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.

 

 

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.