NBA’s Christmas slate features everything fans could ever want

NBA’s Christmas slate features everything fans could ever want

The Christmas Day lineup represents a referendum of sorts on the state of the NBA: Who are the players and teams — and subplot-rich pairings of teams — that fans care most about, in any given year?

The 2018 slate is naturally full of star power: It features the five most recent MVPs, covering the past seven seasons and nine of the past 10 (hi, Derrick Rose!). The annual Warriors-versus-LeBron James showdown gets a purple-and-gold makeover. The new elites of the Eastern Conference are accounted for (including the Bucks, who have the noon opener against the Knicks, but not Kawhi Leonard’s league-leading Raptors). Gone are the disappointing Wizards and Timberwolves from last year’s menu, replaced by would-be dark horses from the Western Conference.

Here’s a guide to the four marquee matchups that follow the Knicks on Tuesday’s TV marathon:

Thunder at Rockets (3 p.m., ABC)

It’s perhaps a bit of role reversal to find the 21-11 Thunder, off a first-round postseason flameout, and Russell Westbook leaping distance of first place in the West, while the 17-15 Rockets — who were inches from dethroning the Warriors in May (what were the odds of those 27 straight bricked 3s, really?) — have just nosed into playoff position.

Year 2 of the Westbrook-Paul George connection is an evolved menace backed by the NBA’s second-ranked defense. The Rockets are recalibrating after offseason departures and the failed Carmelo Anthony experiment, even signing Chris Paul nemesis Austin Rivers for much-needed depth.

Matchup to watch: The point-guard showdown of former running mates Westbrook and James Harden is the easy answer. The center battle between underrated Steven Adams and Clint Capela is the hipster answer here.

76ers at Celtics (5:30 p.m., ABC)

This would be a blockbuster 4-5 first-round playoff matchup if the season ended on Christmas. Which would be silly! But it’s a sign of two heavily hyped squads still finding their bearings — the Sixers (22-12) after unplugging Markelle Fultz and swapping Robert Covington and Dario Saric for Jimmy Butler, the Celtics (19-13) after Brad Stevens’ halting efforts to find balance in a rotation with post-surgery stars Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward joining last spring’s playoff heroes Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown.

These are both iffy road teams. The Celtics are four-point favorites, mainly on the strength of home-court advantage.

Matchup to watch: The outrageous skill set of Philly’s Joel Embiid against the veteran craft of Boston’s Al Horford.

Lakers at Warriors (8 p.m., ABC and ESPN)

James deflected attention from the renewal of the NBA’s most glorious player-team rivalry with a busy week of maybe-tampering with Anthony Davis, decrying the “slave mentality” of NFL owners and propagating anti-Semitic stereotypes.

But here we are: The King brings his “normal” 27-8-7 statistical averages into Oakland for the Lakers (19-14) with Kyle Kuzma, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball in lieu of the familiar Cavs crew of Kevin Love, J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson. The Warriors (23-11) are winners of eight of their past 10 as they move past the Kevin Durant-Draymond Green fireworks and Stephen Curry’s groin injury. And DeMarcus Cousins is just days away.

Matchup to watch: Don’t overthink it: LeBron vs. Durant.

Trail Blazers at Jazz (10:30 p.m., ESPN)

The spot occupied by the underachieving Jazz (11th place in the West at 16-18) rightfully belongs to the Nuggets, who own the West’s best winning percentage. Still, this nightcap offers a pleasing stylistic clash between the Trail Blazers’ top-10 offense, led by an in-his-prime Damian Lillard (27.1 points per game), and the Jazz’s top-10 defense, anchored by Rudy Gobert. The Blazers (19-14) lost to the Jazz by 30 on Friday; don’t count on another blowout.

Matchup to watch: Lillard against sophomore-slumping combo guard Donovan Mitchell, shooting a woeful 29 percent on 3-pointers.

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