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20 must-watch NBA regular season games

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The NBA season is a marathon, one that runs from mid-October through mid-April with 1,230 games in between. All that before the drama of the playoffs start.

Throughout that grind, there are highlights. Games that must be watched, ones where you block out the night and head to the local bar, or just get a bag of old-school nacho cheese Doritos and sit on the couch for a good show. Those kick off opening night and run through the entire season.

Here are 20 must-watch games from this NBA season, ones that could give us a real glimpse of what will come in the postseason.

• The Battle for the East starts early on opening night, Oct. 16: Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics: While Toronto will have its say this season (and maybe the Bucks down the line), this renewed rivalry will be the battle for superiority in the East for years to come, and it’s a perfect way to kick off the season. Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward are back, taking on Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.

Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and company get their rings while Russell Westbrook and Paul George fume, Oct. 16, Oklahoma City Thunder at Golden State Warriors: For the second year in a row the Warriors will hoist a banner up to the rafters in Oracle Arena. Warriors GM Bob Myers said last season was the toughest one for the Warriors because they went from a honeymoon with Durant to a marriage. This season is going to be even harder, and it starts with a tough test.

• The debut of Deandre Ayton and Luka Doncic, Oct. 17: Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns: This game is all about the rookies (sorry Dirk). The No. 1 overall pick was a man-child at Summer League and showed the potential to be a beast when paired with players who know how to get him the rock. His first game is against DeAndre Jordan, as athletic a big man as the league has, providing a great test. Doncic is the most decorated player to enter the NBA out of Europe, he’s going to be good, but just how good is the question. We start to see that on the second night of the season.

LeBron James’ home debut, Oct. 20, Houston Rockets at Los Angeles Lakers: LeBron wears the purple and gold for the first time at Staples Center, and he has to go up against the powerhouse of James Harden, Chris Paul, (and I guess Carmelo Anthony) and the Rockets. Both of these teams will be feeling out new lineups and rotations, but the Lakers’ certainly have more of that to do.

• The Raptors make their case for the East, Oct. 30, Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors: The NBA schedule makers are leaning heavily on the Boston vs. Philly rivalry and matchup as if that’s the battle for supremacy in the East, but Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors will have something to say about that. Are the Raptors the team best suited to beat the Celtics in the East? They will start to make their case the day before Halloween.

• Just how much better can Mike Budenholzer make Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks, Nov. 1, Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics: With Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back and added to a core that made the Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics are the team to beat in the East. The Bucks have felt like a sleeping giant for years, can new coach Mike Budenholzer awaken the beast? (Plus, any chance you get to watch the Greek Freak you should take.)

• Kawhi Leonard comes to Los Angeles and the Lakers fans try to recruit him, Nov. 4, Toronto Raptors at Los Angeles Lakers. Sources around the league still see Kawhi Leonard as a rental in Toronto, most expect he will come to Los Angeles next summer as a free agent. Lakers management (which signed veterans to one-year contracts) and Lakers fans are banking on it, expect a recruitment effort from the L.A. faithful.

• Western Conference Finals rematch time, Nov. 15, Golden State Warriors at Houston Rockets: Last season these were the two best teams in the NBA and the Rockets had a real shot to knock off the Warriors before the Chris Paul injury. They could be the two best teams again (with all due respect to Boston). Every meeting between these teams will be must-watch, this is the first one.

• LeBron James returns to Cleveland, Nov. 21, Los Angeles Lakers at Cleveland Cavaliers: While there may be a smattering of boos, expect LeBron to get a warm welcome from the Cavaliers faithful — he brought them a title as promised. Also, expect LeBron to be on the better team but the Cavs to put up a fight.

• A battle of Western powers to watch after opening presents, Christmas Day, Dec. 25, Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets: We know the Rockets are good. As good as last season? That’s up for debate (they probably are not), but very good. The Thunder with Russell Westbrook, Paul George and a strong defense are one of the teams it feels you can trust to make the playoffs in the West. Can the Rockets’ defense slow Westbrook on Christmas? Does it matter because Houston’s offense is just that good?

• The NBA’s marquee still features LeBron vs. Curry, Christmas Day, Dec. 25, Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors. The NBA’s marquee Christmas game is traditionally a rematch of the previous Finals, and that’s essentially what this is — LeBron was the Cavaliers, now he is the Lakers. The talent level and fit of the players around him is in question, just like before. But he always gets up for the big tests, and the Warriors are always up for LeBron.

• You should watch more Donovan Mitchell and Utah this season, Christmas Day, Dec. 25, Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz: These are two teams that are fun to watch, play smart basketball, and do not get enough national attention or eyeballs. This is a great way to close out the Christmas slate, and by the way, a fantastic offense vs. defense chess match when the Blazers have the ball.

