Sun | Mar 18, 2018

At Christmas, NBA shows off its best

Published:Saturday | December 23, 2017 | 12:00 AM
AP In this June 9, 2017 file photo, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) drives on Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) during the second half of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals in Cleveland.
AP In this Dececember 9, 2016, file photo, Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) is defended by Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook on a drive to the basket during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Oklahoma City.


There's LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Golden State against Cleveland for fans wanting more of the NBA's reigning rivalry.

For those preferring something new, the league's Christmas Day schedule has that, too.

It's a star-studded slate, with the NBA Finals rematch standing out among the top teams and power players.

The league is driven by star power, and the NBA is going all-in this year. The schedule is about the best players, not all the best teams.

And with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Kristaps Porzingis starting the day, and Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma and Karl-Anthony Towns finishing it, this year's showcase is as much about the guys who got next on the marquee as the ones on top already.

"They're doing it for talent. You have the talent and the marketable players, so I understand why they're picking those teams," said Sacramento veteran Vince Carter.

The schedule:

• New York host Philadelphia, getting its first Christmas game since 2001.

• The Warriors welcome the Cavaliers back to the place where they finished them off in Game 5 in June for their second championship in three years.

• Washington at Boston in the Celtics' first home game on Christmas.

• Oklahoma City against Houston, a matchup of MVP Russell Westbrook and runner-up James Harden.

• Minnesota visiting the Lakers, two non-play-off teams who have acquired some of the best young talent in the league in recent drafts.

Christmas was once a kick-off of sorts for the NBA, the first time a national audience paid attention to basketball with the football season winding down. ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who will work the Cavs-Warriors game, was among those who had said that the NBA should consider starting its season at Christmas to get out from under the NFL's shadow.

Now, it's a celebration of the success the league is already enjoying. Combined viewership on ESPN and TNT is up 21 per cent this season, with games averaging 1.9 million viewers, even before what figures to be the biggest numbers of the season.

ESPN said that its audience is the second-highest it has ever had at this point behind 2010-11, James' first season in Miami, and Van Gundy said he was even a little surprised.

"I don't know what it speaks to, but we do have a bunch of really good, young players," Van Gundy said. "We have a dynasty in the making in Golden State, we have a team trying to challenge them in their own conference, or a couple of teams in San Antonio and Houston, and LeBron is still rolling."

Christmas spirit

All of them but the Spurs are in action Monday.

As it often is with the NBA, Christmas is about the players more than the teams.

Carter was that kind of player who NBA fans couldn't get enough of early in his career before every game was on League Pass and highlights all over the Internet. He would have been the perfect player to get on Christmas, but the league only played two or three games back then, and his Toronto Raptors were only shown once.

"We were fun to watch," Carter said. "We wanted that opportunity."

Now this is the 10th straight year of five games on Christmas, and with a third of the league playing, room is there for just about everybody fans want to pile in front of their TVs to watch.

Well, almost everybody.

Van Gundy was hoping for the Milwaukee Bucks and their gravity-ignoring Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

"They should just film a scrimmage of theirs then because Giannis is so good that he deserves to have publicity on Christmas Day," Van Gundy said.

Maybe next year.

As for this year, the holiday hoops smorgasbord includes something old, something new, and a little something blue.