The NBA released on Friday a first-half schedule for the 2020-21 season ripe with entertaining games.
An earlier release of the national television schedule for the league’s first three game days featured many of the most-anticipated matchups. The opening-night slate starts with the Brooklyn Nets and Golden State Warriors in a battle between Kevin Durant’s current and former teams, before the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers resume their rivalry. And the Christmas Day schedule pits the old guard against the new, including showdowns between LeBron James and Luka Doncic and Giannis Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry.
Oftentimes, we circle on the schedule the returns to their former homes of big-name free agents and traded players who changed cities, but Gordon Hayward’s Charlotte Hornets visiting the Boston Celtics and Chris Paul’s Phoenix Suns at the Oklahoma City Thunder lack luster, especially without fans in most arenas.
Instead, we circled here the games with the most entertainment value, from individual rivalries to potential playoff previews. Presenting the 10 best matchups from the newly released first-half schedule, which runs from Dec. 22 to March 4 (the second half from March 11 to May 16 will be released some time in the future).
(All times Eastern)
Jan. 8: New Orleans Pelicans vs. Charlotte Hornets, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
The Ball Bowl! Two of the three Ball brothers will do battle in the NBA for the first time. Lonzo and LaMelo became the first brothers to both be drafted when the latter was selected third by the Hornets in November. Regardless of how you feel about their father’s bluster and business acumen, it is remarkable that a man who President Donald Trump referred to as “a poor man’s version of Don King” has raised a pair of NBA point guards.
Lonzo is four years LaMelo’s senior. The two led Chino Hills High School to a 35-0 record and a California state championship in 2016. Both may be starting at point guard when their teams meet, and it will be fascinating to see if LaMelo can hang with his brother, who brings three years of NBA experience to the meeting. A sibling rivalry just might bring out the best in a pair of elite prospects whose hype has yet to be fulfilled.
Jan. 26: Washington Wizards at Houston Rockets, 8 p.m. (NBA TV)
Feb. 15: Houston Rockets at Washington Wizards, 7 p.m. (NBA TV)
John Wall has not played since December 2018, so it will be exciting to see in any NBA uniform, but he has worn nothing other than a Wizards jersey. His partnership with Bradley Beal fell just short of an Eastern Conference finals appearance in 2017, and there have long been whispers about a power struggle between the two All-Stars. Washington was Wall’s team before his injury made clear Beal is the better player, and that may or may not have led to Wall’s reported trade request in November. This game is a matter of pride.
Likewise, Russell Westbrook wanted off a Rockets team that belonged to James Harden. There were doubts about how a partnership between two of the highest-usage players in NBA history could work in Houston, and they were borne out in a second-round playoff loss last season. Each should be out to prove he can command a team better than the other, so long as Harden does not bail on the Rockets, too.
Jan. 18: Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)
Jan. 21: Los Angeles Lakers at Milwaukee Bucks, 7:30 p.m. (TNT)
Feb. 18: Brooklyn Nets at Los Angeles Lakers, 10 p.m. (TNT)
It is wild that Kevin Durant spent the better part of the 2010s pursuing LeBron James for the title of Best Player in the World, just as Giannis Antetokounmpo spent the last part of the decade chasing the same legend, and somehow James — nearing his 36th birthday — enters the 2020-21 season with the crown.
Antetokounmpo, the league’s two-time reigning Most Valuable Player, said as much in a recent interview, telling Greece’s Cosmote TV this week, “It doesn't matter who is the MVP. [LeBron] is the best. I say so. He is the best in the world. The day that I would be the best player in the world, I will step forward and say it.”
There will be a day when James is no longer the NBA’s alpha dog, but can we be sure Antetokounmpo will be the one to usurp him? Durant was neck-and-neck with James after winning back-to-back Finals MVPs directly opposite his rival, but he has not played since the 2019 Finals. The world will be watching to see whether he can still go toe-to-toe with James or if Antetokounmpo has passed him by as the man in waiting.