• Lakers fans tell Paul George what they think of his choice, Jan. 2, 2019, Oklahoma City Thunder at Los Angeles Lakers: A year ago everyone thought Paul George was a rental in OKC and would come to the Lakers next summer. Except, he ended up loving it where he was and this summer signed to stay with the Thunder. Lakers fans will let him know they were not fond of that decision.

• Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio, Jan. 3 2019, San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors: Leonard is not going to get a warm reception from the Spurs faithful, and not because he once told me the tacos in San Diego (where he went to college) were better than the ones in San Antonio. He is the first big name to walk away from the Spurs, and he will hear about it. As a side note, the Raptors did not get nearly as much national television exposure as they expected.

Tony Parker returns to San Antonio, Jan. 14, 2019, Charlotte Hornets at San Antonio Spurs: While there are a few things that will look strange this season (LeBron in Laker gear, Dwight Howard with Washington across his chest), nothing will be as odd as Tony Parker in Hornets teal. Parker will be greeted with a hero’s welcome when he returns to Charlotte.

• College football is over and the NBA takes over Saturday nights, Jan. 19, 2019, Los Angeles Lakers at Houston Rockets. When the NBA’s television package was renewed, there was a scramble over the Saturday night games after college football ended (FOX and others wanted in), but ABC’s bid took over that slot. They open with a big draw of LeBron and the Lakers against Harden and the Rockets.

• Martin Luther King Jr. Day highlight game, Jan. 21, 2019, Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers: By this point the Warriors may well have DeMarcus Cousins back in the rotation, because opponents didn’t have enough to worry about. For years, the Warriors got up to crush the Clippers (in the CP3/Griffin era), with LeBron in town will they bring that focus to the other L.A. team?

Blake Griffin returns to play the Clippers for the first time, Feb. 2, 2019, Detroit Pistons at Los Angeles Clippers: Los Angeles traded away the one top draft pick the franchise has ever nailed at the trade deadline last February, but he never returned in his new Pistons uniform to take on his old team. That happens this February, although the Clippers don’t look anything like the team he led for many years.

• Fun NBA showdown to draw an audience before the Super Bowl kicks off, Feb. 3, 2019, Oklahoma City Thunder at Boston Celtics. The Super Bowl will own this day, but the NBA will try to grab a little of the spotlight with a fun showdown beforehand on ABC with Russell Westbrook and the Thunder attacking the stout defense of the Boston Celtics.

DeMar DeRozan returns to Toronto, Feb. 22, 2019, San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors: Unlike Leonard’s return to San Antonio, DeRozan will get a hero’s welcome from the Toronto faithful. The Spurs won 47 games and should be better with DeRozan playing this season, but the Raptors won 59 last season and may be better as well.

Marcus Smart shoves down Joel Embiid from behind, gets ejected (video)

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Marcus Smart recently bemoaned the lack of physicality in the NBA.

After Joel Embiid dropped his shoulder into him on a screen, Smart brought some to tonight’s Celtics-76ers game.

Smart shoved Embiid in the back, sending the center to the floor. A cheap shot? Yes. Embiid wasn’t looking. But Smart would surely argue Embiid started it. I also doubt Smart intended to push Embiid from behind. Smart just wanted to get at Embiid as quickly as possible, and Embiid happened to be facing the other way when Smart arrived.

Smart got a flagrant 2 and the accompanying ejection. Embiid received a technical foul.

Before James Harden, how many players scored 30 points against every other team in a season?

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James Harden became the first player in NBA history to score 30 points against all 29 opponents in a season.

But the NBA has had 30 teams for just 15 of its 73 seasons.

Obviously, the larger league makes Harden’s feat more impressive. He had to score 30 against more teams. The Rockets also play most opponents, those in the Eastern Conference, only twice. In previous eras, players had more cracks at scoring 30 against fewer teams.

Still, anyone to score 30 points against every opponent has a certain immunity to bad matchups. It’s special.

How many players have done it?

We must start with Wilt Chamberlain, who scored 30 points against all nine teams in the 1964-65 NBA. He began the season with the San Francisco Warriors and, with them, scored 30 against the 76ers. Then, he got traded to Philadelphia and scored 30 on the Warriors. He also dropped 30 on every other team.

Including that season, there have been 85 times a player scored 30 points in a game against every opponent in a season.

Only Harden, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird have done it since the NBA-ABA merger. Jordan (1986-87) and Bird (1984-85) did it against 22 teams.

Everyone else did it against 17 or fewer teams.

