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By Mike Barner, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The most exciting slate of the NBA regular season is almost here. Christmas Day always brings a bevy of exciting matchups and this year will be no different.
The problem is, COVID-19 figures to have an impact on multiple games.
With that in mind, the league intends to power through and (hopefully) play the five-game slate as scheduled. While acknowledging that plenty could change between now and Saturday, let’s take a look at the matchups and who could thrive in each of them.
Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks – Noon ET
Both of these teams have been relatively disappointing after successful 2020-21 campaigns. Coming off of a surprise run to the playoffs last season, the Knicks have followed it up with a 14-17 record that has them on the outside of the playoff hunt. The signing of Kemba Walker hasn’t worked out, although he’s finally playing again because of the team's COVID-19 outbreak.
The Hawks have been nearly as bad as the Knicks, sporting a 14-15 mark entering Wednesday’s matchup against the Magic. Their defense has been a problem, leaving them with the sixth-worst defensive rating in the league. Still, Trae Young has been spectacular, averaging 27.3 points, 4.0 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game. Unfortunately for the Hawks, he was placed in the health and safety protocols Sunday, leaving his status for this matchup in question.
Clint Capela and Danilo Gallinari entered the protocols Tuesday, as well. Bogdan Bogdanovic is set to return from his ankle injury in time for Christmas Day, so he should be in line for an expanded role, as should John Collins and, potentially, second-year big man Onyeka Okongwu. The same can be said for Cam Reddish, who is averaging 11.1 points and 1.6 3-pointers over just 22 minutes per game.
Boston Celtics at Milwaukee Bucks – 2:30 PM ET
The Celtics aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire, either, as they carry a 15-16 record into Wednesday's game against the Cavs. Jaylen Brown has missed 14 games because of injuries, which is one of the main reasons for Boston’s slow start. Like most teams, the Celtics are battling multiple virus-related absences, with Al Horford, Grant Williams, Josh Richardson and Jabari Parker all currently in health and safety protocols. Robert Williams could be extremely busy against a Bucks team that is lacking size up front right now.
The reason for that is both Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis are in protocols, while Brook Lopez is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery earlier this month. Giannis entered the protocols on Dec. 14, so there is a decent chance he returns for this matchup. If he can’t, expect another busy game for Jrue Holiday, who has averaged 28.7 points, 3.0 rebounds, 9.0 assists and 2.0 steals over his past three games. Milwaukee should have Khris Middleton back at full speed after a hyperextended knee cost him the past three games. Middleton has been removed from the injury report ahead of Wednesday's matchup against Houston.
Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns – 5:00 PM ET
Another team dealing with players in the protocols is the Warriors, who are without Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins. Despite this being a tough matchup against a Suns team that has the second-best defensive rating in the league, Stephen Curry could still have a big night on his shot-attempt volume alone. With Poole and Wiggins out Monday, Curry jacked up 27 shots in a win over the Kings.
For now, the Suns are one of the healthiest teams in the league. They just got Devin Booker back from a hamstring injury that cost him seven games, and they’ve essentially avoided any virus-related issues. With the Warriors’ lack of size up front, this could be an ideal matchup for Deandre Ayton. The first time he faced Golden State this season, he recorded 24 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks. The second time, he had 23 points, 6 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Both teams are active Thursday night — Golden State hosts Memphis; Phoenix hosts Oklahoma City — and both will be favored to win. But no matter what, this will be a matchup of the league’s two best teams, who are currently a combined 50-11. Entering Wednesday, only two other teams (Utah and Brooklyn) have banked 20 wins.
Brooklyn Nets at Los Angeles Lakers – 8:00 PM ET
The Nets have been decimated by COVID-19, with 10 players currently in health and safety protocols. That list includes James Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, who was attempting to make his return despite not being vaccinated. Since this game is in Los Angeles, Irving would be eligible to play if he clears protocols, but he won’t be able to play in any Nets home games until he gets vaccinated.
Brooklyn could get a few players back in time for this game, but it’s far from guaranteed — and may not even be likely — that any of the Nets’ Big Three are ultimately cleared. As such, this could be a great spot for Patty Mills to have a big scoring performance. Over the past four games, he’s averaged 21.3 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 4.3 3-pointers.
Good news has actually come to the Lakers on the COVID-19 front with Dwight Howard and Talen Horton-Tucker clearing protocols before Tuesday’s game against the Suns. They still have to play without Anthony Davis, who will miss at least four weeks with a knee injury. Horton-Tucker could take on an expanded role in Davis' absence, as could Carmelo Anthony.
This is the league’s featured matchup of the day; so as long as LeBron James is healthy and active, Adam Silver can declare it a victory. While the Lakers continue to struggle, James has been on a rampage since returning from an abdominal injury, putting up 28.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.2 blocks and 2.7 3-pointers over his past 12 games (38.6 MPG). During that span, the four-time MVP is shooting 52.3 percent from the floor and 77.6% at the free throw line.
Dallas Mavericks at Utah Jazz – 10:30 PM ET
Luka Doncic (ankle) has missed each of the Mavericks’ past five games, and though they were hopeful he could return Thursday night against Milwaukee, he’s since been placed in COVID protocols along with Trey Burke. Doncic’s absence has led to a bigger role for Jalen Brunson, who has cashed in by averaging 20.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 7.4 assists during that stretch. The Mavericks should need added scoring from Brunson given that Tim Hardaway Jr. was also placed in protocols Tuesday.
Meanwhile, like the Suns, the Jazz are one of the few teams in the league that doesn’t currently have anyone stuck in COVID protocols. Utah holds the second-best point differential in the league, and with Doncic looking unlikely to play in this game, things could get ugly in a hurry. This should be a good matchup for Rudy Gobert given the Mavericks’ underwhelming options at center. Gobert has yet to face the Mavs this season, but across three matchups last season, he averaged 20.0 points and 15.7 rebounds.