PHOENIX SUNS

NBA teams don’t take selection to the Christmas slate for granted

Dec 24, 2023, 8:48 AM

The Suns take on the Mavericks to finish off the five-game Christmas Day schedule in the NBA. (Phot...

The Suns take on the Mavericks to finish off the five-game Christmas Day schedule in the NBA. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

MIAMI (AP) — Erik Spoelstra was part of 12 Christmas games as a staff member, assistant coach or head coach in his first 20 seasons with the Miami Heat.

And in the eight seasons that followed, the Heat played on Christmas only once.

Here’s what he realized: For an NBA team, playing on Christmas beats not playing on Christmas. The Heat return to the league’s holiday slate for the first time since 2020 on Monday, when they play host to the Philadelphia 76ers as part of the NBA’s traditional Christmas quintuple header.

The other games: Milwaukee at New York, Golden State visits defending champion Denver, Boston visits the Los Angeles Lakers in the rekindling of the NBA’s greatest all-time rivalry and Dallas goes to Phoenix.

“It is an honor to have that opportunity to play on Christmas,” Spoelstra said. “The whole league doesn’t play on the holiday and there were several years in a row where we were never even considered for playing on Christmas. And then you go back, you almost took it for granted that we were always playing on Christmas.”

Other teams also insist they don’t take it for granted.

Golden State playing on Christmas has become a holiday tradition; the Warriors are on the Dec. 25 schedule for the 13th time in the last 14 years. And Warriors guard Stephen Curry still gets excited about what awaits.

“Marquee games on Christmas, it’s going to be a great atmosphere,” Curry said. “You know, we’ve been in that environment before, so I understand what it’s going to be like. On the road, it’s going to be fun to just compete. It’s a test.”

The Christmas slate was long considered the unofficial point in the NBA schedule where more fans start paying attention. Football is winding down, and the NBA games are all shown nationally either on ABC or ESPN.

LeBron James will pay attention, too — but not until certain other Christmas business is complete. The NBA’s all-time leading scorer has played more games on Dec. 25 than anyone in league history, though his top priority entering the holiday is watching 9-year-old daughter Zhuri light up when she rips the wrapping paper off what’s coming her way.

“The only thing I care about Monday right now is my daughter waking up and opening her gifts,” James said Saturday after he and the Los Angeles Lakers beat Oklahoma City.

The Heat planned a short practice for Christmas Eve morning. They were getting most of Sunday off, along with Christmas morning. Players aren’t due at the arena until Monday afternoon for the game, with Spoelstra trying to make sure everyone gets time to celebrate as they wish.

“These are a bunch of wins,” Spoelstra said, “but we’ve just got to make sure we get the win.”

MOST AND LEAST

The Lakers have the most Christmas wins with 24, one more than the Knicks. The Knicks will play on Christmas for the 56th time, extending their record.

The teams without a Christmas win are Charlotte (0-0), Memphis (0-1) and Toronto (0-2).

James will aim for his 11th win on Christmas, which would break a tie with former teammate Dwyane Wade for the most by a player in NBA history. James will play in his 18th Christmas game, extending his record; Kobe Bryant played in 16 for the league’s second-highest total.

Among active players, Kevin Durant has the second most and is set to play on Christmas for the 11th time when the Suns meet the Mavericks.

Spoelstra — who is 8-0 as a head coach on the holiday — will try to become the fifth coach with nine Christmas wins. He would join Jack Ramsay (11-3), Phil Jackson (11-7), Gene Shue (9-4) and Red Auerbach (9-6).

SAME TEAMS, PRETTY MUCH

Of the 10 teams picked for Christmas this year, nine also played on Dec. 25 last year. The exception is Miami — the Eastern Conference champion Heat are back on the Christmas schedule, and Memphis is off after debuting last year.

The Lakers are on the Christmas schedule for the 25th consecutive year while Golden State is playing for the 11th straight year.

Boston got a Christmas game for the eighth consecutive year, Milwaukee for the sixth straight and Dallas for the fourth in a row.

New York and Phoenix have been picked in each of the last three years, and Denver and Philadelphia are back on the Christmas schedule for the second straight season.

MILESTONES AWAIT

Dallas’ Luka Doncic will arrive in Phoenix 11 points shy of reaching 10,000 for his career. If he gets there Monday against the Suns, the milestone will come in his 358th career game — tying Bob McAdoo for the sixth-quickest trip to 10,000 points in NBA history.

The others who got there faster: Wilt Chamberlain (236 games), Michael Jordan (303), Elgin Baylor (315), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (319) and Oscar Robertson (334).

Meanwhile, for the Suns, Durant needs one point to become the fifth player in history with 300 on Christmas. He’d join James (460 entering Monday), Bryant (395), Robertson (377) and Wade (314) on that list.

CHRISTMAS DROUGHTS

Charlotte has not played in a Christmas game, and a few other franchises have been waiting a long time to be part of the holiday lineup.

Sacramento’s last Christmas game was 2003, Indiana’s was in 2004, Detroit’s was in 2005, Orlando’s was in 2011 and the most recent ones for Chicago and San Antonio were in 2016.

QUOTABLE

Warriors guard Klay Thompson told the team’s television broadcast Saturday night what awaits his prized English bulldog Rocco this year: “He does have a stocking. He’s got some rabbit jerky in there. He’s got some good stuff. So, Rocco’s well taken care of.”

But did Thompson get all of his teammates gifts? Evidently not. “The rookies just get to be benefited with my presence,” Thompson said.

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NBA teams don’t take selection to the Christmas slate for granted