It’s been more than two decades since we’ve seen an NBA game on Thanksgiving. And for the sake of communion and fellowship, we’re better for it. It’s not like the TV won’t be on anyway. With Fox News and CNN rotting our brains and the NFL providing an annual doubleheader, there’s plenty to go numb from.
Christmas and Thanksgiving Day games have provided historic moments in NBA history. Here are the 10 best holiday games of all time, including fierce rivalries, record-breaking performances, and plenty of holiday cheer.
Final score: Celtics 132, Warriors 129
Going back to the dawn of the NBA in 1960, we find two titans at center: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell. Chamberlain was brute force and physical domination, plus dexterity. Russell ate rebounds for breakfast and could lock down an entire starting lineup. Russell and Chamberlain banged bodies, sending tremors throughout America’s black-and-white TVs. In the end, Russell won, but Chamberlain got the record books, tallying 34 points with a rim-shattering 55 rebounds, the highest rebound total ever in a single game.
Final score: Magic 92, Rockets 90
The 1995 NBA Christmas Day matchup between the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets marked the first time in NBA history that a Christmas Day game featured a rematch of the previous Finals. The Rockets had swept the Magic months earlier, but the young and hungry Magic was eager for revenge. Penny Hardaway, the Magic’s rising star, emerged as the hero, draining a clutch jumper to give the Magic a thrilling 92-90 victory. Hakeem Olajuwon, the reigning Finals MVP, put up 30 points and 12 rebounds, and Shaquille O’Neal chipped in with 22 and 18 rebounds.
Final score: Pistons 104, Warriors 100
No one should be shocked that Wilt Chamberlain shows up twice on this list. The most statistically dominant player of all time (the dude dropped a 100 in one game) obliterated the Pistons, dropping 63 points, 32 rebounds, and 3 assists in a losing effort against the Pistons. Read that again: 63 points and 32 rebounds. And they still lost! Just insane.
Final score: Clippers 126, Nets 118
The most surprising selection on this list is Andre Miller, who would struggle to be a backup in today’s game. Miller was a staunch defender and penetrator but struggled from the perimeter (he averaged 21.7% from three for his career). Paired against Jason Kidd, the best point guard at the time and an elite defender, Miller went off for 37 points and 16 assists in the Clippers’ win over the Nets, solidifying him as one of the game’s best point guards.
Final score: Nets 120, Knicks 114
On Christmas Day, 1984, basketball history was made at Madison Square Garden as Bernard King of the New York Knicks torched the New Jersey Nets for a record-setting 60 points. While the Knicks ultimately fell short in the game, King shot an efficient 19-for-30 from the field and an incredible 22-for-26 from the free-throw line. He also added seven rebounds and four assists to his stat sheet. King’s 60-point performance is the greatest individual scoring performance on Christmas Day in the history of the NBA. He is one of only three players to have ever surpassed the 50-point mark on the holiday, joining Wilt Chamberlain (59 points in 1961) and Rick Barry (50 points in 1966).
Final score:: Knicks 86, Bulls 85
Michael Jordan quickly became synonymous with NBA Christmas games throughout his legendary career. In a cruel twist of fate to Jordan’s acolytes, Patrick Ewing emerged as the hero for the Knicks, delivering the game-winning put-back to secure a hard-fought victory. Ewing capped off his stellar performance with a monstrous double-double, tallying 28 points and 17 rebounds. This memorable clash undoubtedly helped launched the longstanding rivalry between the Bulls and the Knicks.
Final score: Bulls 107, Knicks 104
With the reigning Bulls champion Michael Jordan retiring for the first time, all eyes were on Scottie Pippen to step up and fill the void, and he did not disappoint. Playing a grueling 53 minutes, he delivered a stat line that filled up the box score, showcasing his all-around brilliance. He poured in 36 points, connecting on 11-of-28 field goal attempts, including three crucial three-pointers. Pippen took charge as the game went into overtime, scoring all seven of the Bulls’ points in the extra period. With the Knicks threatening to steal the victory in the final seconds, Pippen came up with two clutch blocks, denying the Knicks last-ditch shot attempts and securing a hard-fought win for the Bulls.
Final score: Magic 113, Cavaliers 101
As the 2003-04 NBA season tipped off, the league was buzzing with anticipation of highly touted rookie LeBron James. The 18-year-old phenom had overtaken the league, showcasing his unparalleled athleticism and basketball IQ. The reigning scoring champion, Tracy McGrady, wasn’t ready to hand over the scoring crown. He erupted for 41 points to lead the Magic to an overtime victory over James’ Cavaliers. McGrady’s efficiency was razor-sharp, connecting on 15 of his 29 shots, including five clutch three-pointers. He also dished out 11 assists, eight rebounds, three steals and a block. James scored 34 points on 13-of-28 shooting, six assists, two rebounds, two steals and a block.
Final score: Heat 104, Lakers 102
It’s been well-documented in books, interviews and rap lyrics that Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal’s partnership as the greatest “big and little” in Los Angeles was far from harmonious. Their clashing personalities and differing styles of play created tension that eventually led to O’Neal’s trade to the Miami Heat. In 2004, the two former teammates were pitted against each other on Christmas Day in a highly anticipated matchup that lived up to its billing. Bryant poured in 42 points, but rimmed out a potential game-winning three-pointer. O’Neal, now with the Heat, powered his team to an overtime win with 24 points and 11 rebounds. His younger teammate and future generational talent, Dwyane Wade, chipped in 29 points and 10 assists.
Final score: Cavaliers 109, Warriors 108
Here’s one for the kids. The Warriors, still reeling from a heartbreaking loss in the NBA Finals, destroyed all parity by signing Kevin Durant, forming one of the greatest starting fives of all time with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green. In this epic rematch, the Warriors led by as many as 14 points in the fourth quarter, but the Cavaliers, fueled by the dynamic duo of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, mounted a thrilling comeback. Irving delivered the game-winning dagger, sinking a clutch fadeaway jumper in crunch time.