Toasts of Christmas past: 27 of the NBA's best Christmas Day moments

Ball Don't Lie
Everyone in L.A.’s a Kobe guy. Even Kris Kringle. (Getty Images)
Everyone in L.A.’s a Kobe guy. Even Kris Kringle. (Getty Images)

Christmas Day has become a marquee event for the NBA in recent years, with the league running a day-long, quintuple-header showcase highlighted by major-market teams, high-profile stars and plenty of pomp and circumstance. This year’s model will be no different, with the five-game slate featuring the winners of the last eight NBA MVP awards and the last nine league scoring titles, a whopping 15 2016 All-Stars, the entire 2015-16 All-NBA First Team, the teams that have squared off in the last two NBA Finals, and a Kristaps in a pear tree. As televised programming goes, it ought to be a pretty decent alternative to yule log videos.

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While we wait with bated breath to find out what gifts today’s stars will give us come Sunday, let’s take a look back at some of the stocking stuffers of years gone by, celebrating a sporting holiday that’s belonged to basketball fans ever since the New York Knicks knocked off the Providence Steamrollers all the way back in 1947.

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Wilt Chamberlain stretches and dunks two points as Phil Jordon and Johnny Green of the Knicks watch helplessly. (Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Wilt Chamberlain stretches and dunks two points as Phil Jordon and Johnny Green of the Knicks watch helplessly. (Charles Hoff/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Wilt Chamberlain set the bar for Christmas Day excellence awfully high back in 1961, pouring in 59 points and pulling down 36 rebounds against a Knicks club that, as you might have heard, he once had a pretty good game. This one actually didn’t go Wilt’s way, as the Knicks outlasted his Philadelphia Warriors in double overtime, 136-135, thanks to 73 combined points from Richie Guerin and Willie Naulls, but the 59 points stood as a Christmas Day record for more than two decades, and the Dipper’s 36 boards still haven’t been eclipsed on the 25th.

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Jerry West goes up for a shot in front of Dave Budd and Mel Peterson of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
Jerry West goes up for a shot in front of Dave Budd and Mel Peterson of the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. (Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

Two years later, Wilt’s eventual teammate Jerry West had himself a day at Madison Square Garden, hanging 47 points on the Knickerbockers to lead the Lakers to a 134-126 win. Mr. Clutch made holiday explosions something of a habit over the years, scoring an average of 32.2 points per game on Christmas Day, tops among those who have played at least five times on Christmas. No wonder they made him the logo; he was like Santa with buckets, which, I just checked, is not a Hulk Hogan movie.

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Bill Russell grabs a rebound. He was really, really good at that. (Charles Payne/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Bill Russell grabs a rebound. He was really, really good at that. (Charles Payne/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

The Baltimore Bullets knew just what to get Bill Russell for Christmas in 1965: missed shots. From those raw materials, the Boston Celtics legend crafted his two favorite things: rebounds (34 of them) and victory (a 113-99 win). Let it never be said that the Bullets weren’t kind and thoughtful gift-givers.

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Rick Barry prepares to torch the Cincinnati Royals defense. (AP)
Rick Barry prepares to torch the Cincinnati Royals defense. (AP)

Rick Barry says he doesn’t remember for sure who guarded him on Dec. 25, 1966; he “believes” it was Jerry Lucas, but “it was a long time ago to remember too many details.” One reason he might not remember: no matter who it was, it didn’t work, as the Hall of Famer hung 50 points on Lucas, Oscar Robertson and the rest of the Cincinnati Royals in front of 6,172 people at the Cincinnati Gardens. It was one of six 50-plus-point performances by the San Francisco Warriors superstar during the 1966-67 season, and his half-a-hundred still stands as the highest scoring effort ever by a player whose team came away with a W on Christmas Day.

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Tiny Archibald gets going downhill. (Vernon Biever/NBAE via Getty Images)
Tiny Archibald gets going downhill. (Vernon Biever/NBAE via Getty Images)

One neat sideline item of the 2016-17 campaign thus far: how the remarkable play of MVP favorites Russell Westbrook and James Harden has reminded longtime NBA lovers of, and introduced younger fans to, the great Nate “Tiny” Archibald, who averaged 34 points and 11.4 assists per game for the 1972-73 season, making him the only NBA player ever to lead the league in both categories.

The Kansas City-Omaha Kings playmaker helped kickstart that historic campaign by dropping 18 dimes on the Milwaukee Bucks on Christmas Day. Whether Westbrook can equal that feat when his Oklahoma City Thunder face the Minnesota Timberwolves this Christmas remains to be seen.

