We’re a little past the quarter mark in the NBA regular season and things are…a little weird. The Nuggets and Clippers lead the Western Conference, the Warriors have nine losses as we begin December and the Rockets are 11-12. The Sacramento Kings have a better record than the San Antonio Spurs, but each can still make the playoffs as West teams are bunched together insanely closely.
In the East, the Toronto Raptors have emerged as the NBA’s dominant team thus far, and the Boston Celtics are off to a relatively pedestrian 13-10 start. Who would’ve guessed that the Detroit Pistons would be 4th in the East and the Washington Wizards would be 9th?
With that in mind, here are 10 matchups including those on the NBA’s signature Christmas Day slate that you need to watch as college football bowl games get boring and the calendar turns from 2018 to 2019.
Wednesday, December 5
Philadelphia @ Toronto, 8 p.m., ESPN
Not only are the Raptors 20-5 with Kawhi Leonard re-asserting himself as one of the top five to 10 players in the league, but ESPN is also going all-in on the team with Toronto All-Access, There’s going to be team-related coverage all day, Adrian Wojnarowski, Zach Lowe and new ESPN reporter Tim Bontemps are going to be on-site and Mike Breen, Doris Burke, and Tom Rinaldi will call the actual game. Oh, and the Sixers are pretty damn good themselves, with Jimmy Butler providing a needed spark and Joel Embiid playing at an MVP level.
Friday, December 7
Golden State @ Milwaukee, 8 p.m., ESPN
The Warriors didn’t lose their 9th game until Jan. 10 last season, and are “struggling” in part due to injuries to Stephen Curry and Draymond Green along with— possibly— the team being in regular season “chill mode” more than in previous years. But they’re still the Warriors, and a potential matchup between Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo should be amazing to watch.
Tuesday, December 11
Toronto @ L.A. Clippers, 10:30 p.m., NBATV
The biggest surprise this season so far has easily been the Clips, who are 4th in the league in offensive efficiency led by a balanced roster of really good, non-superstar players like Tobias Harris, Danilo Gallinari, Lou Williams, and an emerging Montrezl Harrell. How they’ll fare against Toronto, third in offense and 8th in defense, will be an interesting test for L.A.
Wednesday, December 12
Toronto @ Golden State, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
According to Basketball-Reference’s Strength Of Schedule metric, the Raptors have had the 6th-easiest regular season slate to date. In just the next two weeks alone, Toronto will have games against Philadelphia, Milwaukee, the Clippers, Portland, Denver and this re-match against the Warriors. Their game Thursday was an incredible game to watch, with Golden State making a comeback only to lose in OT.
Assuming all the Warriors stars are healthy, that will change the dynamic of things, but Toronto has the depth this year that Golden State lacks, plus a slew of players who can switch and guard multiple positions, a major key in defending against the Dubs. As was the case last week, this game cannot be missed.
Thursday, December 13
L.A. Lakers @ Houston, 8 p.m., TNT
All things considered, things are going pretty well for LeBron and the Lakers. They’re 5th in the West, have the 7th best defense in terms of efficiency and things have settled down since a 4-6 start that led to rumors about the uncertain job status of head coach Luke Walton.
The Rockets have rebounded from a 1-5 and a 4-7 start despite being an abnormally poor 23rd in 3-point field goal percentage and 25th in defensive efficiency. The most abnormal aspect of the Rockets is their pace, which is down to 29th in possessions per 48 minutes, second-slowest in the NBA. But they’re back to a positive point differential, barely, and are on the right track. Assuming Houston shapes up, this matchup could easily be a playoff preview.
Friday, December 14
Oklahoma City @ Denver, 10 p.m., ESPN
An even bigger surprise than the Nuggets being in first place in the West is their defense, second in points allowed per game and 4th in defensive efficiency after being 22nd and 25th in those categories last season. After yet another statement win for Denver on Monday, this time in Toronto, the Nuggets lead the league in 3-point field goal defense, limiting opponents to 31 percent from three. And OKC is right behind them, in the standings and on defense, which is first in efficiency and 4th in points allowed. Not playing Carmelo Anthony significant minutes can do wonders for your defense. This game will be a strong showcase of two teams that have greatly improved defensively in a league more tilted toward 3-pointers and offense than it has been in a long time.
Tuesday, December 25
Philadelphia @ Boston, 5:30 p.m., ABC
The third of five Christmas Day games is a rematch from opening night when the Celtics won by 18 at home and Boston wing Jaylen Brown was straight-up disrespectful to Embiid, with the Kevin Harlan call to match.
JAYLEN. BROWN. pic.twitter.com/RrfZXoV2H6
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) October 17, 2018
Both teams have gone through ups and downs since then, from Markelle Fultz’s struggles and the Jimmy Butler trade for the Sixers, to the Celts’ offensive struggles and some trouble for head coach Brad Stevens in finding the right lineups and rotations. There is definitely no love lost between these two teams, which should make this holiday clash extremely exciting.
L.A. Lakers @ Golden State, 8 p.m., ABC
LeBron James’ first regular season game against the Warriors as a member of the Lakers will be an odd quasi NBA Finals rematch. But like the last two NBA Finals that Golden State won handily, will LeBron get enough help to be competitive? It will be the first game on a truly transcendent stage for some of James’ youngest teammates, and the big storyline will be whether LeBron’s new supporting cast can help them contend this season, or will the team just be biding its time for next summer’s free agency extravaganza.
Thursday, December 27
Boston @ Houston, 8 p.m., TNT
Despite both teams’ underwhelming starts, the game is still full of some really interesting individual matchups, none moreso than the point guard battle between Kyrie Irving and Chris Paul. Who will stop James Harden on the Celtics? Perhaps defensive bulldogs Terry Rozier and Marcus Smart? And with Houston’s diminished defense thus far, can it put the clamps on Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward?
Friday, December 28
L.A. Clippers @ L.A. Lakers, 10:30 p.m., ESPN
It’s been six seasons since both Los Angeles franchises finished above .500 in the same year, and the first regular season meeting between these rivals should be spicy. The Lakers rightfully grabbed the early season headlines, and the return to having this feeling of manifest destiny among its fan base returned in full force. But it’s the Clippers who are off to the superior start despite big brother’s splashy moves, making this Staples Center clash all the more appealing.