The NBA isn’t like other professional sports in America; they play on Christmas. Not only do they play, but the games on the national holiday signal a focal point for most NBA observers and a day when it’s finally appropriate to take stock of the first quarter of the NBA season. With Christmas approaching this week, we thought it would make sense to count down the 10 biggest Christmas Day moments in NBA history, culminating in our top two choices on Christmas Eve 2014.
7. Michael Jordan scores 42 points as the Bulls top the Knicks in 1992
Michael Jordan was coming off a 1991-92 campaign that saw him win his second consecutive NBA Title and Finals MVP award as well as help the Americans win a gold medal at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona that summer.
But he and his worn-down Bulls mates — including fellow gold-medal winning Olympian, Scott Pippen — still had to face a tough-minded Knicks team that next year led by Patrick Ewing and John Starks. If the Bulls were to have any chance at the first three-peat since Bill Russell‘s 1960s-era Celtics, they knew they’d have to get through the Knicks.
Christmas Day, 1992, was MJ’s chance to show New York that he was still up to the challenge even after consecutive runs to NBA Finals wins and his gold-medal winning performance in the 1992 Olympics for the Dream Team — at team that also counted Patrick Ewing as a member.
Cut up the highlight reel. MJ was 15-of-34 on his way to a game-high 42 points in the brutalizing 89-77 Bulls win on Christmas Day. The Bulls shot just 40 percent from the field and the Knicks were at 37.8 in the loss. Besides his 42 points, His Airness also had eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block in the grind-it-out affair.
People forget how worn down MJ was at this point in his career. He was taking on all challengers as he site atop the NBA’s throne as a back-to-back champion, and he was the biggest name in sports as the signature athlete of Nike and Jordan Brand’s hundred-million dollar empire that would only grow in the ensuing years.
With MJ retiring that summer to go try his hand at minor-league baseball, his Christmas Day performance against the Knicks is a reminder of just how competitive he was even after logging so many minutes over the two previous seasons. It was also one of the last regular season performances we’d get of MJ on a national stage before his first retirement and historic comeback.
6. Rookie Patrick Ewing leads the Knicks on an historic comeback against the Celtics in 1985
Rookie Patrick Ewing joined a disheveled Knicks team before the start of the 1985-86 season. The former Hoya was the first player choosen after the NBA implemented the Draft Lottery that offseason, and he was expected to catapault the Knicks back to the winning ways New York fans hadn’t enjoyed since those magical teams in the early 1970s. Ewing did his best in his inaugural season.
Despite only appearing in 50 games that year, Ewing made his first — of 11 — All-Star appearances and was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Year for the 1986 season. He averaged 20 points and nine rebounds, but he was also a monster on the defensive side of the ball, picking 1.1 pockets per game and swatting 2.1 shots.
The Celtics, on the other hand, were the titans of the Eastern Conference that year. They would finish the season with the NBA’s best record at 67-15, and edge out Houston 4-2 in the NBA Finals that summer. On Christmas Day, though, they had to go into Madison Square Garden and face the rookie out of Georgetown.
In the beginning, the Celtics rolled, getting out to a 14-point halftime lead. The Knicks cut it to 10 by the start of the fourth quarter, but still faced an uphill battle against the defending Eastern Conference champs. They persevered though on the back of their rookie and came all the way back to force overtime and then a second OT session, before finally getting the win, 113-104, after 58 minutes of basketball.
Ewing was a monster offensively that day, a facet to his game some had worried about when he was drafted with the top overall pick that year. He would finish with 32 points (13/24), 11 rebounds, two blocks and a steal in 45 minutes. His big game made up for Kevin McHale‘s team-high 29 points, and Ewing’s presence in the middle forced the Eastern Conference powerhouse to shoot just 34.4 percent from the floor — including Larry Bird‘s uncharacteristically awful, 8-for-27 shooting game that was a stocking full of coal for C’s fans that Christmas.
The Hoya Destroya put his team on his back and led the big second-half comeback on the national stage. In so doing, Patrick quieted anybody who believed he shouldn’t have been the No. 1 pick, or anyone who failed to realize he had the talent to lead the Knicks back into contention as their force in the middle for the years to come.
5. Tracy McGrady scores 43 points in Orlando’s losing effort against Indiana in 2000
We’ve waxed poetic about T-Mac in the past, specifically his performances while leading an undermanned Orlando Magic team in the early 2000s, and why that — more than his first-round playoff disappointments — should mean he makes the Hall of Fame.
Perhaps the best example of McGrady’s scoring prowess, despite usually being the lone player the other team has to key on, was his performance against the Pacers on Christmas Day 2000.
In a game the Magic would ultimately lose, McGrady would hang 43 points on a very good Pacers team. One coached by the formidable Larry Bird, and who came within just two games of winning the NBA title against the Lakers the season before. Ameliorating the significance McGrady’s scoring output, was just how dreadful his teammates were on the day. They only shot 38.5 percent from the field as a team, and scored just 50 points to buttress T-Mac’s free-throw heavy output.
Jalen Rose scored 31 points for a much more well-rounded Pacers team, who ended up defeating Tracy and his teammates, 103-93.
But not before McGrady attacked the hoop again and again on his way to sinking 15-of-19 from the charity stripe. Combined with his 13-for-31 shooting night — including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc — McGrady would finish with a game-high 43 points and remind everyone across the country there was a special talent down in Orlando, despite a pedestrian supporting cast.
What are your favorite Christmas Day moments?
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