With a full slate of Christmas Day games set to tip off a mere 75 days after the Lakers won the title, the NBA apparently earned itself a spot on Santa’s “nice” list. The holiday tradition is one that Adam Silver was loath to see tossed on 2020’s flaming Yule Log of disruptions, and in preserving the Christmas quintet, the commissioner may have helped bring a sense of continuity to a new season that is sure to be dogged by uncertainty.
Given the erosion of sports TV ratings and the ongoing defection of younger fans from the traditional media ecosystem, the turnout for this year’s Dec. 25 slate is likely to be relatively subdued. Still, there is much for Disney and its advertisers to look forward to, as the Ghost of Basketball Present prepares to suit up on his home court in what may very well prove to be the highest-rated game of the regular season. Here’s how the five NBA broadcasts should fare while you’re sweeping up pine needles and studiously ignoring the tinsel glinting merrily from under the shade of the dog’s tail:
New Orleans Pelicans at Miami Heat, ESPN (noon ET)
If his knees hold up, Zion Williamson is on track to transform into the Abominable Snowmonster of the South. The ferocity of the 20-year-old power forward’s dunks alone should make him the point around which the NBA markets itself to the Gen Z crowd, and Bam Adebayo and an undersized Moe Harkless will have eggnog all over their faces if they can’t contain the wunderkind. The noon opener provides a nice diversion from TBS’s relentless daylong A Christmas Story marathon, but the early tip and seemingly inexhaustible banquet of basketball that lies ahead will conspire to make this the second lowest-rated contest of the day. Prediction: It’s getting so you can’t even wish someone a Happy Honda Days without them getting all bent out of shape. 3.27 million viewers, Heat by 7.
Golden State Warriors at Milwaukee Bucks, ABC (2:30 p.m. ET)
Steph Curry’s comeback bid got off on the wrong foot Tuesday night, as the Dubs got roughed up in Brooklyn 125-99. Curry put up 20 points and 10 assists in the losing effort against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, but if the Warriors are to return to the postseason, their sharpshooter is going to need an awful lot of help from his supporting cast. (A bright spot in an otherwise gloomy loss was rookie center James Wiseman, who scored 19 points and hauled in six boards.) Curry enters the season as a standalone Splash Brother, with Klay Thompson out for the duration with an Achilles tear that’s left him hobbling around like a not-so-tiny Tiny Tim; meanwhile, the disappointing Bucks are nine-point home favorites. Prediction: Thanks for the recycled gift certificate for the restaurant, Nonna. This will come in handy if restaurants are ever a thing again. 5.84 million viewers, Bucks by 12.
Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics, ABC (5 p.m. ET)
What we wouldn’t do to be able to watch this one with our phoneme-torturing, consonant-swallowing cousins, one of whom was arrested in 1995 for trying to fix a high school basketball game. Since the Knicks aren’t good enough to participate in any sort of meaningful rivalry, this will do nicely to fill the gap in the enduring, slightly one-sided Boston-NYC hatefest. Regional antagonisms and major market representation aside, the Nets-Celts in-betweener promises to be a real banger, and for many who don’t reside within the bounds of the Corridor of Comical Accents, this will be their first chance to see KD and Kyrie take on Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Prediction: Parties unknown have placed a Boba Fett action figure in the crèche. 6.78 million viewers, Nets by 1, at the buzzer.
Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers, ABC/ESPN (8 p.m. ET)
Having appeared in seven of the top 10 highest-rated NBA Christmas games, LeBron James serves as the presiding spirit of the league’s holiday juggernaut. Over the course of his 14 Xmas performances, LeBron has averaged a record 25.8 points per game, plus 6.9 assists and 7.7 boards. Give him another year and he’ll tie Kobe Bryant for the most Yuletide appearances (16); head-to-head, LeBron has a 2-0 lifetime advantage over Kobe’s Lakers, prevailing by 15 points in 2009 with Cleveland and 16 in 2010 as a member of the Heat. (That’s in keeping with history’s grand sweep, as LeBron was 16-6 all-time versus Kobe.) All that is in the past, of course, and while this is Friday’s Main Event, it’s OK to expect a far-from-crisp showing from either team, given the circumstances. Usually NBA squads have a good 30+ games under their belts by the time Dec. 25 rolls around; this year it’ll be one. Prediction: What’s this “if only in my dreams” nonsense? You want us to set you a place at the table or not? 8.02 million viewers, Lakers by 3.
Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets, ESPN (10:30 p.m. ET)
This is when the liquor ads will really start pouring in, although fans on the West Coast may very well be the only consumers around to bear witness to the Noel booze barrage. Last year’s Christmas slate was positively awash in beer and liquor, as the likes of Heineken, Corona Extra, Grey Goose, Budweiser, Hennessy, Patron, Jameson and Crown Royal all bellied up to the bar in a bid to chat up the NBA’s festive fan base. Given the state of the movie studio category, this year should be even more bibulous. While the last game on the Christmas docket has been the lowest-rated in four of the last five years—an occupational hazard, given that 48% of all TV homes are situated in the Eastern time zone—you’re going to wake up on the 26th wishing you hadn’t hit the rack in the second quarter. Prediction: He’s your dog—you pull out the tinsel. 1.89 million viewers, Clippers by 2 in OT.