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?

Close-knit Pacers’ bond gets tested with season on the line

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The Indiana Pacers have been winning together, losing together and fighting together all season.

Now they need to demonstrate their resilience once more as they try to save their season by rebounding from an emotional loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Nobody thought we’d be in this situation,” Victor Oladipo said, referring to the playoffs. “It’s important for us to stick together now because we’ve seen where it can go, where it can take us and it’s great.”

The immediate problem is recent history doesn’t bode well for the underdog Pacers, who trail 3-2 with Game 5 set for Friday in Indianapolis.

Cleveland swept Indiana in the first round last year, winning four games by a record low 16 total points. James has won 10 straight close-out games and has never lost a first-round series. Indiana, meanwhile, is trying to reach the conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.

But the Pacers don’t care about stats, projections or conventional wisdom – as they’ve proven repeatedly this season.

Following last summer’s Paul George trade, Indiana seemed bound for the draft lottery. Instead, general manager Kevin Pritchard cobbled together a rare combination of proven, often overlooked veterans, emerging stars, good shooters and willing defenders.

It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Indiana won 48 games, six more than it did with George last season, and is a win away from forcing the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs into a decisive seventh game.

Cleveland has learned one lesson the hard way: The fifth-seeded Pacers won’t go away. They won 12 times after facing double-digit deficits and eight times after trailing by 15 or more during the regular season.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise Indiana has erased double-digit deficits in four straight game and wound up taking the lead or having a chance to win late in all four in this series.

“That team does not quit,” James said, moments after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Cleveland a 98-95 win to salvage a win Wednesday after Pacers wiped out a 12-point second half to deficit to tie the score in the final minute.

Playing hard until the final buzzer has become the norm for these Pacers.

And they’re savoring every precious second, too.

Nate McMillan recently called this one of the most enjoyable seasons he’s had as a head coach because he knows what he’ll get every day – energy from Oladipo and Lance Stephenson, steadiness from Darren Collison and Corey Joseph, leadership from Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic and an eagerness to develop from Myles Turner and other young players.

With each player embracing their role, the Pacers have formed a cohesive bond.

Six players actually approached Pritchard before the trade deadline and pleaded with the GM not to make any moves because they wanted to close out this season together. Pritchard said it a first for him, and kept the team intact.

“It kind of is like a college team bond,” said Young, one of the six players who approached Pritchard. “Typically you have a lot of NBA teams that don’t bond as well as you do in college when you’re living with each other and you’re around each other all the time. You know in the NBA, you spend time with your family, things like that.

“This team we all hang out together, we go to dinner together on the road. We do everything together.”

The difference has shown.

After enduring an early and sometimes uneven learning curve early this season, the Pacers finally got in sync in early January and played better than anyone, perhaps even McMillan or Pritchard could have anticipated.

From Jan. 6 through the end of the regular season, they went 29-15 and allowed 101.3 points per game and didn’t lose more than two in a row.

They moved up three spots in the Eastern Conference postseason pecking order and headed into their latest round against James having won three of the four regular-season matchups. The Pacers even routed the Cavs on their home court in Game 1.

Since then, though, the series has been all-out slugfest and James has gotten the knockout blow in three times.

Now, with their season on the line, the Pacers need to provide a unified front one more time Friday night just to keep this season alive.

They’re ready.

“Sure, we’ve still got something to prove. No one believes we can beat Cleveland,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s about trust in what we’ve got in each other.”

More AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Report: J.B. Bickerstaff agrees to three-year deal to coach Memphis Grizzlies

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We heard rumblings that the Memphis Grizzlies were looking to remove the interim distinction from J.B. Bickerstaff’s title and make him acting head coach. Now, the team has made their move.

According to a report from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Memphis agreed to a three-year deal with Bickerstaff on Thursday, making him the new head coach of the team.

Bickerstaff, 39, was previously the associate head coach of the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. Fizdale was fired in November, and Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach.

This has been a long time coming for Bickerstaff, who was a longtime assistant coach in Charlotte, Minnesota, and Houston. Bickerstaff took over the Rockets job in 2015 when the team fired head coach Kevin McHale.

