How to watch the NBA on Christmas 2023: The annual guide for avid and casual basketball fans

The NBA’s Christmas Day slate features five games, the past four champions, the three leading scorers, two 38-year-olds and a pear-shaped reigning Finals MVP. There is something for everyone. Allow me to explain.

Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks (noon ET, ESPN)

For the uninitiated: Damian Lillard is on a contender now

Ever since Chris Paul led the Phoenix Suns to the 2021 NBA Finals (in which he lost to the Bucks), Damian Lillard has been the highest-ranked player on our Bill Russell Scale never to play in the league's title series.

The 33-year-old is currently tied for 56th on our list of all-time greats with Tracy McGrady, a Hall of Famer who avoided a similar distinction when he played garbage time for the San Antonio Spurs in two games of the 2013 Finals. McGrady, who joined the Spurs after a stint in China, retired months later at the age of 34.

Only four players ranked ahead of Lillard failed to reach a Finals: Steve Nash (38th), George Gervin (44th), Dominique Wilkins (48th) and Carmelo Anthony (52nd). The all-timers never to win a title also include Karl Malone (11th), Paul (21st), Charles Barkley (23rd), James Harden (27th), Elgin Baylor (29th), John Stockton (31st), Patrick Ewing (32nd) and Russell Westbrook (36th). This gap in their legacies forever sticks to them.

Lillard has a real shot to shake both groups this season — and not just as a hanger-on. The Bucks traded Jrue Holiday, Grayson Allen and the rights to three first-round draft picks to acquire Lillard from the Trail Blazers. Lillard spent his first 11 seasons in Portland and is inarguably one of the three greatest players in franchise history. He is averaging 26-5-7 on 44/37/92 shooting splits for second-place Milwaukee (20-7).

Damian Lillard headshot
Damian Lillard
PG - MIL - #0
2023 - 2024 season

If you join the NBA for only its biggest-ticket games, you did not see much of Lillard or his small-market Blazers. They won two playoff series from 2017 to 2023, both in the same season, when Lillard led them to the 2019 Western Conference finals, in which they were swept by the Golden State Warriors. Coincidentally, that was the same season Lillard made his only appearance on Christmas — a blowout loss to the Utah Jazz.

Lillard wanted on the Miami Heat this past summer but landed instead in small-market Milwaukee, where Giannis Antetokounmpo has made the Bucks a draw, winning a pair of MVPs and the 2021 championship. Enjoy, because Lillard can cook from distance like no other player his size (6-foot-2) in the league's history.

For the initiated: But how 'for real' are these Bucks?

Milwaukee has played the easiest schedule of any team in the East and has the most difficult schedule remaining in the conference. The Bucks have played a single game against a team in the top six from either conference since losing to the first-place Boston Celtics on Nov. 22 — a victory over these same Knicks. Their current six-game winning streak has come against San Antonio, Houston, Detroit, Indiana, Chicago and Orlando.

Their record is on pace for 61 wins, but their net rating (+5.1) has them closer to the Knicks (+3.6) and Magic (+2.9) than the 76ers (+11.5) or Celtics (+9.1), though BetMGM still has them third among title favorites behind only Boston and Denver. We have yet to see championship-caliber play from Milwaukee.

Christmas is a measuring stick for both teams. The Bucks have beaten the Knicks in both meetings this season — by five in their NBA in-season tournament group play opener Nov. 3 and by 24 in the tournament's quarterfinals Dec. 5. Mitchell Robinson started both games at center for New York, and news broke Wednesday that ankle surgery would end his season. Christmas could be a real wake-up call for a team now navigating its season without a rim-protector. The Knicks have slipped from a top-10 defensive outfit to borderline bad in their six games since Robinson's injury, and that trend is unlikely to get better opposite Milwaukee's size.

Milwaukee's Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are hoping to get the Bucks back into title contention. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Milwaukee's Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are hoping to get the Bucks back into title contention. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

This is one more outing for Lillard and Antetokounmpo to develop their pick-and-roll chemistry. Lillard is once again one of the NBA's most efficient pick-and-roll playmakers. Among players who run five or more pick-and-rolls per night, only Tyrese Haliburton (1.20) and De'Aaron Fox (1.13) net more points per possession than Lillard's 1.07 on 10.5 actions per game. Antetokounmpo is finishing only two of those possessions per game as a roll man, producing 1.23 points per action — more efficient but less frequent than last season.

