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?

Pistons consider shutting down Reggie Jackson for rest of season

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The Pistons have started Reggie Jackson. They’ve brought him off the bench. They’ve sat him entirely.

No role seems right for the point guard as Detroit has lost four straight and seven of eight.

Now, it seems the Pistons might just shut down Jackson, who missed the start of the season with a knee injury. He’s at least doubtful for tonight’s key game against the Heat.

Pistons president/coach Stan Van Gundy, via Fox Sports Detroit:

We’ve been thinking about this, actually for a long time, OK? And he’s been playing at — it’s just hard to put a percentage — but probably at about 80 percent. And as we get into this stretch of games in March where we’re playing a lot, the fatigue is just making it worse.

It wasn’t really fair to him. We were running him out there, putting pressure on him. He’s seeing things he should be able to do, and he just can’t do. He’s not feeling pain, but he just can’t make the plays he wants to make. And we’re trying to put him out there.

We were really struggling, and we just need to have guys who are at full energy and the whole thing. And as much as he wants to, he can’t right now. It’s honestly amazing what he’s done.

To his credit, he fought me on it. He wanted to keep going.

He needs some rest. We don’t know how long it will be. But he needs some rest and to be able to try to get his energy back and see if we can get him at full strength.

He’s been a warrior. He’s tried to fight through it. He’s been frustrated, because he sees openings and things on the court that he just hasn’t been able to get to. I think part of it is a confidence thing.

And I think the thing that we really look forward to, and he looks forward to, is getting a fresh start in the offseason and being able to go through the preparation for a season like he did last year. And not only get right physically, but really get his confidence back to be able to attack and make the plays he’s had.

Jackson hasn’t looked right this season, showing only fleeting moments of quality production. It’s unclear whether that’s his knee, confidence, regression to the mean after a breakout season last year, bad luck or some combination.

But it has the Pistons in dire straights. They’re 1.5 games and two teams out of playoff position with tonight’s game against eight-place Miami crucial.

Detroit’s offense and defense have hummed better with Ish Smith, but despite the better chemistry he affords, the talent drop from Jackson is also glaring. It’s not as if the Pistons have soared with Smith. And relying on Beno Udrih for backup minutes is its own risk.

Van Gundy is talking a lot about next season when it comes to Jackson, which seems telling. The coach’s compliments seem designed to soften the blow.

The odds are against Detroit making the playoffs, but they might be higher without Jackson. The fact that that’s even considerable is also telling about Jackson’s season.

Joakim Noah says he’s cleared to play, which will allow suspension to begin

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The NBA suspended Joakim Noah 20 games — effective once he’s “physically able to play.”

Noah underwent knee surgery about a month ago, and though it seemed he’d miss the rest of the season, the Knicks said at the time he’d be reevaluated in 3-4 weeks. That gave the team cover to claim his suspension should begin this season.

So, Noah rushed to practice today, and no matter how unlikely he would’ve been to follow this timeline sans suspension, that will seemingly be enough.

Fred Kerber of the New York Post:

New York has eight games remaining, which would leave 12 for Noah to serve at the beginning of next season.

Obviously, the more of his suspension Noah serves during this lost season, the better. The Knicks might be a wreck next season too, but at least there’s a chance they’re ready to win (and a chance Noah can contribute). This year is confirmed hopeless.

 

After fun back-to-back wins, Kings deemphasizing veterans

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Break up the Kings.

No, really.

After consecutive thrilling wins — a historic comeback against the Clippers on Sunday and another one-point win over the Grizzlies, Sacramento coach Dave Joerger’s former team, yesterday — the Kings announced a changing of the guard.

Joerger, via CSN California:

This was maybe our last stand for the year, as far as you’re probably not going to see all those veterans play together the rest of the season.

Darren Collison, Garrett Temple, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver and Ty Lawson played major roles against Memphis. Expect their minutes to be cut down the stretch.

The Kings have “fallen” to the NBA’s eight-worst record. It’s unlikely, but a late-game surge could “drop” them to the league’s 10th-worst record.

That’s unviable for a team that put itself on the tanking track and loses its first-round pick (to the Bulls) if it falls outside the top 10. Sacramento must protect itself from bad lottery luck.

It might not require going full Suns, but the Kings should and will emphasize developing their young players — who, not at all incidentally, are less equipped to help the team win.

Tyronn Lue says he has secret plan to fix Cavaliers’ defense for playoffs

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Only one team that ranked outside the top 12 in points allowed per possession during the regular season won an NBA title. The 2000-01 Lakers, who were 21st in defensive rating, are the lone outlier.

The Cavaliers rank 22nd in defensive rating this season and have been even worse lately.

But Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue says he has a plan. He just won’t reveal it yet.

Lue, via Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We’ve got to hold back. We can’t show our hand early because … these are some good teams and we don’t want them to be able to come into a series and be able to adjust to what we do. We just have to be able to play our normal defense until we get there and then we will see what happens.”

Also:

“I think the rebounding hurt us. Rebounding. But it will be different once some other things happen. … Their two-guards, their threes, they still crashed the boards. But we have something to fix that. Just not right now.”

What precisely those plans are, Lue wouldn’t tell us. And here’s the other part — he’s not exactly sure they’ll work.

“I’m not confident, but we’ve got to” get the defense fixed, Lue said. “We have to.”

The Cavs ranked just 10th in defensive rating last season, among the worst marks for an eventual champion. But they cranked up their defense in the playoffs, especially late. Cleveland held the Raptors 4.8 points per 100 possessions below their regular-season scoring rate and the Warriors 7.8 below theirs.

Lue also unleashed a 3-point-heavy attack in the playoffs last year after sitting on the strategy through the regular season.

So, I have some faith Lue will implement a better defensive gameplan when it counts. It also helps to have LeBron James, who can still play elite defense when not in the slog of a long regular season.

But the Cavaliers’ defensive deficiencies right now are glaring. This roster appears to lack defensive potential, and their many miscues keep them well below whatever that potential is.

The challenge in elevating this defense to championship-caliber will be immense, maybe even unprecedented.