The task ahead of Bickerstaff will not be easy. Next season he will get Mike Conley back from injury, but the roster is still in the process of being rebuilt and Marc Gasol, 33, seems like constant trade bait. The Western Conference is tough, but finally Bickerstaff gets his shot at the big job on a permanent basis.

Enes Kanter helps pardon Thunder fans who left playoff game early (VIDEO)

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Enes Kanter may be leaning toward opting in to his $18 million player option with the New York Knicks this summer (I would) but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have love for fans in Oklahoma City.

In a video posted to social media on Thursday, Oklahoma City mayor David Holt and Kanter appeared together to give pardons to the Thunder fans who left early during the team’s Game 5 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony staved off elimination with their win against Utah, giving the Jazz a 3-2 series lead as they head back to Salt Lake City on Friday night.

Kanter, who played for the Thunder from 2015-2017, says he is still friendly with many of the players on the Oklahoma City roster. Kanter also played for the Jazz for the first three-and-a-half years of his career.

Via Twitter:

I personally don’t understand leaving a game early. Your car is trapped underground or is parked six miles away on some back alley, you’re not leaving any game quickly. The train is going to be jam packed and will sit at the stadium station for like 28 more minutes after you board, no matter when you board.

Don’t leave games early, folks. Try to haggle with the people working the concession stands to give you another soft pretzel for free. Get your money’s worth.

Giannis Antetokounmpo slashes Celtics, forces Game 7 in Boston

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The Milwaukee Bucks needed a big game from Giannis Antetokounmpo on Thursday night. Boy, did they get it.

After a disappointing in Game 5 in Boston, Antetokounmpo was fearsome in his return to the Bradley Center for Game 6. The Bucks were able to keep their defensive intensity up, and we got the game most of us expected from Antetokounmpo in a return to his home court: complete domination on the biggest stage.

The game started out much the way we’ve seen in this series — sort of kooky. It was another low-scoring affair as the first half closed with Milwaukee leading, 49-38. The Celtics couldn’t get things rolling offensively, and were saved by baskets in the paint in the first quarter. Boston scored just 15 points in the second period, saving themselves with makes from beyond the 3-point line.

The real story of the game came in the second half. Antetokounmpo would not let up from the gas, scoring both as the Bucks center and on the break. Milwaukee’s franchise player matched up against Al Horford all night long, and the battle between the two was intense. Both seemed to want to muscle each other, and for different stretches they both got the better of each other.

Boston battled back, eventually tying the game at 61-61 with 4:21 to go in the third. The Celtics’ charge was led by Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, and Horford, all three of whom allowed Boston to make up a 14-point deficit. Boston played carefully, allowing their young wings to do the work. Despite not having a fastbreak point until late in the third, they also didn’t have their first turnover of the second half until there was little more than three minutes to go in the same quarter. Antetokounmpo, who couldn’t let Boston’s run continue after the tie, turned on the jets to close the quarter and Milwaukee entered the fourth period with a 9-point lead they would never cede.

The fourth quarter was much of the same, with the matchup between Antetokounmpo, Horford, and Horford’s backup in Aron Baynes. Several times, Antetokounmpo ran full speed after starting with the ball on the opposite free-throw line, going right at either Horford or Baynes. But the Bucks star wasn’t completely selfish. He managed to stave off tunnel vision, at times finding teammates on his spins to the bucket.

A lot of talk was made about Antetokounmpo’s poor performance in Game 5, a career playoff-low of 16 points on just 10 field goal attempts. The Greek Freak made sure that didn’t happen again, finishing the game with 31 points on 13-of-23 shooting, adding 14 rebounds, four assists, and two steals.

Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton were amped up as well. Both finished with 16 points, and as a team the Bucks scored 25 points on the break, with 50 points coming from the painted area, topping Boston in both regards.

For the Celtics, Tatum led the way with 22 points on six-of-14 shooting, adding three rebounds and three assists. Terry Rozier continued his playoff emergence, scoring 18 points while nabbing seven rebounds and dishing out five assists. Boston shot just 27.8 percent from the 3-point line.

Game 7 now heads back to Massachusetts, where we will see if Antetokounmpo can keep his foot to the floor and drive the Bucks past the second-seeded Celtics on Saturday.