Everyone outside Milwaukee, it seems, wants to see more from their two-man game. Is this a slow play for the postseason or more evidence of locker-room tension? The Bucks hired first-time head coach Adrian Griffin in the offseason, and it has been a rocky start to his tenure. Top assistant Terry Stotts abruptly quit in training camp. Players pushed Griffin to return to a drop defense four games into the season, and Bobby Portis "passionately challenged" his coach and teammates to "be better," specifically citing the coach's late-game play-calls, per Bleacher Report's Chris Haynes. Griffin reportedly agreed with the assessment.

With all eyes on the Bucks for the first time since that exchange in the aftermath of an IST semifinal loss to the Pacers earlier this month, Lillard and Antetokounmpo can either remind us they are as good as we thought they would be or keep us wondering if they have enough around them to return to the Finals.

Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets (2:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)

For the uninitiated: The Nuggets might be the new Warriors

Since Stephen Curry led the Warriors to their sixth Finals and fourth championship in an eight-year span two seasons ago, the dynasty has been on a downslope. They entered last season's playoffs as a sixth seed, lost in the second round and returned to register a sub-.500 record one third of the way into this season.

Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green are all in their mid-30s, and Green's growing list of disturbing incidents has him indefinitely suspended. The Warriors, at least in terms of the dynasty, might be cooked.

The Nuggets, however, might just be starting theirs. They rolled through the Timberwolves, Suns, Lakers and Heat en route to last season's title, finishing 16-4 on their run. Since the playoffs expanded to four rounds in 1984, only seven other championship cores have won 80% of their postseason games: Larry Bird's Celtics (15-3, 1986), Magic Johnson's Lakers (15-3, 1987), Isiah Thomas' Pistons (15-2, 1989), Michael Jordan's Bulls (15-2, 1991; 15-3, 1996), Tim Duncan's Spurs (15-2, 1999; 16-4, 2007), Shaquille O'Neal's Lakers (15-1, 2001) and Curry's Warriors (16-1, 2017). Detroit's two titles are the fewest among those dominant teams.

Denver's Nikola Jokić absolutely belongs in the conversation about the greatest connective players ever. He and Curry, though opposites in physical likeness, are not so dissimilar in their ability to bend entire games in their favor. Curry does it with his shooting and movement, and Jokić does it with his vision and efficiency.

The standings would have us believe there is parity in the NBA, particularly in the Western Conference, and the MVP race is crowded as a result. Jokić's 54/32/79 shooting splits — all his least accurate figures since he won his first MVP trophy in 2021 — might spur some wandering eyes in that debate, but let us remember: He is averaging a 27-12-9 and still leading the league in a whole bunch of advanced statistical categories.

Jokić left no doubt at the end of last season about who is the best player alive, and there is no evidence from the first third of the season to convince me otherwise, but it will be awfully fun to see Curry try on Christmas.

For the initiated: Are there weaknesses in Denver's title defense?

The Nuggets are 19-10, third in the West, despite losing Jamal Murray to hamstring and ankle injuries for 14 of those games. The starting lineup that fueled their phenomenal postseason — Jokić, Murray, Aaron Gordon, Michael Porter Jr. and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — is still outscoring opponents by 12.6 points per 100 possessions, second in the West among all five-man units that have played at least 150 minutes (behind only the Clippers' new-look starting unit's +16.5 net rating). No need for serious concern.

For the record, Golden State's vaunted starting lineup from its 2018 title defense — Curry, Thompson, Green, Kevin Durant and Zaza Pachulia — finished +8.5 points per 100 possessions in the regular season.

Still, we have few statement wins from the Nuggets since they beat the Lakers on ring night to open the season. They are 1-2 against Minnesota and Oklahoma City, two up-and-coming contenders who currently lead Denver in the standings. The Clippers are rising, and the Lakers always lurk, but the Nuggets play only one of those four teams before the calendar turns to February, so Christmas stands in as their showcase.

Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić needs complementary pieces in order to defend their NBA championship. (John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports)
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokić needs complementary pieces in order to defend the team's NBA championship. (John E. Sokolowski/USA TODAY Sports)

That is where Murray shines. He is the NBA's only non-All-Star superstar, and we have covered how vital his health is to Denver's odds of a repeat. Injuries could cost Murray yet another All-Star bid. He is averaging a 20-4-4 uber-efficiently (48/43/100) since initially returning from a strained right hamstring, but we still have yet to see anything close to his most spectacular playoff performances for a consistent period.

We will give Murray the benefit of the doubt, since he has proven himself on the biggest stage, but Porter deserves less grace. He is still a high-level shotmaker (55.7% on 2s and 38.5% on 3s), but by age 25, we would have liked to see more progress in every other aspect of his game. Porter is in the second season of a five-year, $179 million maximum contract, and he is not meeting that value. That did not stop Denver from winning the title last season, but it could be an impediment to the team's ability to keep the good times rolling.

Golden State's dynasty was built on the backs of three stars. Harrison Barnes, Kevin Durant and Andrew Wiggins have served as the fourth piece in three different championship iterations. Jokić and Murray are the stars for Denver. Gordon is ahead of Porter in terms of importance to the Nuggets, but he is no star, either. We should wonder if the Nuggets need only role players to round out a dynasty and whether it's worth committing a max contract to one of them. Christmas might be a reminder that they have what they need.

Or the Warriors could expose what stands between Jokić and multiple championships.

Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers (5 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN)

For the uninitiated: The greatest rivalry in NBA history

The Celtics and Lakers have combined to win 34 championships in the NBA's 77-year history. They have met a record 12 times in the Finals. You are aware of the battles between Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, or you are truly uninitiated. It is the greatest rivalry the league has ever seen.

Except that since the two teams split their 2008 and 2010 meetings in the Finals, when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett battled Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the bitterness has subsided. We thought LeBron James might rekindle that flame a bit, given that he has his own history against Boston. Pierce and Garnett beat a young James in two playoff series. James beat them in his prime on his way to the first of back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013. And James beat a young Jayson Tatum in consecutive conference finals in 2017 and 2018.

The Celtics lost to the Heat in the 2020 Eastern Conference finals, blowing their shot to meet James' Lakers with the bubble championship on the line, and James' Lakers failed to make the playoffs when the Celtics reached the 2022 Finals. Both teams lost in last season's conference finals. There is at least a chance they could each emerge from their conferences with a record 18th title on the line come June 2024.

This Christmas also marks the first time the Celtics and Lakers will meet on the league's premier regular-season slate since 2009, smack dab in the middle of the most recent bitter battles between the two teams. It is a shame the Celtics also blew their shot to meet the Lakers with the first NBA Cup on the line.

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James will highlight the Christmas Day slate with a renewed rivalry. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James will highlight the Christmas Day slate with a renewed rivalry. (Photo by Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

For the initiated: Boston's latest chance to prove its Big Game ability

Speaking of which, these Celtics have blown a lot of chances at that 18th title. They shot 7-for-39 from distance in their best shot to dethrone James' Cavaliers in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals. They were the favored team in conference finals losses to Miami in 2020 and 2023. They were four minutes from taking a 3-1 lead in the 2022 Finals. They're a great team that has not been great under pressure.

It is their inattention to detail that fails them in those moments. Careless turnovers are their mark of not valuing every possession when each one matters, and the biggest slices of blame pie are reserved for Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It is difficult to remember a time when both excelled with the season on the line.

James, on the other hand, has mastered these moments for a decade. His forgotten triple-double in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals (The Ray Allen Game). Thirty-seven points in Game 7 of that series. A 36-12-10 average over the last three games of his team's 3-1 comeback against the Warriors in the 2016 Finals. Long gone are the days when he disappeared against the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 Finals. He was only 26 years old then.

He turns 39 on Dec. 30. Tatum is 25, the same age James was when Pierce's Celtics sent him packing for Miami. This is Tatum's best chance yet to deliver a championship to Boston and cement himself among an all-time great franchise's all-time great players. But first, he has to show he can consistently produce on the biggest stage the way he has on certain nights (i.e., his 46 points in a must-win road Game 6 against the Bucks in the 2022 conference semifinals and the 51 he dropped in a Game 7 against the 76ers last season).

