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Circle your calendars: Games not to miss on NBA schedule


We’re not so presumptuous as to tell you what to watch… well, yes we are.

There is an NBA schedule littered with good games worth watching that was just released today. What follows are the games that leapt off the page at us as ones not to miss.

Dec. 25: Miami Heat at Dallas Mavericks: A rematch of the NBA finals from last year. Plus, enjoy the look on LeBron James’ face as he watches Dallas raise a championship banner to the rafters (for LeBron haters that may be the best Christmas gift of all).

Dec. 25: Chicago Bulls at Los Angeles Lakers: We know the Bulls will play hard and defend, but we don’t know what the Lakers will look like under Mike Brown. Or who their center will be for that game.

Dec. 25: Orlando Magic at Oklahoma City Thunder: Do we get to see Dwight Howard vs. Kendrick Perkins in the post? My guess is we do (if Howard is traded it will be later, closer to the deadline) but what kind of mental state will the Magic be in? And how much have the Thunder improved?

Dec. 27: Boston Celtics at Miami Heat: This is the first of four meetings between the old guard and new guard of the East.

Dec. 29: Dallas Mavericks at Oklahoma City Thunder: The champs head to face maybe their biggest rival for the crown in the West this season. Plus, the Kevin Durant vs. Dirk Nowitzki scoring fest.

Dec. 31: Phoenix Suns at Oklahoma City Thunder: Before you pop the Champagne watch Steve Nash vs. Russell Westbrook. That will be fun.

Jan. 1: Boston Celtics at Washington Wizards: When you get tired of watching college football, watch the Rajon Rondo vs. John Wall showdown.

Jan. 10: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies: Battle of the “teams of the future” in the West.

Jan. 14: New Jersey Nets at Utah Jazz: Deron Williams makes his return to Utah. The people of Salt Lake City do know how to boo. Trust me.

Jan. 16: Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers: Last time these two met the Mavs unceremoniously swept the Lakers out of the playoffs. You know that stuck in Kobe Bryant’s craw — and he has a history of going off on the Mavs for big numbers.

Jan. 16: Chicago Bulls at Memphis Grizzlies: Memphis is playing on Martin Luther King day. The Grizzlies are going to be a team to watch this year, and here is a big test against an elite team.

Jan. 25: Los Angeles Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers: The “battle for Los Angeles” is actually interesting now. Plus, Blake Griffin will dunk on someone.

Jan. 28: Sacramento Kings at Utah Jazz: Jimmer Fredettte returns to Utah for a game. (He does it again March 30.)

Jan. 29: Chicago Bulls at Miami Heat: Last year’s Eastern Conference finalists square off, and late enough in the season that we might be able to read a little bit into this one.

Feb. 16: Boston Celtics at Chicago Bulls: Bet the under in the battle of the former best defensive team in the league and the new best defensive team in the league.

Feb. 20: Atlanta Hawks at Chicago Bulls: On Presidents Day you can catch President Obama’s hometown Bulls in action. And Al Horford, who is a good reason to watch the Hawks.

March 4: Los Angeles Lakers at Miami Heat: By then the rosters of these teams will be set and they should be in a groove. This will be a good test for where these contenders stand heading into the playoffs.

March 11: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Lakers: These franchises still hate each other.

March 17: San Antonio Spurs at Dallas Mavericks: Who is the best team in Texas… sorry Rockets fans, unless you get Chris Paul you’re not in the conversation.

March 29: Dallas Mavericks at Miami Heat: Dallas returns to the place they won the title and Heat fans pretend this somehow counts as revenge.

April 20: Los Angeles Lakers at San Antonio Spurs: Will either of the West’s old guard be on a roll with the playoffs around the corner?

April 28: The playoffs open, and then every game is must watch.

Report: David Lee, Tyler Zeller in line to start for Celtics; Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko out of rotation

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 08: David Lee of Boston Celtics attacks during the friendlies of the NBA Global Games 2015 basketball match between Real Madrid and Boston Celtics at Barclaycard Center on October 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Brad Stevens has a big challenge this year – sorting the Celtics’ deep roster of similarly able players.

It seems that process is shaking out at power forward and center.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

it appears Boston’s first four bigs will be starters David Lee and Tyler Zeller, with Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk off the bench.

That leaves Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger, potentially on the outside looking in as far as the regular rotation is concerned.

Lee is the best passer of the bunch, which could partially explain why he’s starting. Boston’s most likely starting point guard, Marcus Smart, is still growing into the role of the lead ball-handler at the NBA level. Lee and presumptive starting shooting guard Avery Bradley can take some pressure off him.

Olynyk can space the floor for Isaiah Thomas-Johnson pick-and-rolls with the reserves and run pick-and-pops with Thomas himself.

I’m a little surprised Zeller is starting over Johnson, though. The Celtics just signed Johnson to a $12 million salary, and I thought they’d rely on his defense to set a tone early. Like Johnson, Zeller is a quality pick-and-roll finisher who can thrive with Thomas.

This is particularly bad news for Sullinger, who – barring a surprising contract extension – is entering a contract year. It seems those reports of offseason conditioning haven’t yet paid off. Jerebko’s deal also isn’t guaranteed beyond this season, but at least he has already gotten his mid-sized payday. Sullinger is still on his rookie-scale contract.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.