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Bernard King entered Christmas Day of 1984 leading the NBA in scoring, averaging a crisp 31.6 points per game. Against the team that drafted him, the New Jersey Nets, the Brooklyn-born All-Star nearly doubled that, dropping a blistering 60 points — 19-for-30 from the field, 22-for-26 at the foul line, 40 before halftime — with an array of baseline leaners and fadeaway jumpers.

The Nets withstood King’s assault on the paint and the record books, scoring a 120-114 win behind 36 points from former Knick Michael Ray Richardson and double-doubles from Mike Gminski and Buck Williams. Thirty-two years later, though, King’s prolific performance — which broke a MSG scoring record that had stood for three decades — still stands alone as the top Christmas Day total ever.

“When I drove to the Garden from my home in Brooklyn, I always had goose bumps,” King told Sports Illustrated in 2014. “I always felt that feeling when I put on my jersey and walked out on that floor. It was special. Every game at Madison Square Garden was Christmas.”

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The Celtics didn’t meet with defeat often during the 1985-86 season, rolling up a record of 82-18 as they steamrolled their way to the third NBA championship of Larry Bird’s career. On Christmas Day, though, the team that had everything — prime Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish at the peak of their bruising interior powers, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge on the wings, the great Bill Walton off the bench — didn’t have enough to hold off a newcomer named Patrick Ewing.

The Celtics had built a 25-point lead in part by holding the No. 1 pick in the 1985 draft to just eight points through three quarters. But Ewing, who played his prep ball a short drive from the Boston Garden at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, scored 18 points in the fourth quarter to lead a comeback effort that knotted the game after four quarters. It took two overtime sessions — because who doesn’t enjoy working overtime on Christmas? — but the Knicks finally came all the way back and prevailed, 113-104, to hand their rivals from Massachusetts their seventh loss of the season.

“Santa Claus came and he brought a big bag,” added Knicks guard Gerald Wilkins.

About 7 feet, to be exact.

“In the end, I showed up,” said Ewing, who finished with a then-career-high 32 points and 11 rebounds.

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Evidently, Ewing liked “showing up” on Christmas so much that he decided to do it again the next year. The star center scored 28 points, pulled down 17 rebounds and blocked two shots, but saved his best for last, coming up with the rebound of a Trent Tucker miss and hitting a 10-foot putback jumper at the buzzer that gave the Knicks an 86-85 win that thrilled the New York faithful.

The victory gave Ewing, however briefly, some bragging rights over his former college foil and friend Michael Jordan, who finished with a game-high 30 points, six steals, five assists and several sensational dunks.

“Michael and I have been talking a little stuff to one another,” said Ewing, with M.J. predicting that he’d “dunk in Patrick’s face” before the game. “He got the dunk on me, but we got the game.”

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Dominique Wilkins soars over Charles Barkley and the Sixers. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Dominique Wilkins soars over Charles Barkley and the Sixers. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

At times during his Hall of Fame career, Dominique Wilkins found his tremendous individual achievements overshadowed by those of players whose teams met with more collective success than his Atlanta Hawks ever managed. On Christmas Day of 1987, though, with only two games on the NBA schedule, ‘Nique got his chance to shine, and man, did he take advantage.

“The Human Highlight Film” set fire to the Philadelphia 76ers, racking up 45 points on 17-for-28 shooting and an 11-for-12 mark from the free-throw line to go with nine rebounds and three assists in 41 minutes to lead the Hawks to a 106-100 win over fellow star Charles Barkley, who led Philly with 22 points in the loss. The two transcendent talents would have a number of duels over the years, but on this particular Noel, ‘Nique got the nod.

(Also, for the record: it is criminal that this excellent Dominique game is not freely available on YouTube. Someone, please, rectify this.)

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You just knew Mike wasn’t going to let Patrick have that Christmas Day edge for too long. One month after the new-look Knicks under head coach Pat Riley hammered the Bulls by 37 points at the Garden, the two-time defending champs returned serve on their home floor, restoring order with an 89-77 win fueled by 42 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block from His Airness, along with a defensive effort that held Ewing to 14 points on 6-for-18 shooting.

With the benefit of hindsight, we can view the early-season matchups as a preview of what was to come in the 1993 Eastern Conference finals — the Knicks racing ahead with impressive early wins, followed by the Bulls offering a corrective that sent them on their way to a third straight title and left New Yorkers feeling like they’d just unwrapped a fresh lump of coal.

