NBA Christmas Games 2021: What You Should Know


The NBA has long viewed Christmas Day as the highlight of the young season, a television spectacle that brings many of the best teams and best players together for all-day basketball fireworks.

This year? Not exactly.

Dozens of players have been going through the NBA’s coronavirus health and safety protocols in the past few days, forcing teams to improvise by signing dozen of substitutes for 10-day contracts. So anyone who expects Giannis Antetokounmpo to lead the Milwaukee Bucks into the game against the Boston Celtics on Saturday will be disappointed: On Friday morning, Antetokounmpo stayed on record after missing five games. But fans should be able to see the surprise return of Joe Johnson, whom the Celtics signed on Wednesday to bolster their own ailing roster – the same Joe Johnson, now 40 and last on an NBA in 2018 -Court had occurred.

The pandemic ravaged the holiday season, and the NBA wasn’t immune. The league even issued a memo this week to teams scheduled to play on Saturday that their betting times could be optimized if one of the games is postponed to prime time. (At the Nets, for example, three games were sunk last week due to low squad numbers.)

For now, and keep in mind that may change, here’s a look at the five games scheduled for Saturday:

All times east.

Surprising runs in last season’s playoffs resulted in these teams meeting in the first round, sparking talks about reviving the two franchises. The Hawks then easily handled the Knicks, with the Hawks star player Trae Young enjoying calming down the aggressive Knicks fans while the Knicks top player Julius Randle had a terrible streak.

The matchup looked like it was going to spark a rivalry between two emerging teams on their way to becoming the Eastern Conference elite.

But this season both teams were far from being revived, having been two of the league’s more disappointing teams. The Knicks’ new signings Evan Fournier and Kemba Walker were largely disappointing, although Walker, after sitting on the bench for several games, had a rift on his return to the line-up. And while Atlanta had one of the worst defenses in the NBA, its stellar offensive wasn’t enough to make up for it. Young, already one of the best attacking players in the league, is having the best year of his career while Randle struggled.

The good news is that the same thing happened last season and both teams had impressive turnarounds in the second half to reach the playoffs.

The Christmas game is no doubt about to lose some of its luster as several key players are likely to miss the game due to the NBA’s health and protocols, including Young, Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari from Atlanta and Nerlens Noel from the Knicks. Derrick Rose, one of the lonesome bright spots of the Knicks against Atlanta in the playoffs, is expected to be out for several weeks with an ankle injury.

After their first NBA championship since 1971, the Bucks knew the early part of their schedule would bring some challenges. First of all, last season’s playoff run was extended to the end of July. Then two of the team’s top players, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday, helped the US men’s basketball team win gold at the Tokyo Olympics in August. The Bucks subsequently reunited early in their season, losing eight of their first 15 games.

Despite a changing roster – Middleton and Antetokounmpo are among the players who missed games after landing in the league’s health and safety protocols – the Bucks appear to be gaining a foothold on yet another title. It’s not a huge challenge thanks to the presence of Antetokounmpo, a two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner who still seems determined to expand his game.

The Celtics suffer from growing pains under Ime Udoka, their first year coach. Since the training camp began, Udoka has emphasized the need for his players to be more willing to get past the perimeter. But too often the ball is still stuck – often in the hands of Jayson Tatum, a talented young player who struggled with his shooting this season. The Celtics were also handicapped by injuries to Jaylen Brown.

Boston needs to play a much broader type of basketball to have a chance to land in the postseason, let alone challenge players like the Bucks.

The two best teams from the Western Conference are represented in this game. The Suns hope to improve their journey to the finals last year while Golden State looks to resume its ascent.

In November, the NBA began an investigation into Robert Sarver, the owner of the Suns, after ESPN published allegations of racism and sexism against him, which ESPN said were current and former Suns employees. If the specter of this investigation has affected the team, it has not shown up on the pitch.

Phoenix looked impressive in the third year of Coach Monty Williams with the franchise. After a 1-3 start to the season, the Suns embarked on an 18-game winning streak that set a franchise record for consecutive wins. That included a win over Golden State and ended in a loss to Golden State. With the help of point guard Chris Paul’s steadfast veteran hand (he leads the league in assists per game), they survived injuries. Deandre Ayton missed eight games with a leg injury and illness, and Devin Booker missed seven games with a hamstring injury.

Golden State awaits the return of Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry’s sniper counterpart who has been absent for more than two years with two serious injuries. He could return soon, but not in time for this game. The team made it to the top of the conference without him.

Curry set the NBA record for Career 3 last week and has played well enough to be considered for his third MVP award. Role players like Jordan Poole and Gary Payton II have also made important contributions.

Ideally, this would be a matchup between the Nets’ Kevin Durant and his longtime elite contemporary, LeBron James of the Lakers. And theoretically there would be other stars like Kyrie Irving for the Nets and Anthony Davis for the Lakers.

But it shouldn’t be. Davis is out for several weeks with a knee injury. And the Nets are so short of players due to the league’s health and safety protocols – including Durant and Irving – that their last three games have been postponed. On Thursday, Nets coach Steve Nash announced that James Harden had left logs providing him against the Lakers.

For this matchup, the Nets, who take first place in the Eastern Conference, face a Lakers team that is just fighting to keep talking to make it to the playoffs.

The Lakers’ James and Davis supporting cast have proven ill-fitting so far, and the squad is grappling with a scourge of injuries. Russell Westbrook, the Lakers’ most iconic off-season signing, has struggled at times. James puts up extraordinary numbers for a 36-year-old but seems to be finally slowing down: he’s reliant on his jumper more than ever and has an average career in 3-point attempts per game and a career in free throws per game. James is still one of the best players in the league, but it’s not apparent that he can carry an offensive on his own like he used to before.

With the Nets due to be out without so many key players, this should have been counted as an easy win for a team led by James. But not this year. These Lakers are mediocre even at full strength and tend to pull through games. It’s a tossup right now.

What is a dominance in the regular season without a playoff success? The Utah Jazz faced this question last season when they finished the regular season with the best record in the NBA but only made it to the second round of the playoffs.

That means, from game to game this season, their focus is not only on their early wins and losses, but also on what lessons they can learn in the postseason.

“If you’re perfect in November, no one will care when the playoffs come,” said jazz watcher Donovan Mitchell.

Mitchell led the jazz offensive with more than 25 points per game, while Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson, the reigning sixth man of the year, also played important roles.

Defensively they are led by Rudy Gobert, who is the best in the league with 15.1 rebounds per game and also contributes more than 2 blocks per game.

They face a Mavericks team that has struggled with injuries all season, including Luka Doncic, their top player who is likely to miss this game due to the league’s health protocols.

Although Doncic leads the team with 25.6 points per game, the Mavericks don’t differ statistically dramatically when he’s on the field. But it’s more fun to watch. If Doncic misses the Christmas game, a virus and injury-ridden Dallas team will have a hard time making a game against Jazz interesting.

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