Christmas Day Matchups
August 14, 2014
By Tony Mejia
The Indiana Pacers didn't play on Christmas last season, so they weren't necessarily slighted by the NBA, but there's no question that only the league's most marketable teams make the cut to be showcased as presents for the viewing public.
Losing Paul George to injury and Lance Stephenson to free agency took the Pacers out of the running, but two new ones did make the holiday cut, as eight of the 10 teams that played last December 25 return to the card. Houston and Brooklyn will get to spend the day with family after participating in 2013.
LeBron James' Cavs were a no-brainer as one of the new additions, seeing the King return to South Florida for a warmer holiday than he'd otherwise enjoy in Northeast Ohio. The reception he'll get from Heat fans is likely to be icy, but watching him suit up in a visiting uniform is certain to deliver the day's highest ratings.
The other franchise to land a seat at the cool table are the Washington Wizards, who open the Christmas festivities at Madison Square Garden for a noon start. A rising backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal clearly has the league excited about a team that won a playoff series for the first time since 2005 and advanced past the first round for only the second time in 32 years.
Sportsbook.ag already has lines out on these games, so we'll take an admittedly early closer look at what might be in store when these Thursday contests are unwrapped.
Washington (+1.5) at New York, 12 p.m. ET
These teams squared off only three times a year ago, and two of them were one-point games, so hopefully we get a more competitive holiday opener than last year. The Bulls embarrassed the Nets at Barclays Center, 95-78 before OKC hung a 123-94 blowout on these Knicks, but there is renewed hope that things will be different this time around for an Knicks' squad that will also be showcased in the season's opening week as the first opponent for both Derrick Rose's Bulls and James' Cavs, in Cleveland. Carmelo Anthony has a new point guard in Jose Calderon and new head coach in Derek Fisher. Sadly, neither can stay in front of Wall, with the new head coach likely having the better shot of doing so. The Knicks will have three days between games, however, giving them a slight edge since Washington will come off a Tuesday home date with the Bulls.
Oklahoma City (+5) at San Antonio, 2:30 p.m. ET
The Thunder won all four regular season games against the eventual NBA champs before being dispatched in the Western Conference finals, 4-2. The Spurs beat OKC in San Antonio by a combined 80 points in their three home victories in that series, so it will be interesting to see if there is any carryover effect since this will be the first meeting of the season between the squads. The early line presents a great dilemma for bettors since reigning MVP Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka typically presents so many matchup problems for the Spurs, but it should be noted that Gregg Popovich obviously figured some things out this past May. Rest shouldn't be an issue, as San Antonio will have a few days to get prepared after hosting the Clippers that Monday, December 22.
Cleveland (-3) at Miami, 5 p.m. ET
Beyond the morbid curiosity of just how chilly LeBron's reception will be, the game itself promises to be terrific if everyone is healthy. Luol Deng was called one of the most important signings in Heat history by Pat Riley for a reason, since his ability to fill James' sneakers and match up with the game's best player will be essential to remaining atop the Eastern Conference. The NBA got this one right by not scheduling any meetings prior to this one, securing a full dose of drama if all the main protagonists are healthy. The Heat and Cavs will also square off on February 11, March 16 and April 2. Given all the vitriol expected in Miami, not to mention the competitive drive of one Dwyane Wade, it wouldn't be surprising to see this closer to a pick'em when the time comes.
L.A. Lakers (+8.5) at Chicago, 8 p.m. ET
The presence of Kobe Bryant gets the Lakers another holiday game despite the fact they're the only team participating expected to be a non-playoff team. L.A. hosted the Heat last year and hung in there, losing 101-95 despite Bryant being on the sidelines for a Christmas game for the first time in 16 seasons. Hopefully he and Rose are healthy this time around, driving up a watchability factor that should also be aided by Pau Gasol and Carlos Boozer squaring off against ex-teammates. The Lakers will be in the midst of a difficult stretch that sees them host Golden State that Tuesday before heading to Chicago, departing for Dallas post-game for a Friday night meeting with the rested Mavericks.
Golden State (+2.5) at L.A. Clippers, 10:30 p.m. ET
Blake Griffin got thrown out at Oracle Arena last Christmas, picking up technicals for incidents with Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut, who should both be back to exchange season's greetings with their favorite Clipper. Stephen Curry and Chris Paul put on a memorable show down the stretch as the Warriors hung on for a 105-103 win that whet the appetite for a brilliant first round series that saw L.A. advance in spite of the Donald Sterling controversy. Mark Jackson was let go, replaced by Steve Kerr, who will get his first taste of this rivalry in Oakland on November 5. This contest will be the first of a nine-game homestand for Doc Rivers' team, while Golden State will play at Staples Center in consecutive games since they're matched up with the Lakers on December 23.
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