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Before they were teammates in Clutch City, Sir Charles did his level best to turn The Dream’s Christmas into a nightmare. Barkley dominated the Houston Rockets on Dec. 25, 1993, dropping 38 points on 15-for-27 shooting with 18 rebounds and four assists to lead his Phoenix Suns past Houston, 111-91, despite a monster game from superstar big man Hakeem Olajuwon (27 points, 13 rebounds, six assists, four blocks and three steals). Hakeem and company would get the last laugh, though, vanquishing Chuck’s crew in a seven-game Western Conference Finals classic before moving on to take out Ewing and the Knicks in the 1994 NBA Finals.

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With Jordan working some stuff out during B.P. in Birmingham, Scottie Pippen took the reins of the Bulls, and after coming up just short to the Knicks in the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Pip sure seemed motivated to make a statement in Chicago’s first meeting of the following season against their rivals from New York.

The Hall of Fame swingman did everything for Phil Jackson on Christmas Day 1994, scoring 36 points, snaring 16 rebounds, snagging five steals, dishing three assists and coming up with two critical blocks on the final possession of overtime to seal a 107-104 win. Pippen played all 53 minutes — no frustration-fueled final-second sitdown here — to lead the Bulls and gain a measure of vengeance. (Y’know, in keeping with the holiday spirit.)

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Last Christmas, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors faced off in a rematch of their 2014 NBA Finals series; this year, we’ll see them lock horns once again. Time was, though, that such pairings never materialized on the holiday slate, which made the 1995 Christmas contest between the Rockets and Orlando Magic so special — it was the first time that one season’s Finals combatants met on the following Christmas Day.

This time, it was Orlando getting the big payback, with Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway drilling a driving pull-up jumper with 3.1 seconds remaining to give the Magic a 92-90 victory over the Rockets team that had swept them in four games the previous summer. All five Magic starters scored in double figures, led by 22 apiece from Penny and Shaquille O’Neal, while the best efforts of Olajuwon (30 points, 12 rebounds, six assists) went for naught.

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I’ve written before about this Kobe Bryant dunk on Jaren Jackson during the Lakers’ Christmas Day 1999 win over the San Antonio Spurs. I do not have anything new to say about it, besides that I would completely understand if Jaren Jackson plans to make this the 17th straight year that he chooses not to celebrate Christmas.

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Christmas Day 2000 saw another team that had suffered a brutal loss several months earlier serve up a helping of revenge against the opponent who broke their heart. This time, it was the Portland Trail Blazers — nearly seven months removed from their crushing seven-game Western Conference Finals loss to the Lakers — getting back on the good foot with a 109-104 win at Staples Center in which they came back from an early deficit thanks to the inside-out tandem of Rasheed Wallace (33 points, eight rebounds) and Damon Stoudamire (27 points, nine assists, nine rebounds) roasting the L.A. defense like chestnuts on an open fire.

““Forget June,”” Stoudamire said after the game. ““They won it and they’’re the champions. That’’s always going to be over our heads. We needed this win because we just needed this win.””

I hope the Blazers savored that flavor, because they would once again fail to get what they needed come springtime, falling to the eventual champion Lakers in a first-round sweep.

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Of all the presents the NBA has given us over the years, Peak Tracy McGrady was one of the dopest. T-Mac showed off the full repertoire on Christmas Day 2002, pouring in 46 points on 26 shots with six rebounds and three steals in 44 minutes to lead the Magic to a 104-99 win over the visiting Detroit Pistons.

Four and a half months later, McGrady and the Magic would suffer a dispiriting and humbling defeat at the hands of these same Pistons, who came back to knock off Orlando after trailing 3-1 in the opening round of the postseason, but dwelling on that doesn’t seem particularly appropriate in this time of celebration and good will toward man. Let’s instead focus on how monstrous T-Mac was when he was in working order and cooking (and on getting him into the Hall of Fame this coming summer).

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We must have been very good boys and girls in 2003, because Santa saw fit to give us Prime T-Mac vs. Rookie LeBron James.

The young King had already started to find his NBA footing less than two months after his debut, averaging a tick under 20 points, six rebounds and six assists per game for Paul Silas’ Cleveland Cavaliers, with four 30-point games in his dozen outings entering Christmas. A matchup with the NBA’s reigning scoring champion, fresh off one of the greatest individual offensive seasons in NBA history, promised fireworks, and man, did it deliver.

The neophyte popped for 34 points and six assists in 47 minutes, but he was bested by the vet, as T-Mac answered with 41 points on 15-for-29 shooting, a 5-for-9 mark from 3-point land, 11 assists, eight rebounds and three steals in a 113-100 Magic win. Despite coming up on the short end of the stick, LeBron more than held his own, showcasing the scintillating all-around talent that would come to define his game, and the league, in the years ahead.

