The NBA’s tradition of playing games on Christmas Day dates back to 1947, the league’s second season. Since then, the occasion has produced overtime thrillers, buzzer beaters and exceptional individual performances galore.
This year’s offering pits the Miami Heat against the New Orleans Pelicans, the Milwaukee Bucks against the Golden State Warriors, the Boston Celtics against the Brooklyn Nets, the Dallas Mavericks against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers against the Denver Nuggets.
So, to get into the festive spirit, let’s take a look back at some memorable Christmas Day games from NBA history.
1985: Boston Celtics 104 – New York Knicks 113 (Double OT)
Back in the mid-1980s the New York Knicks were Eastern Conference bottom-dwellers, while the Boston Celtics were an NBA powerhouse – not much has changed. So when the two teams faced off on Christmas Day in 1985 it seemed inevitable that the Larry Bird-led Celtics would claim the spoils.
However, that offseason, the Knicks had secured the services of one of the most coveted college players of all time, Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing. And the big man used the festive showcase to offer a glimpse of his potential, leading all players with 32 points as the Knicks overturned a 25-point deficit to beat Boston in double overtime.
The embarrassing defeat prompted the Celtics to go 46-8 over the remainder of the season, eventually winning their 16th NBA championship. The Knicks, meanwhile, finished the season 23-59, making this little more than a moral victory.
1994: New York Knicks 104 – Chicago Bulls 107 (OT)
Fast forward to 1993 and the Knicks were playing against the Chicago Bulls, who were enduring Michael Jordan’s baseball exodus.
Earlier that year, the Knicks had prevailed in a feisty seven-game Eastern Conference Semifinals series between the two, meaning the Bulls were out for revenge. Inspired by one of the best performances of Scottie Pippen’s storied career it looked as if they would get it, particularly when Toni Kukoc put Chicago up by three with 3.3 seconds remaining in regulation.
But then something strange happened. Inbounding the ball, the Knicks attempted a full-court heave that was intercepted by Steve Kerr. In one of the low points of his career, the future Warriors head coach opted to swat the ball rather than catch it, giving it straight to Hubert Davis who sent the game to overtime with a three.
Pippen then took over, scoring all seven of the Bulls points in extras before securing the win with an improbable block right at the death. He finished the game with 36 points, 16 rebounds, five steals, three assists and two blocks. The Knicks would get the last laugh, however, finishing the regular season with eight more wins than the Bulls before both teams were eliminated from the playoffs in the Conference Semifinals.
2003: Cleveland Cavaliers 101 – Orlando Magic 113 (OT)
In perhaps one of the most hyped Christmas Day games of all-time, the 2003 showcase pitted rookie LeBron James against one of the NBA’s most formidable scorers of the time, Tracy McGrady.
Neither team was particularly good, but their star players delivered a highlight reel (see below) for the ages, as McGrady recorded 41 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds, while James dazzled in his Christmas Day debut, finishing with 34 points and six assists.
As McGrady told Nice Kicks in 2016: “It was a hell of a duel. I can remember some of the shots he was hitting — they were tough shots. I was like, ‘This dude is for real!’”
The Orlando Magic won out after the game went to overtime but finished the season with just 21 wins in total, even though McGrady led the league in points per game (28.0). LeBron, meanwhile, helped the Cleveland Cavaliers to 35 wins before claiming Rookie of the Year honours.
2004: Miami Heat 104 – Los Angeles Lakers 102 (OT)
In what was billed ‘Shaq vs. Kobe I’, the two stars went head-to-head for the first time since Shaquille O’Neal was traded by the LA Lakers on Christmas Day 2004.
Safe to say it was a physical affair, one that saw Superman foul out in the fourth quarter after recording 24 points and 11 rebounds. Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, scored a season-high 42 points as he tried desperately to get one over on his old teammate.
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, as Dwyane Wade and Eddie Jones scored four points apiece in overtime to see off the Lakers, while Bryant went scoreless in the extra frame, missing three shots including a potential game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.
Without O’Neal, the Lakers won just 34 games that season, missing out on the playoffs, while the Heat went all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals with him on the team. They would, of course, win it all the following the season, allowing Shaq to pick up his first ring without Kobe.
2011: Chicago Bulls 88 – Los Angeles Lakers 87
On Christmas Day 2011, Kobe Bryant was at it again. This time his LA Lakers were up against the Chicago Bulls in what turned out to be one of the most exciting Christmas games of recent years.
Overcoming a seven-point halftime deficit, the Lakers were up six with less than a minute to go. They then missed four straight field goals, allowing the Bulls to score five straight points to reduce the deficit to one.
With 20 seconds left on the clock, Bryant then threw the ball away when double teamed, giving Luol Deng an opportunity to get out on the break. Contested, he leapt into the air unnecessarily, appearing to commit an obvious travel. In the absence of a call from the refs, he gave the ball to Derrick Rose who sized up Derek Fisher before sinking a perfectly executed floater in the lane to put the Bulls up by one with five seconds left on the clock.
Bryant had a chance to win it at the death, but his shot was blocked by Deng, resulting in a memorable win for the Bulls, one that still haunts Lakers fans (like our own Matt Wellington) to this day.