After the global pandemic forced professional sports leagues to suspend their immediate operations, some fans around the world waited months to get another taste of NBA basketball. Fast forward to December, the 2020-21 NBA season resumes at the most wonderful time of the year, with the association’s holiday games having historically showcased the best teams and players (and, well, largest markets) that the league has had to offer.
This year’s NBA Christmas Day games are no different, featuring an exciting cast of young up-and-coming players with everything to prove matched up against league veterans.
Here’s a list of intriguing player matchups to watch out for.
Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat) vs Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans)
Thanks to the Miami Heat’s Cinderella run to the NBA Finals a season ago, big man Bam Adebayo has earned himself the reputation of being one of the league’s elite defenders at the center position, and among its few noted Giannis stoppers with his blend of agility and size. He’s no slouch on offense either, and serves as a walking playmaking hub for the Heat and is one of five players who have scored 15 or more points per game in the paint over the last 24 seasons, per NBA’s John Schuhmann.
Pelicans rookie sensation Zion Williamson, already touted as being destined to be the next face of the league, seems to fit that same mold as a player as well: a hyper-athletic force of nature with the speed and quickness to match.
Zion Williamson now has 555 career points (finished with 15 tonight).
That is the most through a player's first 25 career games since Allen Iverson (556). pic.twitter.com/FzuJok1fZW
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 24, 2020
He and Giannis seem to be basketball’s biggest anomalies, though their downfall comes in that their outside shots could still use some work to varying degrees. The overwhelming difference is that while Giannis has been the association’s Most Valuable Player for two years now and is debatably the best basketball player in the world, Williamson is, without a shred of a doubt, set to be the face of the National Basketball Association in a few years, if he isn’t already.
Adebayo and Williamson have only faced off once in the past, when Williamson notched 17 points, 6 rebounds, and 2 assists versus Adebayo’s 9 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 steals, and 4 blocks. Though Adebayo and the Heat lost the game, the contest proved that if Williamson continues his current trajectory, Adebayo could be one of the few big men in the league athletically equipped to match Zion and keep him out of the paint when needed.
Though the former would likely find himself matched up against Steven Adams, the Heat don’t have many centers with the athleticism to contain Williamson, and if he ends up cooking, expect head coach Erik Spoelstra to place the nimble Adebayo on Zion. Going through Adebayo is sure to be a formidable test for the young and surging Williamson.
Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics) vs Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets)
Kevin Durant is finally back, and this is good news for any NBA fan whether you appreciate the Brooklyn Nets or not. The return of one of the most dynamic scorers in NBA history should spell a more balanced season ahead when it comes to league parity, and the Brooklyn Nets’ Christmas Day header against the Boston Celtics will be Durant’s second regular-season game after his injury.
The former Finals MVP Durant can generate buckets at will wherever and whenever he wants, scoring 22 points in 25 minutes in a 125-99 blowout of the Golden State Warriors in his last outing. On the other hand, Tatum sports one of the most polished games in professional basketball today and has shown he has a skillset well-rounded enough to slug it out against the best of them at 22 years of age. The obvious comparisons are there, too, for the two lanky scoring forwards; interestingly, only two players in league history have compiled a season scoring 23 points per game on 40% shooting from 3-point land: Jayson Tatum and Kevin Durant.
In four games played between the two so far, Durant has dominated most of the matchups with averages of 23.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 2.5 assists. But Tatum, who has admitted to studying Durant’s offensive game and famously trained with Kobe Bryant off-seasons ago, will be coming off a spirited performance in his last game against the Bucks, where he banked a stepback three-pointer to seal the win for the Boston Celtics.
If Tatum hopes to reach the level of Durant’s greatness eventually, there is no way to it but through it. This matchup of youth versus experience will be one to look out for.
Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks) vs LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers)
The meteoric and unprecedented rise of Luka Doncic as a full-on MVP-calibre player has been nothing short of mesmerizing when you consider his age at 21 years old. Already seen to be an instant contributor on NBA teams pre-draft, Luka was handed the keys to the kingdom in Rick Carlisle’s historic offense almost immediately after the Dallas Mavericks landed him with the third pick in 2018.
But any up-and-coming player in the conversation for the league’s best player has had to go through one rite of passage of sorts in years past: dethrone King James. From Kawhi Leonard to Kevin Durant to Giannis Antetokounmpo, showing up against the face of the league has always been a significant and highly-coveted accomplishment for young guns with everything to prove. All three of them have had their “passing of the torch” moments, so to speak, and this game could very well be Luka’s turn.
— First Take (@FirstTake) January 8, 2020
Like Tatum, Doncic has made it clear that he idolized the King growing up. The first time the two met, they both recorded triple-doubles in what became an instant classic. But as it stands, there’s still no way around it: LeBron James is the best player in the NBA. After 17 seasons and 4 championship rings, The King’s game has aged gracefully and does not resemble that of a 35-year-old. The Lakers are also the overwhelming favorites to win it all this year, after a litany of significant offseason additions to an already championship-level roster.
While Luka arguably is a much more crafty player with unmatched deep range and understanding of the game and has shown flashes of LeBron’s game at times, James is naturally a much more balanced and polished player all-around after a wealth of experience in the league, to go with his already-overwhelming athleticism. This is another new school vs. old school matchup you won’t want to miss.
Although not actually matched up against each other positionally, Stephen Curry and the Warriors going against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks has always promised to be a slugfest, with Curry’s all-world perimeter scoring talent casting a stark contrast to the Greek Freak’s unguardable dominance inside the paint.
Curry, who didn’t have the best outing against the Brooklyn Nets, will now have to go against defensive stalwart Jrue Holiday, widely considered to be one of the best defenders at the guard position. Sans Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, the Warriors don’t have many options to throw against Antetokounmpo, and Steph Curry will likely be the Warriors’ only hope to notch a playoff spot this season.
For the matchup between the Denver Nuggets and the Los Angeles Clippers, this writer will be watching how the Nuggets plan to stop the two-way duo of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George without two of their principal perimeter defenders Jerami Grant and Torrey Craig this time around, both of whom played significant roles on that end of the floor in last year’s playoff run.
On the other hand, fans should pay attention to the matchup between the hulking Serge Ibaka and Nikola Jokic, as the latter had his way in the paint during last post-season against both Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac. The offensive back-and-forth between Leonard and Jokic will also be remarkable, given that both teams will almost surely face each other in the Western Conference playoffs, and with the two of them backed by different supporting casts this time around.