Brian Mahoney NEW YORK (AP) — 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.
— New York hosts 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-playoff teams who have acquired some of the best young talent in the league in recent drafts.
Christmas was once a kickoff 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 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 percent this season, with games averaging 1.9 million viewers, even before what figures to be the biggest numbers of the season.
ESPN said its audience is the second-highest it’s ever had at this point behind 2010-11, James’ first season in Miami, and Van Gundy said he’s 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 teams in San Antonio and Houston, and LeBron is still rolling.”
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’d 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:
— A tantalizing twosome that could’ve been a Big Three. Embiid and Simmons have the Sixers on the rise in their first year together, but imagine if Porzingis was there with them. The Knicks took the 7-foot-3 forward with the No. 4 pick in 2015, immediately after Philadelphia passed for the since-traded Jahlil Okafor.
— LeBron & KD — Enough said.
— Peace on Christmas? Maybe not in Boston, where the Celtics and Wizards renew a heated rivalry that only grew hotter after they went seven games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Toss in Kyrie Irving going against John Wall, and the plot thickens.
— Westbrook vs. Harden alone would have been a good gift, but it’s even better after Chris Paul joined Harden in Houston, and Paul George and Carmelo Anthony surrounded Westbrook in Oklahoma City.
— Christmas is for kids, and the Lakers have Ball and Brandon Ingram, the last two No. 2 picks, and the lesser-known Kuzma who might become the best of the bunch. The Wolves have their own youngsters in Towns and Andrew Wiggins, but it’s the acquisition of Jimmy Butler that could finally end the postseason drought that dates to 2004.
Teams win titles but stars are the stories on Christmas, as the Celtics know.
Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen had just departed when Brad Stevens arrived, and the NBA didn’t want the league’s most storied franchise without its superstars. So Boston was ignored for three years before finally getting back on the schedule last year, and now Irving, Jayson Tatum and these Celtics make history as the first to be home for the holiday.
“I understand that it’s probably not everybody’s favorite event, people that bust their tail and work in the arenas and are there all the time, and maybe media and everybody else,” Stevens said. “But to be a player or coach on Christmas Day, it’s pretty special and I think it’s something that having not been there, our first couple of years, I don’t take for granted that we’re on that schedule, for sure.”
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