Ten NBA must-watch games this season

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The NBA schedule is out and it’s a little like Christmas Day (unless you’re a beat reporter, then it’s explain to your wife how much you’ll be gone day, which is a lot less fun). Today is the day you can really start to taste the matchups that are coming.

There are more good storylines than there are A-Rod suspension days in the new schedule, but here are the 10 must-watch games that leapt off the page at me. No, Brandon Jennings return to Milwaukee somehow did not make the cut. Sorry.

Oct. 29, Chicago Bulls at Miami Heat: Opening night’s marquee game, when the Chicago Bulls get to watch the Miami Heat get their rings and raise a banner, then Chicago will unleash a returned Derrick Rose on them. You know, the Rose who think’s he’s the best player in the NBA. Anyway…. we get two elite teams in the East to start the season and that works for me.

The second half of the televised double-header that night has the Clippers at the Lakers, which could see Kobe’s return from an Achilles rupture. (Also, Orlando visits Indiana that night… which isn’t exactly going on the marquee.)

Dec. 4, Minnesota Timberwolves at San Antonio Spurs in Mexico City: Los Spurs head to the capital of Mexico, but more than just some impressive establishing shots, is this could be a really fun game. Ricky Rubio vs. Tony Parker. Kevin Love vs. Tim Duncan. They NBA isn’t sending a clunker south of the border.

Dec. 18, Indiana Pacers at Miami Heat: These two teams went seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then the Heat added Greg Oden to deal with the size of Roy Hibbert (we’ll see if Oden is available and playing by this date). The Pacers got a lot deeper in this offseason and it starts with getting Danny Granger back. This could well be an Eastern Conference Finals preview again.

Dec. 25 (Christmas Day), Oklahoma City Thunder at New York Knicks: Plenty of interesting Christmas Day games, but this one may be the most entertaining — Kevin Durant vs. Carmelo Anthony, the two guys likely to be battling for the league scoring title. That game could get hijacked by Russell Westbrook and J.R. Smith, and I’m okay with that shootout.

Dec. 25, Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors: Sure, why not two Christmas Day games, that’s when much of the nation starts focusing on the NBA anyway. After the guests have gone and the kids have passed out clutching their new baseball glove/Barbie/PSP Go grab a beverage, settle down on the couch and get ready for Chris Paul vs. Stephen Curry. These teams are going to be two of the best offenses in the NBA this season, and while in the big picture it is defense that will decide how far they go, on this night a fun shootout would work just fine.

(The other Christmas Day games are the Bulls at Nets, Heat at Lakers, and Rockets at Spurs. The nightcaps could be the best games of the day.)

Jan. 20, Indiana Pacers at Golden State Warriors: The Martin Luther King Day slate for the NBA is good — including the Nets traveling to play the Knicks, and Knicks fans hate the Nets and how they are challenging them in the East — but at the end of the day is this sneaky fun game of matchups: Can Andrew Bogut stay on the court and keep Roy Hibbert and the size of the Pacers in check? Can the Pacers defense slow down Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala? This will be a good test of styles.

Jan. 26 (2014), San Antonio Spurs at Miami Heat: An NBA Finals rematch, and if it is played anywhere near the same high level or is as entertaining as the big games in that series, we all win.

Jan. 26, Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics: Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are still loved in Boston, and this is their homecoming. There will be a standing ovation, video tributes and tears shed. This is going to be emotional.

Feb. 19, Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers: No fanbase believes in their manifest destiny more than the Lakers fans — years of stars eagerly coming there and a whole lot of titles have them believing that championships are their birthright. Then Dwight Howard reluctantly comes to Los Angeles for a season, plays well below his standards, then bolts for the Rockets. This is Howard’s homecoming game in Los Angeles and you can be sure the fans there will show him the “love.”

Feb. 20, Miami Heat at Oklahoma City Thunder: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant… who doesn’t want to see the worlds two best players go head-to-head?

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.