The 10 Best Christmas Day NBA Performances
From LeBron James to Bernard King, look back on the League’s best holiday gifts.
by Brad Graham
While the NBA’s international communications officers have been busy drumming up new season support and making a collective fuss about 2011 being Kobe Bryant’s record setting 14th Christmas Day appearance (a rather unusual record that’ll see him surpass Dolph Schayes, Earl Monroe and Shaquille O’Neal—if such a mark even matters), we can’t help but wonder whether or not it’ll lead to the Black Mamba serving up a superbly cooked banquet of stats now that the Lakers’ Head Chef is using an unfamiliar Mike Brown recipe.
Since 1947, December 25 has grown into a marquee staple on the annual pro hoops schedule. The NBA basically owns Christmas Day the way the NFL owns Thanksgiving, or the NCAA rents out the second half of March; hence why the Commissioner and his cohorts rushed for a late December start (over a more sensible New Year opening).
The Portland Trail Blazers may own the leading Christmas Day win/loss record (14-3) but as we’ve come to expect from blockbuster regular season showings, it’s often not the teams but the individual subplots, statements and athlete stat-lines which matter most.
With the next NBA season tipping off on December 25, what better time is there to unwrap a ranking of the Top 10 Christmas Day performances? They are:
10. (tie) Christmas 2010
Miami Heat vs. Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James – 27 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists
Despite the much-hyped Christmas Day-themed NIKE sneakers trying to steal the limelight, King James’ inaugural visit to the Staples Center with his new Miami friends in tow reminded fans everywhere that his all-court brilliance can be trouble-free. Notching his 31st career triple-double—which included a season-high 5 treys—LeBron led the commanding team display as the Heatles trounced the two-time defending champion Lakers, 96-80 on national television.
10. (tie) Christmas 1993
Houston Rockets vs. Phoenix Suns
Charles Barkley – 38 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists
After being named League MVP (during the latter stages of the ‘93 postseason), Barkley, brimming with confidence, showed everyone why he was the best out west as he gave Hakeem Olajuwon and his Rockets nightmares during the Suns’ 111-91 Christmas Day victory.
9. Christmas 1994
Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks
Scottie Pippen – 36 points, 16 rebounds, 5 steals
After losing to the bruising Knicks in the ’94 Playoffs, Pip extracted his revenge when his Bulls (remember: Michael was swinging and missing at pitches then) danced with Pat Riley’s men on Christmas night. Hubert Davis’ miracle make may have forced an extra session, but it was all Scottie from there as the Swiss-army knife not only scored all seven of Chicago’s OT points, but also blocked consecutive trey attempts at the death to complete his reprisal, 107-104.
8. Christmas 1987
Atlanta Hawks vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Dominique Wilkins – 45 points, 9 rebounds, 3 assists
In a December classic, ‘Nique showed Charles Barkley and Co. what happens when you try to cage a Bird of Prey. The 106-100 end score gave the Hawks an early-season W against one of their most formidable Eastern Conference foes. ‘Nique then carried his red-hot Christmas Day form into 1988, where he finished the season tallying a career-high 30.7 ppg.
7. Christmas 2006
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Miami Heat
Dwyane Wade – 40 points, 11 assists, 4 steals, 4 blocks
Billed as a Mexican stand-off between the Next (Wade) and the Now (Kobe), only one player remembered to load their revolver. Thanks to his XL, Wade helped the Heat walk away with an emphatic 101-85 triumph. Bryant, meanwhile, could only manage 16 points.
6. Christmas 2002
Detroit Pistons vs. Orlando Magic
Tracy McGrady – 46 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals
What makes this outing so memorable is the fact that T-Mac wasn’t supposed to participate, and as late as Christmas Eve his availability remained uncertain. Instead of a quiet dinner with the family, McGrady showed us why he was the game’s most entertaining player as he produced 46 points using a variety of classic T-Mac shots. During an era in which McGrady couldn’t be contained, the Magic only won 104-99 because their star was overcome with Christmas spirit.
5. Christmas 1992
Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks
Michael Jordan – 42 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals
No NBA list would be complete without an appearance from his Airness. Following his dual NBA titles and ’92 Olympic Gold, Jordan upped the ante and set about defending his crown, in style, for a second straight time. His 42 points against Patrick Ewing and the Knicks was capped off by a 89-77 Bulls victory.
4. Christmas 1966
San Francisco Warriors vs. Cincinnati Royals
Rick Barry – 50 points
One of basketball’s most prolific scorers, Rick Barry poured in a League leading (and career high) 35.6 ppg during his second pro season. On Christmas Day, during that same campaign, Barry took it straight to Oscar Robertson and the Royals, finishing with a half-a-dollar’s worth of points; but what impresses us most about his stellar night was the fact it happened during an away game. In short, Barry wasn’t just an a-hole. He was also a Grinch.
3. Christmas 1972
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Kansas City Kings
Nate Archibald – 18 assists
During the 1972-73 season, the man nicknamed Tiny became the first NBA player to lead the League in both scoring (34 ppg) and assist averages (11.4 apg). More so, Archibald was clearly in a festive season mood when he gift-wrapped a heap of points to the tune of 18 dimes (a Christmas Day record that still stands) when his Kings locked horns with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Bucks.
2. Christmas 1961
Philadelphia Warriors vs. New York Knicks
Wilt Chamberlain – 59 points, 36 rebounds
During a season in which Wilt averaged 50 ppg and 25.7 rpg—remember, those were his averages—his December 25 output doesn’t look all that spectacular (by comparison), but that shouldn’t detract from a distinction that would’ve otherwise been most’s greatest performance ever. The upside of course is that Wilt still holds the Christmas Day record for pulling down the most rebounds in a single Dec. 25 contest with 36.
1. Christmas 1984
New Jersey Nets vs. New York Knicks
Gift by: Bernard King – 60 points
The 6-7 forward set the standard for festive season feats when he tried valiantly to guide his Knickerbockers to a holy holiday victory. Despite dropping an hours worth of points, Buck Williams and the Nets still prevailed, walking away 120-114 victors. Since that memorable King of New York showing, Kobe Bryant’s 61 point in Madison Square Garden (Feb. 2, 2009—fourth highest of his career) may have eclipsed the long-standing benchmark. But never fear Knicks fans, King’s 60 remains the highest single-game Christmas Day scoring total.
So there you have it, the top 10 (err, 11) Christmas Day performances. Looks like all the 2011 hopefuls will have their work cut out for them if they wish to best the offerings made by the Three Wise Hoopers: King (60 points), Chamberlain (36 boards) and Archibald (18 assists).
The 2011-12 NBA season opens on Christmas Day with five contests:
Game 1: Boston at New York (TNT)
Game 2: Miami at Dallas (ABC)
Game 3: Chicago at L.A Lakers (ABC)
Game 4: Orlando at Oklahoma City (ESPN)
Game 5: L.A. Clippers at Golden State (ESPN)
Brad Graham is the Editor / Art Director of the independently published basketball journal, BUCKETS Magazine—the second edition of which can be enjoyed for free here. Pre-ordering for the 2012 BUCKETS: Yearbook—featuring a massive 24 page career spotlight (and interview) with Kevin Durant; the best of 2011/all you need to know about 2012; and a riveting look at basketball’s greatest Heroes and Villains of the past 20 years—has commenced here.