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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Saturday, December 24, 2011 at 2:16 PM

No, it isn't true that NBA Commissioner David Stern actually thinks he's a modern-day Santa Claus!

Still, it's hard to ignore the vibes you get with the "commish" who pretty much has been patting himself on the back in recent days because the NBA - finally - ended its lockout late last month and so now it's officially time to play ball.

Okay, so we've heard all the critics that claim the quality of play ain't gonna be great at season's start (they're probably right on!) and that there could be a slew of injuries thanks to the fact many/most players are not in game shape just yet.

Still, it's better to have round-ball than not to have it here on Christmas Day 2011. Now, here's your NBA Opening Day/Nite card ...

BOSTON at NEW YORK - 12 p.m. ET, TNT
Everyone in the "Big Apple" is going ga-ga over this front line featuring Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and new pick-up Tyson Chandler but the $64,000 question remains who takes charge in the backcourt? Maybe put-upon Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo winds up the biggest star inside the newly-renovated Madison Square Garden in the debut game of this NBA season but we'll also be watching to see how many minutes Boston boss Doc Rivers doles out to his holy trinity (and swingman Paul Pierce is hurtin' already).

MIAMI at DALLAS - 2:30 p.m. ET, ABC
You just knew the NBA folks were gonna give us last year's NBA Finals rematch as an Opening Day "present" and it's funny how the visiting Heat's a 4 ½ or 5-point betting favorite against the champs here ... hey, is there anyone out there not picking the Heat to win in all next June (or is it July?) If you've been reading up on the NBA than it only seems LeBron James is the landslide choice to capture the league's MVP award this year but the here-and-now says Mavs boss Rick Carlisle will construct enough zone defenses that King James could have problems in the half-court game. Stay tuned.

CHICAGO at LOS ANGELES LAKERS - 5 p.m. ET, ABC
The most talked-about wrist in the land belongs to injured Lakers mega-star Kobe Bryant who sat out Wednesday's preseason finale against the LA Clippers but LAL's mega-star said he will be "good to go" for this opener. Bryant weighed in and was not happy that the Lakers sent swingman Lamar Odom packing but here expect the front-court tandem of Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol to get off 40 shots between ‘em while lessening the load on Kobe. If the Bulls want to start off the current campaign on the right foot than C/F Carlos Boozer must steer clear of foul woes and PG Derek Rose - last year's league MVP - must show he can hit the open 20-foot jumper.

ORLANDO at OKLAHOMA CITY - 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Let's just say the Okie City Thunder is the overwhelming choice to represent the NBA in next summer's finals as everyone's expecting another monster year from F Kevin Durant - could he average 30-plus points a game this season? - while the visiting Magic (a hefty 7 ½-point underdog at press time) could just be biding time before dealing away unhappy big man Dwight Howard. Hey, we know he's not going to the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets right now after that broken foot suffered by C/F Brook Lopez.

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS at GOLDEN STATE - 10:35 p.m. ET, ESPN
The debut of G-State Warriors head coach Mark Jackson is getting plenty of pub on the ABC/ESPN family of networks because he's their guy but this one's really all about the arrival of Clips PG Chris Paul who chucked up a few hellacious alley-oop passes in the preseason and won't be shocked here if he finishes with 15-or-so assists here while trying to prove he's a "team player". If Clippers F Blake Griffin stays healthy for this shortened 66-game NBA season, than we say he'll average 30 ppg and be in the top five for MVP. Just watch!

