Santa Stern

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If Thanksgiving is for football, then Christmas is for pro hoops.

At least that’s what the NBA wants you to believe in the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.

If not every kid wants a Spalding basketball under his or her tree, the pro hoops league wants to make sure that whoever needs a timeout from the presents, the caroling, the holiday classics, the turkey feasts (with cranberry trim) and general wassailing, knows that it’s the NBA, where more than a dozen hours of Christmas coverage happens.

For the second year running, NBA commissioner David Stern is putting 10 teams to work. This time, the quintuple-header is all under Disney’s tree (TNT televised the two night games a year ago), with an opening act on ESPN, the two main courses on ABC, trailed by a fourth contest and then a late-night nightcap, both on the worldwide leader.

If the Lions and Cowboys are the NFL Turkey Day perennials, the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers have made the hardwood their home (or hearth away from home) on Jesus’ birthday (no, the guy born in Bethlehem, not Ray Allen’s Shuttlesworth character in He Got Game), with 44 and 35 appearances, respectively.

For what it’s worth, I was at The Garden in 1984, when Bernard King dropped an NBA Xmas best 60 on the orange and blue’s cross-river rivals, the New Jersey Nets (the forerunners of Bruce Ratner’s and Mikhail Prokhorov 2-27 Nyets, who are coming hard at Fred Carter’s 1972-73 Sixers).

Indeed, the improving Knicks, having elimiNated a certain small guard from their rotation, are on a bit of roll, as they make a rare national TV appearance, hosting the Miami Heat at MSG at noon. Still, nobody, particularly free-agent advocates Donnie Walsh and Mike D’Antoni, would be unhappy if D-Wade dropped 50 as a nice holiday gift in the house that Jim Dolan is rebuilding.

On the Nielsen scorecard, the Knicks-Heat tilt sizes up as an on-court underdog to ESPN’s 2008 presentation in this window: Chris Paul’s New Orleans Hornets against Superman Dwight Howard’s Orlando Magic. Just under 2.19 million tuned in that one.

A possible preview of the Eastern conference semifinal or final — minus 2008 Finals MVP Paul Pierce, who’s out a couple of weeks with a knee infection — follows on ABC at 2:30 p.m. Somehow, Boston-Orlando figures to have more Nielsen magic than the 5.7 million who tuned into San Antonio and Phoenix in the 2008 opener on the broadcast channel.

Tipping off on ABC at 5 p.m.: the match-up many wanted to see last (or next) June, at least will get to play out on the King’s Day. Gold aside, HE got frankincense and myrrh, while Disney gets green, plus Kobe and LeBron puppets. Can’t Nike just stuff them in Phil Knight’s Christmas stocking?

One potential Nielsen wrinkle: NFL Network is in the game on Christmas 2009, with what is now a meaningful contest between AFC West winner San Diego and the resurgent Vince Young- and Chris Johnson-led Tennessee Titans, a member of the AFC’s playoff pretender six-pack of 7-7 clubs. With the game kicking off in Nashville about 7:30 p.m., it could steal some of Cavs-Lakers thunder in the fourth quarter, despite NFL Network’s nearly 60 million-home deficit against ABC. Last year, a rematch of the 2008 Finals between the Lakers and Celtics dunked a 5.3 national rating and 9.98 million viewers for the Alphabet.

Not sure about your gift-opening ritual, but in our household, the best present (somehow Santa Reynolds always knows) gets saved for last. There’s a steep drop to the NBA’s next game, where I guess, since not everyone is good, there’s small-screen coal in the form of the Los Angeles Clippers (still minus the injured top draft pick Blair Griffin) roaming the desert against the Phoenix Suns at 8 p.m.

And for those who need to get Melo after a long day with the relatives, the Denver Nuggets-visit Paul Allen’s Portland TrailBlazers at 10:30 p.m.

One could argue the last two games should be reversed, because it’s better on this day to give than receive, and Steve Nash will no doubt dish out a lot of presents to his teammates. Plus with the late game slipping into the Dec. 26, the Canadian point guard would make his countrymen feel good on Boxing Day.

Either way, ESPN may be hard-pressed to match TNT’s 2008 performance in which the 8 p.m. window featured the Washington Wizards visiting King James at the Q, which averaged 2.14 million watchers. The 2008 Xmas finale, between Dallas at Portland, scored with 1.57 million.

To those taking a break from much or all of the fastbreaking on Dec. 25, or those who need to hail the holiday with the NBA, I say: Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

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