guarding the Slovenian phenom. Matthews is a direct replacement for Danny Green, who showed signs of ageing last season.
A good team defender on the Bucks last season, Matthews’ role will be slightly different with the Lakers. He isn’t accompanied in the backcourt by a defender of Eric Bledsoe‘s calibre.
It’s a simple role for Matthews: knock down shots, play hard, defend well. Dallas might be the toughest matchup of the season – a strong performance against Doncic and co will be the perfect start to his Lakers stint.