NBA's much-hyped Christmas schedule falls flat

BRIAN MAHONEY
Last updated 09:24 25/12/2013

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If the NBA had a Christmas wish, it might be for a different holiday schedule.

The one that was drawn up seemed strong enough when it was released, a potentially dynamite five-game treat packed with superstar scorers and championship contenders.

But like an old Christmas sweater, it doesn't look nearly as good now that time has passed.

Back luck and bad play have wrecked a number of teams the league picked to showcase. Derrick Rose, Kobe Bryant and Brook Lopez are all sitting out, as are Indiana and Portland, who share the NBA's best record.

But hey, there's two 9-18 teams and one that's 10-16.

The Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers got the marquee time slot, but it's certainly no marquee attraction now that it won't feature a LeBron James-Bryant duel.

"That's probably not the matchup they wanted," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.

The schedule is such a letdown that not until the fourth game will two winning teams meet, when Houston visits San Antonio. Rivers' team travels to Golden State in the nightcap.

Before that, Chicago, Brooklyn and New York all get TV time, all chosen for the honour long before anyone could have known they would sometimes look unwatchable.

"Those things are done way ahead of time. You just hope for the best matchups. Unfortunately, the Derrick Rose injury puts Chicago in a tough spot. Brooklyn and New York have not played particularly well," said Jeff Van Gundy, who will work the Heat-Lakers game as a television commentator.

"But I still think people will watch. It's Christmas Day, and people still care deeply about the Bulls and about the Knicks, even though they haven't played particularly well of late."

Christmas is something of a second opening day for the NBA, often the first time a national audience begins paying attention as football nears its conclusion. The league decided to capitalize a few years back by increasing to a five-game schedule.

The Christmas games have averaged more than 33 million US viewers over the last three years, so Van Gundy is probably right about the fans still tuning in, even for a matchup that looks as ugly as those sleeved jerseys the players will be wearing.

"On the NFL, I've seen plenty of weak Thanksgiving games, but we still watch," Rivers said. "Now it's becoming basketball on Christmas. That's the good part, that the NBA has found that niche."

After Chicago (10-16) and Brooklyn (9-18) meet in the opener, Oklahoma City visits New York, matching the NBA's top two scorers in Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony - provided Anthony's left ankle is OK after he sprained it Monday at Orlando. The Knicks are a Christmas tradition, making their league-high 49th appearance, and the league hopes they'll provide a big audience despite their 9-18 record.

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Injuries have hit hard around the NBA and the Christmas lineup is no exception. With Rose and the Lakers' Steve Nash out, two of the six players in the league's holiday jingle ad touting the games and the special uniforms won't be playing.

With Bryant also injured and unable to extend his NBA record for Christmas Day appearances to 16, it's a chance for the lesser-known Lakers to enjoy the spotlight during what's shaping up as a rare season of irrelevance for one of the league's storied franchises.

"Any time a team plays on the Christmas schedule, teams have an opportunity to display their talent - whoever is suiting up for you," ESPN analyst Hubie Brown said. "It just seems that teams play, even though they might not be playing to a high won-loss record, they will play to their maximum potential because of the audience that is expected to watch the games on Christmas."

So maybe tomorrow one of those lowly East teams finally plays to its reputation - even if only to spare themselves embarrassment in front of viewership they may not earn again this season.

"Christmas is a special day," Brooklyn's Jason Terry said. "This is a great opportunity to come up in here against a team like Chicago who is going to make you play hard each and every possession."

- AP

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