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The best and most surprising Christmas Day matchups

What are the best NBA Christmas Day games this year?

The full 2019-20 NBA schedule will be revealed during The Jump on Monday (3 p.m. ET on ESPN), but we already have the matchups for the biggest day of the regular season.

The 2019 slate will feature plenty of star power and revamped rosters, including Anthony Davis and LeBron James vs. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard. The five games:

Los Angeles Lakers vs. LA Clippers

Houston Rockets @ Golden State Warriors

Milwaukee Bucks @ Philadelphia 76ers

Boston Celtics @ Toronto Raptors

New Orleans Pelicans @ Denver Nuggets

Our NBA experts answer the big questions about the five matchups, identify the biggest surprises and make bold predictions about the games and the teams involved.


Which Christmas Day game are you most excited to watch?

Tim Bontemps: Bucks-Sixers — and, to me, it isn’t close. While the Western Conference next season is going to be a dogfight, Milwaukee and Philadelphia are the massive favorites to finish atop the East. They appear destined for a showdown in the conference finals. Combine that with the fact that both teams have young superstars (Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee, and Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia) who could be playing against one another for years to come, and this could be the start of an annual Christmas tradition. Sign me up for that.

Bobby Marks: Pelicans-Nuggets. Understandably, everyone will be focused on Los Angeles, but I am taking one of the best teams in the West (Denver) versus Zion Williamson and a New Orleans squad that could contend for one of the final playoff spots.

Malika Andrews: The Battle of Los Angeles. This could be the first time we see the new-look Clippers take on the AD/LeBron Lakers. Just one game likely won’t dictate if the Clippers can become the new kings of L.A., but it will be fun nonetheless.

Kevin Pelton: Bucks-Sixers. Obviously, all eyes will be on the Staples Center co-tenants who will square off against each other. Given the depth of contenders in the West, however, I think it’s more likely that Milwaukee and Philadelphia will be a preview of a playoff series — specifically, the most likely outcome for the conference finals at this point. These teams played a thriller in April on TNT won by the Bucks, but the Raptors denied us a meeting in last year’s playoffs, so we haven’t seen them square off since.


Which of the 10 teams are you most surprised to see included?

Marks: Toronto. Despite winning the NBA championship last year, the inclusion of the Raptors feels a year late and almost like a makeup for previous Christmas Day omissions. Toronto should be a playoff team if the roster stays intact but certainly not one of the top 10 teams in the NBA — let alone top four in the East.

Pelton: Denver. The Pelicans are the odd team out, as they’re more likely to miss the playoffs than make them, according to Caesars Sportsbook. But we’ve seen star draft picks like Zion Williamson featured on the Christmas Day slate before. The first meeting between Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, for example, was scheduled for Christmas Day before Oden underwent season-ending microfracture knee surgery. Despite finishing second in the West during the 2018-19 regular season, I’m still a little surprised the Nuggets are being highlighted given their relatively small national footprint. This is clearly a bet Denver can maintain its lofty standing in a deeper West and on Nikola Jokic as a budding superstar.

Andrews: New Orleans, which has played on Christmas Day only three times and hasn’t made an appearance since 2015.

Bontemps: Probably the Raptors. Toronto deserves to make the slate after winning its first NBA championship, but given Kawhi’s departure, it wouldn’t have been a shock for the Raptors to have been left off. Still, it’s good to see the NBA reward Toronto for its title with the opportunity to play — and host — a game on Christmas Day. It is something fans of the franchise have wanted to happen for years, and now they’ll get their wish.

Which team is the most surprising exclusion?

Andrews: The Knicks will not play on Christmas Day for the first time since 2015, but that isn’t the most surprising New York team not scheduled to play on Dec. 25. Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets will not be spreading Christmas cheer — at least not in the form of a game. I expect Kevin Durant’s return to also mark the return of the Christmas Day Nets the following season.

Marks: Utah. I get that the Pelicans have the market appeal based on the Zion factor and Golden State has Stephen Curry, but excluding the Jazz does not add up. The Jazz played on Christmas last December with an inferior roster. They’ve made significant additions with Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic, plus they already have Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, yet they still missed the cut.

Pelton: Brooklyn. Even with KD on the sidelines, I would have guessed the combination of adding Kyrie Irving and being the marquee team in the Big Apple would have gotten the Nets on the Christmas schedule.

Bontemps: I’ll cheat a bit and say two teams — the New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets. Yes, Kevin Durant is injured, but it felt like Celtics-Nets — with Kyrie Irving making his return to Boston for the first time — was the kind of juicy game that would be saved for the Christmas Day slate. Instead, they were left out completely. And while the Knicks are all but certain to be among the NBA’s worst teams, that hasn’t stopped the league from force-feeding them to the viewing public. It’s good to see that the league is avoiding simply having big markets play on its marquee day.


Will the Lakers or Clippers have a better record on Christmas Day?

Pelton: I’ll put money on the Clippers. They’ve got more existing infrastructure in place with five of the seven players who saw at least 70 minutes of action in last year’s first-round series still on the roster, plus longtime head coach Doc Rivers. Given that, I think the integration of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard will go more smoothly than the Lakers trying to build chemistry from scratch under new coach Frank Vogel.

Bontemps: The Clippers. Yes, working in Leonard and George will take time, but the Clippers are starting the season ahead of the Lakers. Plus, it isn’t like the Lakers don’t have a host of things to sort out themselves (including figuring out who, exactly, is going to play defense). This will be a fun game, but I expect the Clippers to have the better record when these teams square off.

Marks: The Clippers. Even with Paul George likely missing parts of training camp as he nurses a torn left labrum, the addition of Leonard and the continuity factor with the rest of the roster give the Clippers the edge.

Andrews: I’m taking the Clippers as well.


What is your bold Christmas Day prediction?

Marks: That the team representing the Western Conference in the Finals — the Utah Jazz — will be sitting at home.

Andrews: If Giannis signs the supermax next summer, Milwaukee will be hosting in 2020 and he will be playing on Christmas Day for at least the next five years.

Pelton: Peace on Earth seems way too bold at this point, so I’ll settle for New Orleans having a better record than at least one other team in action.

Bontemps: That the next time the NBA won’t have a Christmas Day featuring Giannis Antetokounmpo will be in the 2030s. Yes, I know that’s a long way from now and leaves open plenty of time for an injury to change things. But given that Antetokounmpo seems poised to rule the NBA for the foreseeable future, my belief is he will be a featured guest on television sets around the world on Christmas for the next decade, at least.

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