Christmas Day has long been when the NBA showcases its best matchups and marquee players, and this year is no different. The day’s slate features no shortage of rising stars, former MVPs and MVP candidates, and, or course, rivalries.
Philadelphia 76ers at New York Knicks, noon ET, ESPN
Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics, 5:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Houston Rockets at Oklahoma City Thunder, 8 p.m. ET, ABC
Minnesota Timberwolves at Los Angeles Lakers, 10:30 p.m. ET, TNT
With that all-day basketball party looming, here’s a look back at some of greatest Christmas Day moments since 2000.
Christmas Day 2000 saw a team that had suffered a brutal loss several months earlier serve up a helping of revenge against the opponent who broke its 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.
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 goodwill toward man. Let’s instead focus on how monstrous T-Mac was when he was in working order and cooking.
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-of-29 shooting, a 5-of-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.
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.
The Heat won 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.
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.
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.
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 undoubtedly the star at the top of the tree.
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 in 2010: the defending NBA champion Lakers squaring off against the NBA’s newly formed monster, the LeBron-Wade-Chris Bosh 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 …
… 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.
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 outdueled the Thunder in a 2012 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.)
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 2012. Kobe led the way with 34 points on 14-of-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.
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.
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, once-and-future adversaries, and, again, future teammates 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 with 31 points with five rebounds and five assists to spoil James’ return to Biscayne Bay with a 101-91 win.
Kyrie Irving did it again. After breaking the Golden State Warriors’ hearts with his game-winner in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in June, Irving went for seconds on Christmas Day. He hit the game-winning shot over Klay Thompson with 3.4 second remaining to give the Cleveland Cavaliers a 109-108 victory at Quicken Loans Arena. “The kid is special,” LeBron James told reporters about his Cavs teammate. “It was never in doubt.”
The Warriors, still smarting from blowing a 3-1 Finals lead, referred to the loss as a “gift.” Golden State led by 16 at one point and by as much as 14 at 94-80 early in the fourth quarter. Over the final 9:30, the Cavs outscored the Warriors 29-14, scoring 10 points off six turnovers and shooting 12-of-20 from the field, including the game-winner.
Irving finished with 25 points, 10 assists, seven steals and six rebounds, with James adding 31 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.
Little did we know how things would change a mere seven months later, when Irving would demand a trade and eventually end up with the Boston Celtics. But for one last Christmas, all was right with Kyrie in Cleveland.
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