Set the DVR: 10 must-watch games this NBA season

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The NBA schedule is out — all 1,230 games this season are locked in place.

There’s a lot to like in the schedule. For example, no team has more than one four games-in-five-nights stretch, something the league has worked hard to cut down on (teams struggle in that final game). The league also continued its decrease of back-to-backs, with the league average now 16.3 such games per team (it was 17.8 last season and 19.3 the season before that). Spreading out the games leads to a better product.

With so many games to watch, we thought we’d highlight 10 where you should either carve out the evening to watch, or at least set the DVR and avoid your phone so you can watch and savor them. Here are the 10 must watch games of the season.

Opening night, Oct. 25:  New York at Cleveland. Carmelo AnthonyDerrick Rose, Joakim Noah and crew get to watch LeBron James hoist the first championship banner to go up in Cleveland in 52 years. This also could turn out to be an entertaining game — it’s too early in the season for the Knicks’ players bodies to have broken down, and teams often stink up the joint on the night of the banner/ring ceremony. Maybe the Knicks can pull the opening night upset.

Nov. 4: New York at Chicago. This is more than just the two rosters best built to win the 2011 NBA title, this is the return of Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to Chicago. They should get a warm reception (especially the beloved Noah). The interesting question: Which one of these teams is better this season? 

Nov. 10: Chicago at Miami. Dwayne Wade returns to South Beach wearing a Bulls uniform. Expect Heat fans to boo him, after they show up in the second quarter. This is another early season matchup of teams with relatively lofty playoff expectations that they may struggle to live up to, but wins like this help.

Dec. 9: Toronto at Boston. These two look like the second and third best teams in the East (although Indiana might have something to say about that) and this is the first meeting of the season. When they get together, the games should tell us a lot. Hopefully.

Dec. 13: Minnesota at Chicago. Tom Thibodeau returns to Chicago, coaching a younger, more athletic team — the kind of team Bulls fans (and about 25 other franchise fan bases around the league) wish they had to cheer for. Everyone is expecting a leap out of the Timberwolves this season.

Dec. 25: Christmas Day: Golden State at Cleveland. Do we need to explain this one? Don’t eat so much Christmas ham that you fall asleep during the fourth quarter. 

Dec. 25: Christmas Day:  Minnesota at Oklahoma City. While the Finals rematch noted above is the marquee matchup with all the big stars on Christmas Day, this may be the most interesting game. With Karl-Anthony Towns as their star, the Timberwolves are a team on the rise, but how big a leap are they going to make under Thibodeau? Conversely, how big a step back are the Thunder going to take without Kevin Durant? By Christmas we may have an answer to those questions, but this is a fascinating matchup. 

Jan. 13: Boston at Atlanta. It’s almost halfway through the season before Al Horford makes his return to Atlanta wearing Celtics’ green. Will Hawks fans boo him? And is Paul Millsap going to go off for a monster night to remind Horford of what he left?

Jan. 16: Cleveland at Golden State. Will the visitor’s locker room still smell like champagne? This is the Cavaliers’ one trip to Oracle Arena this season, and both times these teams meet we should watch the Finals rematch and likely preview.

Feb 11: Golden State at Oklahoma City. Thunder fans are going to be there to boo Kevin Durant early and often. He’s the villain now, and not just in OKC. Durant is going to find that’s a mental adjustment, just like LeBron did in Miami. Expect Westbrook to score at least 50 in this game.

March 11: Golden State at San Antonio. Even with all the changes — no Tim Duncan, instead Pau Gasol; and Durant forming a Bay Area superteam — these still are likely the two top teams in the West and they face off relatively late in the season. If any team is going to threaten Golden State in the West, the Gasol/LaMarcus Aldridge/Kawhi Leonard Spurs are the best bet.

 

 

Portland’s Damian Lillard named seeding games MVP

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The NBA restart bubble gave us surprises — from the Suns going 8-0 and almost making the playoffs, to the much-hyped Pelicans going an ugly 2-6 — but one thing we knew going in rang true:

Damian Lillard can light it up.

His dominating performances lifting the Trail Blazers to the West play-in game made him the unanimous choice for Seeding Games MVP. The NBA announced the All-Seeding Games teams on Saturday (these awards are based only on the eight seeding games). The awards were voted on by media members in the bubble for the seeding games.

Lillard led the bubble in scoring at 37.6 points per game, but what won him the MVP was his performance in the final three games when his team needed it to qualify for the play-in — 61 points, then 51, then 42 in the final seeding game. Lillard was the emotional leader who set the tone for his team and refused to let them lose. That is an MVP.

Lillard was the unanimous first choice for MVP. Phoenix’s Devin Booker finished second, followed by Indiana’s T.J. Warren, Dallas’ Luka Doncic, and Houston’s James Harden.

Here are the All-Seeding Games teams:

FIRST TEAM
SECOND TEAM
Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers) Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Devin Booker (Suns) Kawhi Leonard (Clippers)
T.J. Warren (Pacers) Kristaps Porzingis (Mavericks)
Luka Doncic (Mavericks) Caris LeVert (Nets)
James Harden (Rockets) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)

DeMar DeRozan of the Spurs and Paul George of the Clippers were the players who finished with the most votes just out of the running.

New Orleans Pelicans fire head coach Alvin Gentry

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No team entered the NBA restart bubble in Orlando with the buzz of the New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson was back, they had an All-Star in Brandon Ingram and solid veterans such as J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday around them. With all that, no team was as disappointing in the bubble as the Pelicans, who went 2-6. They looked like they were going through the motions, and all season long were less than the sum of their parts.

Saturday New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry paid the price for that and was fired, the team announced. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez of ESPN and soon after confirmed by the organization.