Jan. 1: Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors, 10:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
Jan. 3: Portland Trail Blazers at Golden State Warriors, 8:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
March 3: Golden State Warriors at Portland Trail Blazers, 10 p.m. (ESPN)
In the absence of Warriors superstar Stephen Curry, who broke his hand five games into the 2019-20 season and never returned, Blazers counterpart Damian Lillard took the reins as the most thrilling player to watch on a nightly basis. Lillard was absolutely scintillating over the stretch run of seeding games, leading the Blazers into the West’s eighth seed before his own injury ended any chance of upsetting the Lakers.
The two flame-throwing guards — who have met three times in the playoffs over the past five years, with Curry’s Warriors winning 12 of their 13 playoff meetings — are back, and for the first time, it feels like Lillard is a serious threat to Curry’s throne as The Best Under-6-Foot-3 Dude on the Planet. It will be a fight.
Not only that, but the Warriors will have to prove themselves again as the superior team. Portland is better than the last time the two teams met in the playoffs, and Curry is without his Splash Brother Klay Thompson — one of the many All-Stars who always tilted the matchup heavily in Golden State’s favor. This will be a real test of how these teams stack up against each other as darkhorse contenders to unseat the Lakers.
Feb. 3: Dallas Mavericks at Atlanta Hawks, 7:30 p.m.
Feb. 10: Dallas Mavericks at Atlanta Hawks, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
During the 2018 NBA draft, the Hawks traded the rights to Luka Doncic to the Mavericks for the rights to Trae Young and a first-round pick that became Cam Reddish a year later — a deal that could go down in history as one of the worst in league history. Doncic finished fourth in last season’s MVP voting, leading Dallas to a playoff spot in the West while Young’s Hawks failed to even earn an invitation to the bubble.
Doncic missed both of the Mavericks’ head-to-head meetings with the Hawks last season with an ankle injury, and he split a pair of games against Young when they were rookies. The talent gap favored Dallas, but now Young — an All-Star himself — has reinforcements. The Hawks were among the most active teams in free agency, signing Bogdan Bogdanovic, Danilo Gallinari and Rajon Rondo, among others. How will Young respond with the weight of playoff expectations added to his measuring contest against Doncic?
Jan. 17: Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets, 8 p.m.
Jan. 31: Denver Nuggets at Utah Jazz, 3:30 p.m. (NBA TV)
The first-round meeting between the Jazz and Nuggets was the most entertaining series of last season’s playoffs — and possibly the best first-round series of the past decade. Neither team was at full strength, but that was far from the story. Donovan Mitchell and Jamal Murray transformed into superstars before our eyes, matching clutch shot for clutch shot and ridiculous statistical line after ridiculous statistical line.
Mitchell and Murray each submitted three 40-point games in the series, something only Michael Jordan and LeBron James had done in the first round before. Mitchell’s 57 points in Game 1 were the third-most in NBA playoff history, his 254 points in the series were the most since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1977, and he set a record for 3-pointers made in a series (33). And somehow he was outdone by Murray, whose shot-making was unparalleled, particularly in the clutch, when he registered an 88.1 true shooting percentage.
It remains to be seen whether they can recreate that magic in a regular-season encore, but their Nuggets and Jazz also both hope to be in the mix with the Clippers among teams with the best shot at challenging the Lakers for West supremacy. The seriousness of those threats relies on the rise of Mitchell and Murray.
Jan. 6: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Jan. 10: Miami Heat at Boston Celtics, 7 p.m. (NBA TV)
Somewhat quietly, the Eastern Conference finals between the Celtics and Heat was a tactical masterpiece, pitting two chess masters opposite each other. Coaches Brad Stevens and Erik Spoelstra consistently lead some of the hardest-working and most technically sound teams in the league, and their showdown did not disappoint. Spoelstra put on a master class in a six-game win, but the series hung on a handful of plays.
Mostly, it was Heat center Bam Adebayo’s clutch block in Game 1 and 20-year-old teammate Tyler Herro’s 37-point outburst in Game 4 that tipped the balance. They were just two examples of the athleticism and potential that permeated a series also featuring Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. These guys ball out on both ends of the floor, and they even leave fans exhausted by game’s end.
They were the last two teams standing in 2019-20, but neither is a top-two favorite to emerge from the East. That distinction belongs to the Bucks and Nets, but the Celtics and Heat will have something to say before the conference is decided. First, Boston must prove it can meet Miami’s level of work and execution.
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