A brief history of NBA games on Christmas Day

The NBA continues it's long-standing tradition of playing on Christmas Day. Here's a look at the history behind it

The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers play on Christmas Day this season for the first time since 2008
The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers play on Christmas Day this season for the first time since 2008 / Maddie Meyer/GettyImages

The NBA has reached what many call the unofficial start to its season with its five-game slate on Christmas Day. Like the NFL on Thanksgiving Day, the NBA has been a staple on Dec. 25. It's a tradition like no other.

The league has held games on Christmas Day every season since its second in 1947, this year being the 76th time games are held on the date, 16th in a row (1998 is the lone exception, as the lockout forced the season to start in February).

It looked very different at the start, with a range of three to seven games happening in the early decades, and the matchups often being between teams that were in close proximity to one another, to limit holiday travels. Since 2008, though, there have been five games on the slate with staggered start times, the first one starting at Noon ET and lasting through the night. The marquee slate also features many of the league's best (or at least most popular or historically successful), regardless of location.

Games on this date usually mark the first time casual fans get a glimpse of teams, though in 2011 it served as the official start of the season as a lockout forced the season to start on that date and limit it to 66 games (as opposed to the usual 82). Besides that year, however, it's served as an opportunity for the NBA to market its marquee players and teams on a primetime slate where most of the world is watching.

It's had some great moments throughout the years: Bernard King scoring 60 points in 1984, still the highest scoring output on that date; a rookie LeBron James', the most decorated NBA player on Christmas Day, duel against Tracy McGrady in 2003; Shaquille O'Neal's return to Los Angeles to play Kobe Bryant and the Lakers in 2004; and one of the greatest regular season games of all-time in 2016 with the Golden State Warriors facing the Cleveland Cavaliers in a Finals rematch.

2023 NBA Christmas Day schedule: Games, matchups, times, channels

  • Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks - Noon ET (ESPN)
  • Golden State Warriors at Denver Nuggets - 2:30 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)
  • Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers - 5:00 p.m. ET (ABC/ESPN)
  • Philadelphia 76ers at Miami Heat - 8:00 p.m. ET (ESPN)
  • Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns - 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)

Christmas Day 2023 has some matchups that could end up in that list of historic moments after some time.

To kick off the slate, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks play in Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks. For the Knicks, it expands their lead as the team with the most games played on Christmas Day, which is currently at 55 (23-32 record). It's not the first time this matchup has happened on this date. In 2018, Antetokounmpo had 30 points and 14 rebounds in a 109-95 win against New York in MSG.

Next, Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors play in Denver against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets (2:30 pm ET, ABC), the defending champs. It's the first time both play against one another on Christmas Day, and it continues a trend that has stayed consistent since 2008: the defending champions play on this date.

Speaking of the year, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers renew a historic rivalry by playing on Christmas Day for the first time since 2008. In it, James has a chance to add to his list of stellar Christmas Day performances by winning his 11th game on the date, which would break a tie he has with former teammate Dwyane Wade for most such wins by a player. He also has the lead for most points (460) and games played (17) on Dec. 25.

Two rivalry games close the slate, with the Philadelphia 76ers facing the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks facing the Phoenix Suns. Though both are riddled with injuries, they are, like Warriors-Nuggets, playoff rematches from the 2022 postseason, and first-time matchups on Christmas Day.

Joel Embiid, the defending MVP, looks to add to his already impressive resume of Christmas Day performances in Miami, as he is the active player with the highest scoring average (31.3 points in four games) in games on this date, sixth highest in general. But, he faces the franchise with the highest winning percentage on the date in the Heat, who boast an 11-2 record on Christmas Day, including 8-0 under Erik Spoelstra.

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