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Open presents, then watch Knicks host Bulls

A noon start on Christmas may seem early,

A noon start on Christmas may seem early, but last year's Heat-Knicks game at the same time was ESPN's most-watched NBA regular season game. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

I am no expert on the spiritual side of Christmas, but I am pretty sure watching the Knicks City Dancers warm up at 9:45 in the morning is not a traditional part of celebrating the big day.

There they were, though, at the Garden last year, giving early arrivals for the game against the Heat an, um, unconventional holiday gift.

It was just part of the strange vibe in a strange time slot, one the Knicks will return to when they host the Bulls on Saturday to tip off another holiday quintupleheader on ESPN and ABC.

Last year, I expressed concern here over the schedule. (Best line: Shouldn't people still be in their pajamas at that hour, opening toy trains rather than boarding real ones for the schlep to the Garden?)

It turns out I was naive. Sure, a noon start on Christmas is unfair to players (especially the visitors), coaches, arena workers and, most importantly, ticketholders. But that concern is trumped by this reality: Heat-Knicks averaged 2.65 million viewers, ESPN's best regular-season NBA figure for 2009-10.

The noon start could do even better this year, with the revived Knicks coming off games last week in which they averaged a healthy 6-plus percent of New York-area homes against the Celtics and Heat. (Like those games, Saturday's will be carried by both ESPN and MSG.)

"From a viewership standpoint, it's a big game for us and a very lucrative window,'' said Doug White, ESPN's senior director, programming and acquisitions. "There are more eyeballs in front of the television . . . There's really no rocket science in that.''

There is nothing new about NBA games on Christmas. The Knicks first played on Dec. 25 in 1947 and did so 38 years in a row from 1950-87. And there is no denying the appeal of Saturday's slate, highlighted by Heat-Lakers at 5 p.m.

But noon? Really? Just in the name of ratings? Humbug.

ABC/ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy said "99 percent'' of life in the NBA is good, so he is willing to sacrifice the other 1 percent for the benefit of the league and network.

Still, he said Monday: "In particular the early game, if you have kids, that is something you never get back. So I understand the business part of it, but I also understand the great sacrifice not just the players make, but the coaches, the front office and all the people who work those games.''

Once they arrived last year, fans at the Garden filled the place and seemed to have a good time. Maybe they were just happy dreaming of Dwyane Wade as a Knick.

Now they will have to watch him on TV when they get home.

Speaking of the Heat, Van Gundy said the booing of LeBron James has become a bit much. "I can understand Cleveland, but I didn't really understand why they booed him so hard in New York,'' Van Gundy said. "He certainly didn't do anything illegal, criminal.''

While he was at it and feeling frisky, Van Gundy offered a new suggestion that would have spiced up the holiday slate even further.

He proposed a three-game round robin in which the Heat, Celtics and Lakers play one another at a neutral site. "It would have been an extravaganza,'' he said. "I really mean that.''

It wasn't clear whether he really meant that. But he did mean this when asked about whether TV might overdo it in focusing on a handful of marquee teams: "It's really about the consumer and what they want to see.''

In other words: Merry Christmas!


Even Buck got excited

Joe Buck's minimalist, sometimes smart-alecky approach is not everyone's cup of tea.

But the best thing about being a non-screamer as a play-by-play man is that when something genuinely extraordinary happens, it means more when you turn up the shock dial.

So it was Sunday when the Fox announcer realized the Eagles' DeSean Jackson was bound for the end zone on the game's final play against the Giants.

"DeSean Jackson gets a block,'' he said, then shouted, "Are you kidding?''

After Jackson finally stepped into the end zone, Buck said, "Un-believable,'' in a tone that echoed his father Jack's famous line from the 1988 World Series: "I don't believe what I just saw!''


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