 

THE HOLIDAY TIME FOOTBALL FEAST ROLLS ON! - WE CHECK OUT THE DAY-AFTER-CHRISTMAS GRIDIRON TILTS AS NFL WEEK 16 WRAPS UP WITH FALCONS-SAINTS (IN ROUND II) WHILE COLLEGE KIDS GO BOWLING IN SHREVEPORT (THAT'S MIZZOU VS. NORTH CAROLINA)

A Merry Christmas to one and all ...Now let's see which NFC South team - the Atlanta Falcons or the sizzling New Orleans Saints - get what they really wanted for Christmas. Here's their Monday Night Football preview:

ATLANTA (9-5) at NEW ORLEANS (11-3) - 8:40 p.m. ET, ESPN
Let's just say that Falcons' fourth-year head coach Mike Smith no longer needs to be reminded about "The Decision": The unsuccessful overtime gamble way back in Week 10 to go for it on a fourth-and-one play from his team's own 29-yard proved to be a season changer for both NFC South sides - it catapulted the Saints on this current SU (straight-up) six-game and it truly awoke a Falcons team that's won four-of-five games SU ever since but now Atlanta's looking for revenge and - by the way - counting on getting each/every yard it needs to get here!

The Falcons figure to keep the heat on the Saints secondary with QB Matt Ryan (26 TDs and 12 INTs) looking to heat up with WR Roddy White who is fresh off a 10-catch, 135-yard, two-TD game in last Thursday's 41-14 win/cover against 13-point pup Jacksonville.

On the flip side, New Orleans QB Drew Brees - who threw for 412 yards with 5 TDs and 0 INTs in last weekend's 42-20 win/cover against 7-point home dog Minnesota - now is just 305 yards shy of breaking Dan Marino's single-season passing mark of 5,084 yards set back in 1984.

Gee, it seems like that record was gonna last forever but Brees (37 TDs and 11 INTs this year) is banging on the door and here look for him to try out lots of "seam passes" with Pro Bowl-to-be TE Jimmy Graham (87 catches).

Wanna know what will be fun here? If Smith has to make a fourth-down go-for-it call again come the fourth quarter (or OT)!

Spread Notes - New Orleans rides a six-game ATS (against the spread) winning streak into this prime-time clash inside the Superdome and note the Saints are a collective 10-4 versus the vig this year following on the heels of last year's 6-10-1 ATS campaign. On the flip side, Atlanta's just 7-6-1 against the odds overall this season but the Falcons are a solid 10-6 spreadwise inside divisional play dating back to the start of the 2009 campaign.

MONDAY'S COLLEGE FOOTBALL BOWL PREVIEW

INDEPENDENCE BOWL - at Shreveport, LA
MISSOURI (7-5) vs. NORTH CAROLINA (7-5) - 5 p.m. ET, espn2
Hey, what would one of this year's college bowl games be without a head coach on the move? Here, it's North Carolina interim boss man Everett Withers who will be exiting stage left following this late-afternoon bowl clash as he makes way for Southern Miss' Larry Fedora while the flip side here is Mizzou's Gary Pinkel is lucky to still have his job after a late-season drunk driving arrest. Pinkel won't have top back Henry Josey (a Big 12-best 1,168 yards rushing and 9 TDs) here as serious left knee injuries shelved him several weeks back but the 5-point favored Tigers will be asking QB James Franklin (20 TD passes and 13 TD rushes) to steer the ship for this soon-to-be SEC crew.

North Carolina, meanwhile, pins much of its offensive hopes on frosh RB Giovani Bernard who rushed for 1,222 yards (a 5.4 ypc average) and 13 TDs this past regular season while sophomore QB Bryn Renner (23 TDs and 12 INTs) has shown better red-zone judgment as the season rolled on.

Spread Notes - Missouri has split its dozen pointspread verdicts so far this season and the Tigers have failed to cover back-to-back-to-back bowl games the past three years (versus Northwestern in the 2008 Alamo Bowl, Navy in the '09 Texas Bowl and Iowa in last year's Insight Bowl). Meanwhile, North Carolina also is 6-6 vig-wise this year and the Tar Heels are 14-9 ATS as underdogs since the start of the 2007 campaign.

NOTE: Get more College Football Bowl Previews all week long right here in Jim Sez. Next Up: The Tuesday/Wednesday Bowls including the Little Caesar Bowl, the Belk Bowl, the Military Bowl and the Holiday Bowl.

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