It has been so long since James was the Best Young Player Who Can't Do It On The Biggest Stage (even though he was often doing it on big stages) that we forget these things take time. There is time for Tatum, but he needs to win. To do it, he needs to show up every game. And Christmas is as good a time as ever.

Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat (8 p.m. ET, ESPN)

For the uninitiated: Should we believe in the 76ers again?

We should've all agreed at the end of last season, when Joel Embiid's Sixers no-showed another chance to reach the conference finals, that we were not going to believe in them until they proved it in the playoffs.

Yet here we are, months removed from James Harden calling Daryl Morey "a liar," weeks from the 76ers executive dumping the one-time MVP for a few expiring contracts and a couple of draft picks, and they have people believing again. The Sixers are 19-8, third in the East, owners of the NBA's top net rating (+11.5).

Beyond Embiid, Tyrese Maxey is the impetus for that optimism. The fourth-year guard is averaging 26.1 points on 46/40/90 shooting splits and 6.7 assists against 1.5 turnovers — a worthy All-Star campaign.

Beyond Embiid and Maxey, though, the Sixers are still relying on Tobias Harris, Kelly Oubre Jr., De'Anthony Melton and a bunch of players in their mid-30s. While they have been effective regular-season performers in the early going, we should still question whether they're enough to help Embiid win two playoff rounds.

Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is putting up an MVP-caliber season so far. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid is putting up an MVP-caliber season so far. (Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images)

A closer look at the numbers reveals what the answer to that question might be. The Sixers are 14-1 against sub-.500 teams, 6-7 against teams with winning records, 3-5 against teams currently in position for a guaranteed playoff seed and 1-3 against their chief competition in the East — the Celtics and Bucks.

That is, unless you also have the seventh-place Heat in that mix. They have yet to face the Sixers, but Miami is 0-3 against Boston and Milwaukee, 2-7 against top-six teams from either conference, 4-8 against teams with winning records and 12-4 against sub-.500 teams. Prior to Wednesday's respective wins over the Timberwolves and Magic, the Sixers and Heat had not beaten a team with a winning record all month.

This Christmas rematch of the 2022 Eastern Conference semifinals (which the Heat won in six games) feels like a test of who belongs third among East favorites — or whether either belongs in the conversation at all.

For the initiated: Joel Embiid's MVP encore

Embiid might actually be deserving of the NBA's MVP award this time. At least for now. He finished second to Jokić in 2021 and 2022 before winning last year's award, which really should've gone to Jokić.

Embiid is leading the NBA in scoring for a third straight season, up to 35.1 points per night. The dip in Jokić's scoring efficiency (61% true shooting compared to Embiid's 65.2%), along with Embiid's improved playmaking (career-high 5.9 assists per game) is enough to consider that the Sixers center is enjoying the better season, especially given that his team owns a slightly better record to date. (Not that he is the better player.)

Embiid is also leading the NBA in player efficiency rating, win shares per 48 minutes and estimated plus-minus, which was not his case in last season's race. The argument then was that Embiid had to do more with less, since Harden missed 24 games and Maxey did not start for half the season. Of course, Jokić's Nuggets have already lost Murray for 14 games, but consistency has never been the voting panel's thing.

Regardless, Embiid has been amazing — against one of the NBA's lightest schedules.

Are the Sixers asking too much from Embiid again? Yes. Will he be exhausted again come playoff time? Probably. His usage rate of 37.8% is a career high and also leads the league. That would rank seventh all-time, just ahead of Allen Iverson on the 43-win Sixers in 2002. The six single seasons ahead of Embiid — Jordan in 1987, Westbrook in 2015 and 2017, Bryant in 2006, Antetokounmpo in 2023 and Harden in 2019 — resulted in a single playoff series victory (and who else but Harden won that series).

Now, the Sixers are asking a 7-foot, 280-pound center with a six-page history of injuries to defy those odds and be their defensive anchor for a roster with few other plus defenders in the rotation. Godspeed, Embiid. Miami's Bam Adebayo is not about to go easy on the MVP just because he carries the NBA's heaviest load.

Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

For the uninitiated: Luka Magic

You know who else is awesome and using the second-most possessions in the league? Luka Dončić, who is five years younger and 50 pounds lighter than Embiid, and nobody figures his Mavericks for a contender.

Which means there is a little more freedom for Dončić to live his best basketball life, especially since Kyrie Irving is sidelined for an indefinite amount of time. In six games since Irving suffered a nasty-looking right heel injury, Dončić is averaging a 36-9-11 on 48/36/80 shooting splits. The Mavericks, however, are 3-3 in that span, albeit with those losses coming against three of the four best teams in the Western Conference.

The Mavericks are 169-118 (.589 winning percentage) the past five years with Dončić in the lineup and 22-29 (.431) without him — the difference between a 48-win playoff seed and a 35-win lottery team (which makes last season's 38-44 record so difficult to understand). Dončić has not had a single All-Star teammate at his side in his career, unless Irving makes the grade this season. We can imagine what Dončić might be in Tatum's role for Boston, for example, but for now, we will have to settle for him performing Luka Magic.

Luka Doncic headshot
Luka Doncic
PG - DAL - #77
2023 - 2024 season

Dončić rested a left quad injury against the Houston Rockets on Friday, the first night of a back-to-back. Assuming he returns against the Spurs on Saturday, he could reach 10,000 career points on Christmas. That would make Dončić the sixth-youngest in NBA history to reach 10,000 points and the sixth to do it at age 24 or before:

1. LeBron James (23 years, 59 days)
2. Kevin Durant (24 years, 33 days)
3. Kobe Bryant (24 years, 194 days)
4. Carmelo Anthony (24 years, 251 days)
5. Tracy McGrady (24 years, 272 days)

On the opposite sideline for Dončić's possible Christmas milestone: Durant, the second-youngest player to 10,000 points. An interesting wrinkle here, though: Dončić can do so faster than those other five. He could reach 10,000 points in 358 games, 10 fewer than it took James. Durant needed 381. Chamberlain remains the fastest player to 10,000 points (236 games), followed by Jordan (303), who, interestingly enough, reached that plateau in 10 fewer games than the greatest player before him, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

For the initiated: Will the real Suns please stand up?

Durant, Devin Booker and Bradley Beal have shared the floor on the Suns for 49 possessions this season.

One. Half. Of. Basketball.

That is ... concerning. Beal missed the first seven games of the season due to tightness in his lower back, returned for three games, missed another 12 games due to a strained lower back, returned for three games, and then sprained his right ankle. The team said it would reevaluate Beal's ankle in January, though he told Andscape recently that he hopes to return sooner than the two-week timeline, perhaps even by Christmas.

Meanwhile, Booker missed eight of Phoenix's first 10 games to a sore left foot and a right calf strain. He also sprained his right ankle at the start of December and thankfully missed only one game. That has forced Durant into 36.7 minutes per game — an extraordinary load for a 35-year-old who has missed 175 of 335 games (52%) since rupturing an Achilles tendon in the 2019 Finals. Durant has sat for a pair of two-game stretches in the past 12 games of this season due to a sore right foot and a sprained left ankle. Concerning.

The Suns needed 38 minutes from both Durant and Booker on Tuesday and still lost to the seven-win Portland Trail Blazers, 109-104. Phoenix has lost seven of its past 10 games after a seven-game winning streak corrected a 4-6 start. The Suns have settled at 14-13 a third of the way through the season, one game up on the Warriors for the West's final play-in tournament bid. Fall too far behind out West, and there are just too many good teams to overcome for a guaranteed playoff berth. That could mean a $250 million disaster.

Look to the Brooklyn Nets' experiment with Durant, Irving and Harden. That trio took the floor for eight games in their first season together, and it did not get better. Harden left the following year, and everyone was gone at last year's trade deadline. In between, the Nets came within inches of a conference finals, and that will give new Suns owner Mat Ishbia hope — for as long as the playoffs are a possibility, at least.

There is only so much you can surround three max-paid players with, underlining the availability of each, and Durant, Booker and Beal have barely shared the same court. Fellas, please come home for Christmas.

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