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Hoop heads know the deal.
The best Christmas gifts aren’t found under the tree but rather over the airwaves as part of the NBA‘s always entertaining five-game slate.
Trust us, this year’s batch of goodies can keep you and the family entertained for 12 hours-plus. Just look at what the basketball gods are set to deliver:
- Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks, 12 p.m. ET on ESPN
- Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets, 3 p.m. ET on ABC
- Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics, 5:30 p.m. ET on ABC
- Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors, 8 p.m. ET on ABC and ESPN
- Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz, 10:30 p.m. on ESPN
Hungry for holiday hoops yet? Good, we’ll help whet your appetite by examining the biggest storyline for all five contests.
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Aaron Gash/Associated Press
The strangest, least likely beef of the 2018-19 season takes center stage for the Christmas opener.
In the green-and-cream corner stands Giannis Antetokounmpo, an MVP-in-training with mythological physical gifts and a legitimately positionless skill set. In the blue-and-orange corner it’s Mario Hezonja, who’s somehow a mostly anonymous player to casual fans despite being both a former top-five pick and a current member of the Knicks.
If this doesn’t sound like a fair fight, that’s because it isn’t. Antetokounmpo, who just celebrated his 24th birthday, is en route to posting a player efficiency rating only a handful of all-time greats have ever reached. Hezonja, who turns 24 in February, has been among the Association’s 20 least efficient players since his 2015 arrival.
But don’t feel bad for Hezonja. He brought this on himself, punctuating a transition slam by staring down and stepping over a fallen Antetokounmpo. To the surprise of no one, that didn’t go over great with the Greek Freak.
“I’m gonna punch him in his nut next time,” Antetokounmpo told reporters afterward. After having more time to think on it, he said he regretted his word choice but made clear, “What I said, I meant it.”
Yikes—for both Hezonja’s nether regions and his undermanned teammates. There might have been a tiny chance of Antetokounmpo and the Bucks overlooking their holiday opposition, but that isn’t happening now.
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Kyle Phillips/Associated Press
It’s been a tale of two dramatically different seasons since both the Rockets and Thunder transformed their rosters by forming All-Star partnerships in the 2017 offseason.
Russell Westbrook and Paul George could never make OKC’s whole greater than the sum of its parts last season, struggling to a 48-win finish and first-round exit. But this year, the defense is elite, the stars are shining brighter together, and the Thunder look as ferocious as any non-Bay Area-based Western Conference club.
For Chris Paul, James Harden and the Rockets, the opposite is essentially true. This was a 65-win powerhouse just last season, historically potent on offense and surprisingly stingy the other way. Now, it’s floating around .500 and struggling with both depth and injuries.
So, what happened? You know, besides Carmelo Anthony bouncing from the Sooner State to Space City over the summer?
Kidding aside, the hoops world wondered how the Rockets would handle the losses of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, and so far the answer is, let’s just say, not well. But there’s more to this story. The offense has also lost some of its mojo, with neither Paul nor Eric Gordon able to get on track yet.
As for the Thunder, they look like they might be coaxing a career campaign out of George.
“He’s playing the best basketball of his life,” SI.com’s Andrew Sharp wrote. “If this continues, the Thunder are a different team, and one that everyone should take more seriously.”
Paul’s latest hamstring problem means this matchup won’t be a true temperature gauge for the two Western Conference contenders. But their trajectories hint that their respective place in the hierarchy may have flip-flopped from the spring.
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The Process is finished. At least, that’s the take of 76ers point guard TJ McConnell, who felt that last season’s second-round playoff run punctuated the plan put in place by former general manager Sam Hinkie.
“Everything we’d been working for, those last few seasons … it wasn’t ‘right around the corner’ or whatever,” McConnell wrote for The Players’ Tribune. “It was right there. We had it. And that’s how I knew The Process was over.”