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The Mega-Powers Explode! Christmas Day 2004 gave us the first Kobe-Shaq showdown following the dissolution of their relationship with the Lakers and Shaq’s subsequent trade to the Miami Heat. This bit of NBA drama had everything:

• The sturm und drang over whether the two teammates-turned-rivals would interact before tipoff;

• Shaq blocking Kobe’s shot on the very first play of the game;

• Kobe coming right back for a fadeaway jumper in Shaq’s grill on the next trip;

• Shaq fouling out late in the fourth quarter by whacking Kobe on a play he’d later describe thusly: “No layups, no dunks […] especially for him”;

Kobe scoring 42 points in 50 minutes to prove he could carry the load without Shaq; and

The Heat winning by two in overtime after Kobe missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer over the outstretched arm of Shaq’s new running buddy, Dwyane Wade, which prompted Shaq to say: “I knew that it wasn’t going to go in.” Just perfect.

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Two years later, the Heat and Lakers would tangle again on Christmas Day. This time, though, Shaq was on the shelf with an injury, making the day’s main attraction the matchup between Bryant, at this point starting to strain somewhat from the heavy lifting he had to do to carry the underwhelming roster left behind following the Shaq trade, and Wade, who had burst into full bloom as one of the NBA’s most electric offensive threats.

Wade won this particular duel handily, authoring a dominant performance — 40 points on 20 shots, 11 assists, four rebounds, four steals and four blocks in 41 minutes — to outdo Bryant (16 points on 4-for-17 shooting, four assists) as Miami cruised to a 101-85 win.

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By Christmas of 2008, the Celtics had set the template for the next generation of NBA roster-building by compiling the Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and the Lakers had reloaded with the addition of Pau Gasol to join Bryant, emerging young center Andrew Bynum and Swiss Army knife sixth man Lamar Odom. The Celtics had beaten L.A. in the 2008 Finals, and the two teams opened the 2008-09 season seemingly on a collision course for a rematch, with Boston opening up 27-2 and riding a 19-game winning streak into their Christmas Day showdown with their longtime rivals, who had also gotten off to a scorching start, entering Dec. 25 at 23-5.

The evenly matched titans battled back and forth throughout before L.A. pulled away down the stretch to score a 93-82 win — the 1,000th of head coach Phil Jackson’s illustrious career — to snap Boston’s streak and send the message that they, not the C’s, were the bully on the NBA block. The anticipated Finals rematch didn’t come to fruition that season, as Boston fell in the Eastern Conference semifinals to Dwight Howard’s Magic, who also knocked off the LeBron-led Cavs en route to their first Finals trip since the Shaq-and-Penny days … where they were promptly smoked by Kobe, Pau and the Lakers.

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The NBA decided to reward the rising Oklahoma City Thunder, a team that had gone from talent-rich curiosity two seasons earlier to 50-win darlings in the 2009-10 campaign, with a Christmas Day showcase game in 2010, granting hoops-watching families the world over a nice, long look at Kevin Durant. The scoring marvel didn’t disappoint, unwrapping a monster 44 points on 14-for-20 shooting, seven rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks to lead OKC past the Denver Nuggets, 114-106. Then-teammates Westbrook and Harden also shined for Scott Brooks’ club, but that Christmas, KD was the undoubtedly the star at the top of the tree.

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We never got the LeBron/Kobe Finals matchup that NBA fans (including, one suspects, many in the league office) wanted so desperately before the Mamba’s career was beset by injuries in his final years. We did, however, get one of the most hotly anticipated regular-season matchups in recent memory: the defending NBA champion Lakers squaring off against the NBA’s newly formed monster, the LeBron-Wade-Chris Bosh Big Three Miami Heat.

A Heat team that had begun to find its rhythm after some early-season struggles wasted little time in flexing its muscle, clamping down on the Lakers in the opening frame and riding the All-Star firepower of James (27 points, 11 rebounds, 10 assists), Bosh (24 points, 13 rebounds) and Wade (18 points, six assists, five rebounds) to a 96-80 win that suggested the NBA’s pecking order had changed. Come the summer, though, both teams would wind up falling beneath the heels of …

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… the Dallas Mavericks, who beat Kobe, Durant and the Big Three to win the 2011 NBA championship, and who — “thanks” to the 2011 NBA lockout that shaved two months off the start of the season and impacted the lives of scores of team and league employees — got to celebrate the holiday by raising a championship banner on Christmas for the first time in NBA history.

