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Let’s tell it like it is: Money talks, and thus for the NBA, the most important thing is to keep the five scheduled games on television, have as many superstars available as possible without having to change every single COVID rule the league operating under, and to kick off the unofficial start of its season without any hiccups.

Yeah, good luck with that.

Christmas Day is almost upon us, and there are five games scheduled to keep you from grabbing your brother-in-law by the neck and bashing his head into the side of the fireplace for insisting that everyone wear masks while opening presents (true story? It might become one). Santa Claus himself is delivering actual elves to all of the single women in Manhattan who believe there are eligible bachelors in that abandoned anarchist NYC borough.

Actually, if there are eligible bachelors in Manhattan, a good place to find many of them will be at Madison Square Garden at noon when the first of the five games tips off. If COVID postponements can be avoided, the rest of the day’s slate is: Boston at Milwaukee; Golden State at Phoenix; Brooklyn at the L.A. Lakers and Dallas at Utah. The list of superstars who will be sitting out is roughly equal to the number that will be playing.

The reason is because the NBA got rid of mandatory COVID testing this season, with the caveat that if one player, coach or staff member tested positive, then the rest of the organization had to do the same. That policy has led to nearly 150 NBA personnel recently testing positive (many of them are already fully vaccinated), and their teams either having to postpone games or call up players from the G-League. If you watch every minute of all five games on Saturday, you are guaranteed to find yourself playing your own version of Charles Barkley’s “Who He?” game.

So with that lengthy disclaimer out of the way, let’s figure out ways to make money on this quintupleheader.

HAWKS AT KNICKS, NOON EST: R.J. Barrett is out of health and safety protocols but Immanuel Quickly, Nerlens Noel, Miles McBride and Kevin Knox remain in them, so the big question here is what becomes of Kemba Walker after he went off for 44 points, nine rebounds and eight assists in a loss to Washington on Thursday. If that is not enough to get out of coach Tom Thibodeau’s doghouse, nothing is.

For the Hawks, this was supposed to be the first trip back to Madison Square Garden for Trae Young since he took a bow after knocking out the Knicks in 5 games in last year’s playoffs, but he is one of seven Hawks players in COVID protocols. Also, starters Cam Reddish and Delon Wright sprained ankles vs. the Wizards. So it is no surprise that New York is a 6.5-point favorite (the line opened at 5). We counsel staying away from Walker’s totals, because Thibs will be forced to use him a bunch and he now says he “loves” Walker less than a week after having him glued to the bench. Too weird. The line to take in this one is Mitchell Robinson “under” 0.5 assists. He has not had one in nine games. And parlay it with some of the items below.

CELTICS AT BUCKS, 2:30 P.M. EST: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis are sidelined because of COVID protocols for Milwaukee; Enes Kanter Freedom just became the eighth member of the Celtics to do the same, but none of them are named Jayson Tatum or Jaylen Brown or Robert Williams. Or, for that matter, Joe Johnson, who at 40 has signed with the Celtics to help with their manpower shortage.

The Bucks are 4.5-point favorites (up from 3 early Friday) at home and have Khris Middleton back, but their only other go-to players are Jrue Holiday and DeMarcus Cousins, the latter of whom was not even on the team a couple weeks ago. We like Celtics center Robert Williams to go over 21.5 combined points, rebounds and assists, along with Jaylen Brown to go over 2.5 made 3-pointers. Strange that the Bucks are favored with as many absences as they are dealing with.

WARRIORS at SUNS, 5 p.m. EST: Seems like we have been writing about epic No. 1 vs. No. 2 battles between these two teams practically every column, and that is simply because they have played twice in the past month (but will not meet again until March 30). The teams split their first pair of games, and the Suns have sustained a better record over the ensuing four weeks and have a half-game lead on the Dubs and a four-game lead on the Jazz, who everyone is sleeping on.

Jordan Poole, Anthony Wiggins and Damion Lee are in COVID protocols and James Wiseman and Klay Thompson remain on rehab assignments, so the Suns will be the team closer to full strength, and the homecourt advantage has helped them be listed as 6-point favorites. Steph Curry has been under 6 assists in nine of his past 11 games, so we like him to go under 5.5 assists and for Cameron Payne to go over 2.5 assists (something he has done in 8 straight games and 12 out of 13).

NETS at LAKERS: 8 p.m. EST: Will Brooklyn remember how to play basketball? It will have been a full week since the Nets played by the time tip-off arrives with James Harden out of protocols but Kevin Durant remains in them (along with LaMarcus Aldridge, James Johnson, Bruce Brown, David Duke, Can Thomas and Kessler Edwards). Los Angeles will be without Anthony Davis (knee injury) and Trevor Ariza, Malik Monk and Avery Bradley are in protocols.

That still leaves us with Harden and LeBron James and Russell Westbrook, who are more than capable of putting on a show. Still, the Lakers just gave up 138 points to the Spurs (the most the franchise has allowed in 21 years) after surrendering 108 to the Suns as part of a four-game losing streak that has them at 16-17, which is still good enough for sixth in the West. They are 1.5-point ‘dogs and the over/under is 226, and we counsel staying away from both. Due to fortuitous odds, a nifty parlay payoff could be had from combining Wayne Ellington over 1.5 assists, over 2.5 rebounds and over 0.5 blocks. He is a starter now, and that is not a sure thing wager, but again the odds make it worthy of a flyer.

MAVERICKS AT JAZZ, 10:30 p.m. EST: This was supposed to be Luka Doncic’s moment to shine in the national spotlight in the night’s final game, but he is in protocols along with Tim Hardaway, Reggie Bullock, Trey Burke, Maxi Kleber and Josh Green of the Mavs. With Kristaps Porzingis (toe) listed as questionable, this may be a night when Mark Cuban chooses to stay in Dallas rather than spend Christmas night in Utah, where his team is a 12.5-point underdog against a Jazz team tied for the league lead in point differential (+10.2).

The Mavs have lost three of four and are beginning a five-game trip. Hard to see them keeping this one within 12.5 points. An alternate point spread may be your best bet as the Jazz are completely healthy. But our advice on this one is to sit it out, count your winnings from earlier in the day and then get ready for some football. Sunday will be here before you know it.


Mitchell Robinson under 0.5 assists (-140)

Robert Williams over 21.5 points + rebounds + assists

Jaylen Brown over 2.5 made 3-pointers

Steph Curry under 5.5 assists (-145)

Cameron Payne over 2.5 assists (-175)

Wayne Ellington over 1.5 assists, over 2.5 rebounds, over 0.5 blocks