A lot has changed since last Christmas, both in my life and in general. What hasn’t changed is the NBA’s tradition of Christmas Day games – and my need to make predictions. Last year, I was a brutal 1-4 with my holiday winners, but that was 2018. 2019 is a new year…filled with injuries that should guarantee me at least two victories.
Boston Celtics @ Toronto Raptors (12pm ET)
This is a battle of teams exceeding my expectations thus far. Boston got off to a hot start to the year; though they’ve cooled off, they still find themselves third in the Eastern Conference. Kemba is leading this team better than Kyrie ever could, Jaylen Brown is proving he’s worth his huge contract extension, Jayson Tatum has become more efficient, and Gordon Hayward has played very well when healthy. I thought the Raptors would be struggling at this point and contemplating trading away Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol. Instead, they are a half game out of the fourth seed and should only climb as they get healthier. Pascal Siakam has his name in both the Most Improved Player and Most Valuable Player conversations, Fred VanVleet was playing at an All-Star level before getting injured, and the team’s immense depth is on display every night.
When these two teams clashed during Opening Week, the Celtics won 112-106 at TD Garden. Both of these teams rely heavily on their perimeter play and team defense to win games. Boston has more talent, but Toronto is the deeper team. Much like the first game, I anticipate this will be a close game. In the end, I think the Raptors will ultimately pull out this victory. Outside Siakam’s slump a couple of weeks ago, they’ve been virtually unbeatable at home. Also, Scotiabank Arena will be alive with the team hosting a Christmas Day game for the first time.
Raptors beat Celtics 108-103
Milwaukee Bucks @ Philadelphia 76ers (2:30pm ET)
People who anticipated these two teams would be atop the Eastern Conference have been proven correct thus far. Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have managed to improve from their last campaign; the Greek Freak has established himself as the MVP frontrunner, seeing increases in nearly every statistical category, and the Bucks have an amazing 24-4 record, good for second in the league. The 76ers have had an up-and-down season, with many questioning stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Regardless, Embiid can be utterly dominant when he’s engaged and healthy, and Simmons is still an excellent player and he actually has a percentage from three-point range that isn’t 0%.
While I do think the Bucks are the better team, the 76ers do match up pretty well. Against most competition, Bucks players not named Giannis are able to knock down their open shots and defend at an elite level. However, the Luka Doncic-less Dallas Mavericks ended Milwaukee’s 18-game win streak by allowing Giannis to get his, but clamping on everyone else. The 76ers employed a similar strategy in their lone win against Milwaukee last season. Philadelphia is also the only team in the NBA to remain unbeaten at home, and Eric Bledsoe will likely miss this game with a fractured fibula. Everything is pointing towards the 76ers winning this game, but I find it hard to go against Giannis. I think even if Philly can limit his teammates, the Freak is just that dominant and should secure the W, handing Philly their first home loss.
Bucks beat 76ers 121-117
Houston Rockets @ Golden State Warriors (5pm ET)
When the schedule was released, we knew this game would not be an exact rematch of the Western Conference Semifinals. Kevin Durant took his talents and torn Achilles to the Brooklyn Nets, Klay Thompson would still be rehabbing is torn ACL, and many of the Warriors veterans have left the team. The Rockets exchanged Chris Paul for James Harden’s close friend and former teammate Russell Westbrook. I figured the Rockets would be a better team than the Warriors due to talent, and this was with Stephen Curry healthy. When Steph went out with a broken hand, so did any hopes for the Warriors season; they went from the best in the West to the worst in the league real quick. The Rockets have had their share of struggles this season, but at least their superstar player is, well, playing.
I don’t think this will be much of a contest. James Harden will likely drop another 50-piece, Russell Westbrook will have an inefficient triple-double, and those two alone might outscore the entire Warriors roster. There’s nothing Draymond Green, D’Angelo Russell, and the Dubs can do but receive this fat lump of coal. Merry Christmas, San Francisco.
Rockets beat Warriors 132-112
Los Angeles Clippers @ Los Angeles Lakers (8pm ET)
The first instalment of the Battle of L.A., while fun, left much to be desired. LeBron James was passive the whole game, AD was shut down in the second half, and neither the Lakers nor Clippers were playing at full strength. However, many were quick to say Kawhi Leonard had officially passed LeBron as the league’s best player after the game. Two months later, Round 2 of the Lakers vs Clippers battle is set to be a much more exciting matchup. The Clippers now have Paul George back, allowing the league’s two best duos to compete for the first time. The Lakers are surprising everyone by holding both a top-5 offense & defense on the backs of James (second in the MVP race) and Davis (Defensive Player of the Year frontrunner). Dwight Howard has played his role perfectly, adding to the Lakers’ length that can intimidate just about anyone.
Who wins the premier game of the day might ultimately come down to who is healthier. Lou Williams and Patrick Beverly are banged up, and Kyle Kuzma has missed the past few games with an ankle injury. However, assuming everyone is healthy, this will be another back and forth game, with neither team giving an inch. The Lakers have the size advantage with LeBron, AD, Howard, and Javale McGee, but the Clippers are gritty and deep. In the end, I suspect the Lakers will pull this one out “at home”. Sure, Kawhi and George will show their excellent two-way play, and the Clippers bench will be their usual selves. But I bet against LeBron last year with a lesser squad and they blew out the loaded Warriors; I’m not betting against the King this time around.
Lakers beat Clippers 116-110
New Orleans Pelicans @ Denver Nuggets (10:30pm ET)
When the NBA schedule was being made, this final Christmas Day game was supposed to be a collision of two young, exciting teams. The Nuggets, a year older, with the addition of Michael Porter Jr, were looking to improve from last year. The Pelicans received a haul from the Lakers in exchange for Anthony Davis; oh, they also happened to get the first overall pick in the draft to take some dude named Zion Williamson. The combination of this youth and veterans like Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick was supposed to make for a fun team that would challenge making the postseason. Neither team has exactly reached their full potential; the Nuggets have played much worse than their record states, and the Pelicans are without Zion and are the second worst team in the Western Conference.
Similar to the Rockets vs Warriors matchup, I don’t believe this will be much of a contest. Sure, the Pelicans might be scrappy and make things interesting in the early going. Yes, Nikola Jokic has fallen off from his MVP-caliber season last year and Jamal Murray hasn’t improved either. But the Nuggets are simply the better team, through and through. The Pelicans are currently on a 13-game losing streak; it may be stretched to 17 come Christmas Day.
Nuggets beat Pelicans 123-110