But what if it isn’t? Sure, Philly followed a 52-win campaign with five postseason victories, but 17-game winning streak aside, this team is still searching for signature moments. It went 1-4 against both the Celtics and Toronto Raptors last year, possibly the two biggest hurdles facing the Sixers to escape the East.
They dropped their first three decisions against those clubs this year, before toppling the Kawhi Leonard-less Toronto crew Saturday night. Scoring a statement win over the Celtics could be the clearest signal yet that the Sixers are coming for the conference crown.
That’s assuming, of course, Boston eventually becomes the juggernaut we all expected to see this season. The Celtics are still sorting out their loaded roster, as recent losses to the Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns (at home!) displayed.
There’s enough talent in Beantown—on the floor, in the front office and at coach—for this club to reach platinum status ahead of the postseason. But the East has a handful of heavyweights, including these 76ers, so a little muscle-flexing on Christmas could indicate the Celtics are ready to realize their potential.
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Chris Elise/Getty Images
This is objectively the best battle going in basketball.
Each of the past four seasons have come down to LeBron James vs. the Dubs. While that can’t be the case this time around, there’s still a chance the familiar parties again lock horns in the second season.
While the two held court twice this preseason—only once with James—this is the first real crack LeBron will have at his old foe with his new squad. And even though James no longer has an established, in-prime All-Star at his side, this rivalry could be turned up a notch by the new city involved.
“Bay-L.A. in any sport is always great,” Klay Thompson said ahead of their first exhibition collision. “It will definitely carry over to basketball, that’s for sure.”
Comparing the two rosters leads one to believe the Dubs should have a decided advantage, but the on-court performances say otherwise. The Warriors look relatively vulnerable by their standards—lowest winning percentage of Steve Kerr’s era, albeit with DeMarcus Cousins yet to debut—while the Lakers perhaps seem ahead of schedule.
Throw out L.A.’s 0-3 start, and the Purple and Gold are essentially winning at the same clip as their Northern California neighbors. The Lakers likely need another star—or stars—to make this a more even matchup, but the gap is already narrower than most outside of the franchise and fanbase would have guessed.
For L.A., this is an opportunity to show it leapfrogged into the elite ranks as soon as Klutch Sports sent that fortune-changing tweet. As for Golden State, maybe a date with James is what this group needs to spark itself out of its early-season slumber.
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Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images
The Trail Blazers are who we thought they were, more or less. Their backcourt is electric, their other positions are a touch underwhelming, and they look like they’ll be jostling for another playoff spot—although maybe not the No. 3 seed again.
The Jazz, on the other hand, are…confusing. This was supposed to be a 50-win candidate, but the defense hasn’t quite dominated, and top scorer Donovan Mitchell is struggling to build off his breakout rookie effort.
Look, it’s rarely wise to sound any alarms about a 22-year-old with 100-odd games under his belt, but Mitchell’s prominent position on this team makes this more concerning than usual. While he’s on pace to clear 20 points per game for the second consecutive season, he’s also looking at the second year in a row where none of his teammates average 15 points.
There isn’t another great point-producer on the roster, or even a particularly good one. If Mitchell can’t get himself back on track, the Jazz are in danger of becoming too one-sided to seriously challenge the West’s elite.
Mitchell has lost multiple percentage points off both his field-goal and three-point conversion rates. He’s taking fewer shots at the rim and more from the analytically problematic area between the paint and the perimeter. His teammates aren’t helping—Utah has tumbled from tied for 11th to 24th in three-point shooting—but Mitchell was, at times, a one-man wrecking ball last year.
“The tie between Mitchell’s and Utah’s struggles is pretty simple,” Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes wrote. “The thinking went: As he improved, he’d increase the Jazz’s margin for error. Struggling role players, strangely suspect team defense and a bevy of missed shots wouldn’t hurt as much because Mitchell would transcend those issues.”
This will be a good test for Mitchell. It’s a nationally televised game against a potential playoff team, but he’s also going against a beatable defense. He routinely aced these assignments last season, and Utah will need him to pick up where he left off to make its anticipated ascent.
Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.