It was not a surprise. Gentry was considered on shaky ground before teams flew to Florida and the disappointing play of his team while there led to team VP of basketball operations David Griffin making the change. (A sitting coach is always on shaky ground when the management above him changes, as happened with Gentry.) While Zion was not in the bubble the entire time, this is still a talented roster, one that came out like it was just going through the motions, with Lonzo Ball reportedly having checked out. No one seemed focused on the opportunity to make the postseason. That attitude is why the Pelicans fired their coach.

“I want to thank Alvin for his contributions to the Pelicans and the New Orleans community,” Pelicans Owner Gayle Benson said in a statement. “We believe that making a head coaching change is necessary at this time. I truly appreciate Alvin’s leadership, dedication and perseverance through some challenging circumstances over the past five seasons. He will always be a part of our Pelicans family, and we wish him and his family all the best in the future. Our intention moving forward is to find the right head coach that will guide this Pelicans team to compete for championships. That is what our fans deserve.”

Clippers lead assistant Tyronn Lue and Lakers lead assistant Jason Kidd — two veteran coaches who are considered player-friendly — were mentioned as potential replacements by ESPN and Marc Stein of the New York Times. Lue and Kidd have both been mentioned in connection with the open Brooklyn Nets coaching job. Both also are in the Orlando bubble with their respective teams as the playoffs are about to begin (and both likely will be there for a while). Another name to watch is current Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni, who is not expected to be brought back with the Rockets and favors the kind of up-tempo system that would suit Zion. n

The challenge with big-name replacements in New Orleans is money — this is the smallest market in the NBA and ownership has been hit hard by the economic slowdown in the wake of the coronavirus. Lue, Kidd, and D’Antoni will be expensive and demand five-year contracts. The Pelicans could look at seasoned assistant coaches who have not yet held a top spot — Sam Cassell, Ime Udoka, and there are many others — who could do the job and come at a price more within their budget.

The key for whoever gets the head coaching job is to form a strong bond with Zion, the future of the franchise, and figure out how to get the most out of him.

 

 

 

Portland, Memphis where they want to be as play-in series tips-off

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Heroics were needed to get Portland and Memphis on the doorstep of the playoffs.

For the Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard averaged more than 50 points — with a shot from a step inside midcourt in there as one of his many highlights — to lead the way in three consecutive down-to-the-wire, season-on-the-line victories.

For the Grizzlies, Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas became the first teammates in Memphis history to post triple-doubles in what turned out to be a must-win game as well.

And now, the mission isn’t done yet for either club. Portland and Memphis meet Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) in Game 1 of the Western Conference play-in series. The Trail Blazers have the upper hand by finishing the seeding-game portion of the NBA’s restart ahead of the Grizzlies. Portland needs one win, Memphis needs two to advance to a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We’re where we want to be,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “And so, I don’t think anybody’s over the moon right now. We know that we’ve got a tough opponent in Memphis, so there was no time to really celebrate.”

Had the Blazers lost any of their last three games, they could be home already. Lillard has scored 51, 61 and 42 points, respectively, in those three games — and had to sweat out a last-second shot by Brooklyn in a one-point Portland win on Thursday night that determined their play-in fate.

“I think mentally I’ll be fine,” Lillard said. “I think physically, it’ll obviously be some fatigue here. But I think it won’t be as hard as you might think because there’s a lot riding on these games. Every game that we’ve been playing, our last three or four games, has been like our season is on the line.”

The Grizzlies came into the restart at Walt Disney World in control of the play-in race, then sputtered before winning the game they needed to on Thursday against Milwaukee to clinch a spot.

Morant said he remembers when the Grizzlies were ranked 27th coming into the season in a 30-team league. He’s used that slight as fuel ever since.

“Now look at us,” Morant said. “Being that underdog doesn’t matter to us at all. We love being the underdog. It’s just extra motivation, fuel to the fire. It just makes our success even better, coming in and being the underdog.”

Game 2, if necessary, will be Sunday. The series for the play-in winner against the Lakers begins Tuesday.

Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell expected to play Monday against Dallas

Montrezl Harrell play
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
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When the Clippers take the court Monday for their first playoff game in the bubble, going against Luka Doncic and a dangerous Mavericks’ team, Montrezl Harrell will be suited up and ready to play.

The Clippers’ Sixth Man of the Year candidate, who excused from the bubble due to the death of his grandmother and missed all eight seeding games, will be out of quarantine and cleared to play, report Adrian Wojnarowski and Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

Doc Rivers said he plans to play Harrell against an active Dallas front line.

“I’m just going to throw him in there, he’s earned that right,” Rivers said. “The challenge will be just how ready he is. I don’t know if I have ever had a guy that hasn’t played in eight games or whatever and hasn’t had any practice and we’re just going to throw him out on the floor in a playoff game. We’re hoping that at this point.”

Harrell came off the bench to average 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game for the Clippers this season. Harrell was often part of the Clippers closing lineup this season because of his improved defense, but he always brought relentless energy off the bench that lifted the Clippers nightly. The Harrell/Lou Williams pick-and-roll remains one of the smoothest and most dangerous in the league.

Harrell also gives Doc Rivers a lot of versatility and options on how to close games — the Clippers can go big, go small, and do either well. They will need that against a Dallas team that rolls out a front line of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and former Clipper Boban Marjanovic.

Not having Harrell for eight games in the bubble added to that versatility, Rivers said.

“We got to play JaMychal [Green] at the five far more than we ever thought we would. We needed to work on that because he’s such a floor spacer,” Rivers said. “We got way more work on that than we thought, but we actually liked it.”

Expect to see more of that — and some Harrell — against Dallas starting Monday.