By Brian Robb, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Celtics will be back in action on Christmas day for the first time in four years on Sunday, kicking off a slate of five featured games for the league in the yearly national showcase.
“I love them,” Isaiah Thomas said of NBA games on Christmas. “I’ve never had one. Growing up I always watched games on Christmas, so it was a dream of mine to be able to play on Christmas one day. So I’m looking forward to it.”
While Sunday will be the first opportunity for Thomas and several other Celtics to play on Christmas Day, the Celtics have a lengthy history of playing on the holiday, suiting up in 29 games dating back to 1948. In order to prepare for Sunday’s matchup, here is a look back at five of the most memorable Christmas matchups for the Celtics.
1964 – Celtics beat Pistons 118-106 at the Boston Garden
If you don’t have many memories of the Celtics playing home games on Christmas, it’s for good reason. 1964 has been the only year in franchise history that the Celtics have hosted a Christmas day game at the Garden. Red Auerbach never wanted to make team staff have to work on Christmas day so the Celtics have played 28 of their 29 Christmas games on the road.
Sam Jones made the Celtics’ one appearance at home on Christmas a memorable one though, posting a game-high 34 points to lead the hosts to an easy 12-point win. Boston would ultimately go on to take home their seventh straight NBA championship during the 1964-65 season.
This game made headlines before the contest ever took place after Kevin McHale refused to travel with his Celtic teammates to New York on Christmas Eve as required by league policy. The Hall of Fame forward opted to travel to New York on the morning of the game and stay home with his family instead on Christmas Eve. The league fined McHale for violating its travel policy.
The distraction did not prove costly early as McHale (team-high 29 points) and his teammates jumped out to a 25-point lead over a bad Knicks (10-19) Knicks team. The Celtics took their foot off the gas though in the second half, allowing rookie Patrick Ewing (32 points) to lead the underdog hosts to claw their way back to a 113-104 double overtime upset. The setback proved to be a wakeup call to the Celtics, who won 17 of their next 18 games after the defeat.
The Celtics came out of the gate during the 2008-09 season on a mission to repeat. The veteran group ripped off 27 victories in their first 29 games, including 19 straight heading into the NBA Finals rematch on Christmas Day in LA.
The Lakers had additional reinforcements for this matchup though in center Andrew Bynum (injured during Finals), which helped to slow down Boston’s high-powered offense. The Celtics trailed for most of the game, but still fought their way back to a 2-point lead with 3:57 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Lakers took control from there however, closing out the game on a 13-2 run to run away with the victory and add another memorable chapter to the terrific rivalry.
Rajon Rondo had a history of playing his best Celtic basketball in front of a national TV audience and he started to earn that reputation on Christmas day in 2009. With Paul Pierce sidelined due to injury, the 6-foot-1 point guard played 46 minutes and flirted with a triple-double (17 points, 13 rebounds and 8 assists).
Boston’s interior defense also stifled All-Star big man Dwight Howard (5 points on 1-of-7 shooting) enabling the Celtics to win the low-scoring affair and improve to a 23-5 record on the year. The Christmas performance foreshadowed a favorable matchup for the Celtics against this Orlando roster in the postseason. Boston would advance to the NBA Finals five months later by taking down the Magic in six games.
The last Christmas day matchup between the Knicks and Celtics was actually the opening game of the 2011-12 NBA season after the 2011 lockout. The Celtics were again without star Paul Pierce for the matchup with the revamped Knicks featuring Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire.
Rondo again did the offensive heavy lifting for the aging Big Three core in the matchup, scoring 31 points and dishing out 13 assists, but Anthony (37 points) proved to be too much for the Celtics’ defense. The All-Star forward rallied the Knicks from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit, and the hosts held on after Kevin Garnett missed a game-tying shot at the buzzer.
Brian Robb covers the Celtics for CBS Boston and contributes to NBA.com, among other media outlets. You can follow him on Twitter @CelticsHub.