Their opponents that day — the Heat team they’d just vanquished in June — didn’t much appreciate it …

… as James exploded for 37 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, two blocks and two steals in a 105-94 win over a defanged Dallas squad that had shed key title contributors Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, Caron Butler and DeShawn Stevenson.

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Starting with that Christmas Day beatdown of the Mavs, LeBron played like a man possessed all year long, winning his third NBA Most Valuable Player award and leading the Heat back to the Finals, where they overwhelmed Durant, Westbrook, Harden and the young Thunder in five games to win the NBA championship. After following his 2012 title with Olympic gold in London, James outdueling with Durant in a Christmas Day Finals rematch, finishing with 29 points, nine rebounds and eight assists to lead the Heat past Durant (33 points, seven rebounds, three assists) and Westbrook (21 points, 11 assists) in a 103-97 showcase. Not a bad way to cap the most successful year of your professional career. (Well, to that point, anyway.)

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So, as you probably know, the Lakers’ planned efforts to combat Miami’s Big Three by assembling a Big Four — Kobe, Pau, Dwight Howard and Steve Nash — didn’t go super great. But even amid the chaos of a sub-.500 start to a season in which they were expected to dominate, coaching changes, in-fighting, injuries and downright bad basketball, the Lakers still had the wherewithal to take down a resurgent Carmelo Anthony-led Knicks team on Christmas Day of 2012. Kobe led the way with 34 points on 14-for-24 shooting, becoming the NBA’s all-time leading scorer on Christmas Day in the process; he’d finish his career with 395 points scored on Dec. 25, 18 more than Oscar Robertson.

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Listen, sometimes, things get real. It’s late on Christmas, after all the presents have been opened, with everyone stuffed from dinner and dessert, and maybe having had one too many glasses of Christmas cheer, and then some family member — oh, let’s call him Uncle George — starts talking a little reckless, and before you know it, furniture’s moving around and all that “merry merry” has been replaced by the kind of words you don’t often hear in Christmas carols. That’s what happened in the nightcap of the 2013 Christmas Day slate between the Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.

Two teams that already didn’t care for one another — recall, if you will, how Kent Bazemore and company roasted Blake Griffin from the Warriors’ bench, Andrew Bogut and DeAndre Jordan getting physical on the opening night of the 2013-14 season, Mark Jackson and Blake Griffin getting into it on the sideline, the refusal to share pre-game chapel services, etc. — saw their enmity evolve under the watchful eye of St. Nick, thanks to some in-game beefing between Griffin and Bogut that resulted in Griffin’s ejection (some soft-serve business over which the NBA later admitted wrongdoing), and some post-game scuffling headlined by Bogut, Chris Paul, ever-willing-to-scrap Clipper wings Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson, and then-Warriors assistant coach (and current, um, Yahoo Sports Santa) Brian Scalabrine.

Lots of things have contributed to the growth of the Clippers-Warriors rivalry over the years. This one, though, ensured that members of the two organizations wouldn’t be sending one another Christmas cards any time soon.

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After four years together in South Florida, four straight trips to the NBA Finals and two NBA championships, LeBron and D-Wade once again met as rivals on Christmas Day 2014, following James’ decision to return to Cleveland in free agency. It was LeBron’s first game back in Miami after his exit, and Wade welcomed him with open arms … and then he opened fire.

The two dear friends, ex-teammates and once-and-future adversaries each put on a show for the crowd, as did James’ new sidekick, Kyrie Irving, who scored 25 points. But despite James scoring a team-high 30 on just 16 shots to go with eight assists and four rebounds, Wade carried the day, leading the way 31 points with five rebounds and five assists to spoil James’ return to Biscayne Bay with a 101-91 win.

With Kobe now retired, Wade stands as the NBA’s active scoring leader on Christmas Day, with 277 career points on Dec. 25. He’ll look to add to that total on Sunday, when his Chicago Bulls — and man, someday it won’t feel weird to me to think about “Dwyane Wade’s Chicago Bulls,” but today ain’t that day — take on the San Antonio Spurs in Texas in the third of the day’s five games.

James, for his part, has 270 career Christmas Day points, meaning overtaking his good friend isn’t out of the question. To do so, though, he might have to put up a crooked number against the Warriors — which, to be fair, he probably still remembers how to do — as he looks to earn a Christmas victory for the first time in three years.

More from our NBA Season’s Greetings series:

The year’s most (and least) valuable free-agent signings

Power ranking this season’s 11 new head coaches

Winners and losers of the NBA’s season trades so far

The 2016 rookie class isn’t great, but it’s a product of the system

Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA awards ballots, so far

How to talk about the NBA, to those who haven’t been watching, on Christmas Day

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