NBA Christmas Day Games 2021: What to Know

The N.B.A. has long looked to Christmas Day as a highlight of the young season, a made-for-TV spectacle that brings together many of the best teams and best players for a daylong extravaganza of basketball fireworks.

This year? Not exactly.

Dozens of players have been cycling through the N.B.A.’s coronavirus health and safety protocols in recent days, forcing teams to improvise by signing scores of replacement players to 10-day contracts. So if you’re expecting to see Kevin Durant lead the Nets into their game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, you’ll be disappointed: On Friday, Durant remained in the protocols. But fans should be able to catch the surprise return of Joe Johnson, whom the Boston Celtics signed on Wednesday to shore up their own battered roster — the same Joe Johnson who is now 40 and had last appeared on an N.B.A. court in 2018.

The pandemic has wrought havoc on the holiday season, and the N.B.A. has not been immune. The league even issued a memo this week to the teams scheduled to play on Saturday that their tip times could be tweaked if any of the prime-time games are postponed. (The Nets, for example, have already had three games scuttled over the past week because of low roster numbers.)

For now, and keep in mind that this is subject to change, here is a look at the five games penciled in for Saturday:

All times Eastern.

The matchup looked like it would start a rivalry between two up-and-coming teams on their way to the Eastern Conference’s elite.

For this matchup, the Nets, who are in first place in the Eastern Conference, are taking on a Lakers team fighting just to stay in the conversation to make the playoffs.

The Lakers’ supporting cast around James and Davis, thus far, has proved to be ill-fitting, and the roster has dealt with a scourge of injuries. Russell Westbrook, the Lakers’ most high-profile off-season addition, has struggled at times. James is putting up exceptional numbers for a 36-year-old, but appears to be finally slowing down: He’s more reliant on his jumper than ever before, averaging a career high in 3-point attempts per game, and a career low in free-throw attempts per game. James is still one of the best players in the league, but it’s not apparent that he can carry an offense by himself like he used to.

With the Nets slated to be without so many key players, this should have been marked as an easy win for a James-led team. But not this year. These Lakers, even at full strength, are mediocre and prone to coast through games. Right now, it’s a tossup.

What’s regular-season dominance without playoff success? The Utah Jazz found themselves confronting that question last season when they finished the regular season with the best record in the N.B.A., but only reached the second round of the playoffs.

That’s meant so far this season their game-to-game focus is on not just their early wins and losses, but on what lessons they can take into the postseason.

“If you’re perfect in November, no one’s going to care come playoff time,” Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell said.

Mitchell has led the Jazz offense with more than 25 points per game, while Bojan Bogdanovic and Jordan Clarkson, the league’s reigning sixth man of the year, have also been important pieces.

Defensively they are led by Rudy Gobert, who is the league’s best with 15.1 rebounds per game and also contributes more than 2 blocks per game.

They’ll face a Mavericks team that has dealt with injuries all season, including to guard Luka Doncic, their best player, who is expected to miss this game because of the league’s health protocols.

Although Doncic leads the team with 25.6 points per game, the Mavericks are not dramatically different statistically when he’s on the court. But they are more fun to watch. If Doncic misses the Christmas Day game, a Dallas team ravaged by the virus and injuries will have a tough time making a game against the Jazz interesting.

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