Top Storylines for 2022 NBA Christmas Day Matchups
If early wake-up calls, piles of gifts and plates full of food aren't enough excitement for you, the NBA is once again providing an escape.
We have another loaded slate of action this Christmas Day, with Joel Embiid, the New York Knicks, LeBron James, Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jayson Tatum, Ja Morant, the Stephen Curry-less Golden State Warriors, Devin Booker and Nikola Jokić on the docket.
There's plenty to talk about in all of the five matchups, but you'll find the top storyline for each below.
76ers at Knicks: Are the New York Knicks for Real?
A six-game winning streak has the Philadelphia 76ers back in (or at least hovering around) the Eastern Conference's contenders tier. And they have some of the most important ingredients featured in most NBA champions: a top-10 player (Joel Embiid), a star No. 2 option (James Harden) and a decent amount of shooting around them.
That's exactly why Philadelphia is suddenly a great measuring stick for its Atlantic Division foe, the New York Knicks, who won eight straight games earlier this month.
That run included quality wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers and Sacramento Kings, but half of them came against sub-.500 teams. And nothing in there will compare to the pressure of facing Embiid and Harden on Christmas Day.
If New York's defense remains stingy enough to get the win, and two or three of Julius Randle, Jalen Brunson, RJ Barrett or Quentin Grimes have a big game, it will be a lot easier to take the Knicks' long-term prospects seriously.
Lakers at Mavericks: LeBron v. Luka IX
LeBron James and Luka Dončić have faced each other eight times (including one Christmas Day game in 2020). The latter seems like the league's likeliest successor to the former's throne, and that's not just a nod to Dončić's production.
He's not the athlete LeBron was in his prime, but the 6'7", 230-pound Dončić is a similar size to the 6'9", 250-pound King, plays point forward and is as good as anyone at creating offense from scratch and spraying out to shooters on the perimeter.
It's why their matchups have been appointment viewing in the past and remain so this Christmas.
So far, James is 6-2 against Luka, and he's winning the individual statistical battle too.
But Luka has certainly closed the gap in recent years. And with Anthony Davis out because of a foot injury for the Los Angeles Lakers, Luka's Dallas Mavericks should be favored to win on Sunday.
If they do, and Dončić outplays his legendary predecessor, this has the potential to feel like another passing-of-the-torch moment.
Bucks at Celtics: Who Are the Kings of the East?
The Boston Celtics led the Eastern Conference for much of the season, but their offense has cratered in December, and the Milwaukee Bucks have ascended to first place.
Neither team has shown enough to this point to be confident it will finish at the top, so this matchup Sunday should be revealing.
If Boston breaks out of its slump against one of the league's best defenses, it'll be easier to trust its chances of getting back to the Finals.
If Giannis Antetokounmpo outplays Jayson Tatum in a Milwaukee win, some of the likely voters from ESPN's straw poll, which dubbed Tatum the MVP of the first third of the season, might feel a hint of regret.
Of course, there's a range of possible results that aren't either of the above. Whatever happens, we should know a little more about both teams.
Grizzlies at Warriors: Can the Warriors Survive Without Stephen Curry?
There isn't much to learn about the Memphis Grizzlies with this matchup. With Stephen Curry out, they should win pretty easily.
The more important storyline is what version of the Golden State Warriors might show up.
Since Curry left the rotation with a shoulder injury, Golden State is 1-3. The win came thanks largely to a 43-point outburst from Jordan Poole, but the Warriors followed that with back-to-back losses by a combined 68 points.
Adding a shellacking from the Grizzlies could raise some alarms for the Warriors, who are already outside the play-in tournament. If they slide much further down the standings during the indefinite timeline of Curry's absence, the reigning champions might be in danger of missing the playoffs altogether.
Suns at Nuggets: Has Denver Leapfrogged Phoenix
For much of 2020-21 and 2021-22, the Phoenix Suns were seen as the cream of the Western Conference's crop. They made the NBA Finals in 2021, shortly after the infamous "Suns in four" sweep of the Denver Nuggets. Then, in 2021-22, they had the best regular-season record in the league.
This season, Phoenix is still one of the league's better teams, but the squad it quickly dispatched in 2021 leads the Western Conference, has a two-time reigning MVP in Nikola Jokić, has Jamal Murray back (he wasn't available for the aforementioned playoff series against the Suns) and features a couple additions on the wing in Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown who should provide more defensive pressure against Devin Booker and Chris Paul.
Taking care of business at home against one of the game's stalwarts should help fans and analysts take the Nuggets more seriously as potential contenders.