The expectations are always high for the N.B.A.’s Christmas Day games, and the schedule-makers have an unenviable task in deciding which ones will be relevant with more than half the regular season left.
This year’s collection of games is hit-and-miss. Two of the five could be Eastern and Western Conference finals previews, while two others seem likely to be blowouts.
Either way, it will be more than 12 hours of action, and by the end there will be a few teams holding serious bragging rights.
Clippers at Lakers, 8 p.m., ABC
Point to the Lakers’ soft schedule all you want, but the fact remains that LeBron James and Anthony Davis form one of the most potent combinations in N.B.A. history. James has stayed true to his word, letting Davis be the top option on offense, and that has led to a somewhat absurd statistic for James: In his 17th season, he is leading the league in assists per game for the first time.
The Clippers have a far more varied approach. The main players are always going to be Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, but Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are both averaging 19 points a game off the bench, never letting their opponents catch their breath.
Trying to glean anything from the Clippers’ 112-102 win over the Lakers on Oct. 22 would be unwise, as George missed that game and the Lakers had yet to refine their rotation into the powerhouse it is today.
There is little question that the Clippers are a deeper team, one that can beat an opponent in a greater variety of ways than their crosstown rivals can. But the Lakers are currently the No. 1 seed for a reason, and the star power of James and Davis, combined with the rim protection of JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard, makes this game anyone’s guess.
At this point, though, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have proved everything they can during the regular season, and they will need to get to an N.B.A. finals to take the next step. That will most likely require getting through Philadelphia. Though the 76ers are still seeking an offensive identity, they are so big and so talented that they have managed to be a top-five team in the East despite having somewhat disappointed so far.
Typically blessed with an enormous height advantage, the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo will be dealing with a 76ers team that can throw Al Horford (6-10) and Joel Embiid (7 feet) at him on both ends of the court. The Bucks are one of the three most efficient teams in the N.B.A. in both offense and defense, and have won 21 of their last 22 games, but playing in Philadelphia could turn this matchup into an interesting battle.
Celtics at Raptors, Noon, ESPN
Boston lost Kyrie Irving and Al Horford in the off-season, and Toronto lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — yet in terms of regular season success, neither team has seen a drop-off. The Celtics have three more wins through 27 games than they did last year, while the Raptors are only one win off last year’s pace.
How has that worked? For Boston, it has been about sharing the load. The trio of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker (who effectively replaced Irving) have combined to average 64 points, 18.2 rebounds and 10.6 assists a game, which has helped offset the time Gordon Hayward has lost to injury.
For Toronto, a major leap in productivity from both Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, with the continued excellence of Kyle Lowry, has created a well-balanced team that has not yet seemed to miss Leonard.
This, however, is a game in which Toronto could use a superstar. Siakam is out with a groin injury, VanVleet’s health is unclear, and Marc Gasol could be out for several weeks with a severe hamstring injury. That leaves the Raptors remarkably short-handed against a Celtics team that is deep even without Hayward. Toronto is tenacious, regardless of who plays for them, but a win in this game is unlikely.
Rockets at Warriors, 5 p.m., ABC
It is easy to see why the N.B.A. might have assumed this would be a Christmas-worthy game; instead it is a good argument for the league to be able to flex its schedule and move one of these matchups to another day.
The Warriors’ loss of Kevin Durant through free agency was a foregone conclusion, but Golden State, which eliminated Houston from the playoffs in four of the last five postseasons, is also missing Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, both of whom are out indefinitely with injuries. That has left the Warriors (6-24) often looking like a glorified G League team, while the Rockets (20-9), thanks to sensational play from James Harden, have the third-best record in the West.
If Houston thinks a blowout win against Draymond Green, D’Angelo Russell and a bunch of minimum-salary players would exact some revenge for recent playoff failures, it should not be all that hard to obtain.
Pelicans at Nuggets, 10:30 p.m. ESPN
This game was undoubtedly chosen to showcase the Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson against a contender, but Williamson’s knee injury in the preseason scuttled that plan. That leaves a comical mismatch between the second-best and second-worst teams in the West.
New Orleans (7-23) beat Denver (20-8) on Halloween thanks to big performances from Brandon Ingram and Jahlil Okafor, earning the Pelicans’ first win of the season. Since then they have lost 14 of their last 15 games, so expecting another upset against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets would be unwise.
All times are Eastern.