Here’s everyone to score 30 in a game against every opponent in a season with the player’s highest-scoring game against each team listed, starting with Chamberlain doing it against every team then following in chronological order:

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Bucks avoid luxury-tax exposure as Pelicans reportedly claim Christian Wood off waivers

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The Bucks’ mission: Win enough to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo long-term.

This summer will present an inflection point. Three Milwaukee starters – Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon – will be free agents, and the luxury tax looms. (The Bucks recently signed Eric Bledsoe to an extension, providing some cost-certainty.)

Will Milwaukee pay the luxury tax to keep this team intact? If so, how much tax and for how long? It’s a long way off, but the Bucks ought to start considering the possibility of the repeater tax down the road.

That’s why it was so risky for Milwaukee to waive Christian Wood and sign Tim Frazier. That put the Bucks in jeopardy of paying the luxury tax this season if they won the championship (triggering bonuses in Tony Snell‘s contract) and Wood went unclaimed. Obviously, Milwaukee would probably gladly pay the tax, miss out on payments to non-tax teams and start the repeater clock to win a title this year. But it’s still better to win without those downsides.

Thankfully for the Bucks, they’re off the hook.

Shams Charania of The Athletic:

https://twitter.com/ShamsCharania/status/1108474930688155650

This is a nice pickup by the Pelicans. The 23-year-old Wood has looked good in limited NBA minutes and in the NBA’s minor league. His 2019-20 minimum salary is unguaranteed until that regular season begins. So, this is a low-risk addition with solid upside.

Maybe Milwaukee could use Wood in the frontcourt right now. Nikola Mirotic just suffered an injury that will sideline him a few weeks, and Giannis Antetokounmpo is out for tonight’s game against the Cavaliers with an ankle injury.

It’s unclear how quickly Wood will report to New Orleans, but he could step into the lineup if Anthony Davis misses more time.

No timetable for CJ McCollum to return from unusual knee injury

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Nobody really knows what to expect.

Including the guy whose knee has become the focus of attention in Portland.

It looked like it could be much worse when it happened Saturday in San Antonio. CJ McCollum drove the lane, there was some contact with Jakob Poeltl but nothing that drew a foul, yet when McCollum landed he went to the ground, instantly grabbed his knee and just laid there, curled up behind the baseline.

McCollum “just” suffered a strained popliteus, the muscle in the back of his left knee. “Just” as in there were no torn ligaments, but that’s a muscle McCollum said he needed to research when he got the news.

“I think it’s definitely a different type of injury because I’ve never really seen it before, besides Kevin Garnett years ago…” McCollum said. “I had to do some research on it.”

What that research showed is back in 2009 Kevin Garnett missed 13 games and basically the playoffs because of this injury. That same timeline would have McCollum back right around the start of the playoffs.

But there is no timeline for McCollum. Mostly because nobody knows exactly what to expect.

“I feel alright…” McCollum told NBC Sports. “The timeline now is just to continue to evaluate after a week, to take it a week at a time, a day at a time and see where I’m at.

“I think because there’s not a lot of information and research on it, this is just kind of a case-by-case basis based on the player, on where he is in his career, and how fast they can recover and heal. That’s how we’re approaching it, just doing what the trainers tell me to do, adding some different nutrients, different things in the weight room, just trying to speed the healing process.”

McCollum admitted it was nerve-racking when the injury happened and he had to wait a day for the diagnosis.

“Any time you have an injury around the knee, those types of areas, you have concern, you don’t know for sure what it is, you need an MRI to tell you what is happening, what’s going on in the knee,” McCollum said. “It was definitely a scary time, just because there is so much uncertainty. Essentially another day where you don’t really know what’s going on, then you have to sit with the MRI for an hour and basically wait to tell them your fate.”

While recovering, McCollum is busy promoting his new partnership with Old Spice. Particularly, he likes the Fresher Collection, which uses natural ingredients in a body wash, shampoo, deodorant, and more to help guys smell better.

“They’ve released their Fresher Collection with real ingredients that are a real benefit, like moisturizing with Shea butter and relaxing with lavender,” McCollum said. “Might as well be fresh when I’m not able to play.”

Make no mistake, McCollum wants to play.

The hope (and maybe expectation) is he will be ready for the playoffs, starting in the middle of April. McCollum said he believes this Portland roster is poised to make some postseason noise.

“We need to execute, we need to execute down the stretch,” McCollum said. “In the playoffs, it becomes a half court game. You’ve got to be able to get stops, you’ve got to be able to score in a slower paced game, and I think we’re built for that.

McCollum pointed to players such as the improved Jusuf Nurkic, plus Enes Kanter, Seth Curry, and Jake Layman as versatile players who can help them win in the postseason. McCollum said this roster is better poised for the playoffs.

“We have some depth, we have some key guys at certain positions who can help us compete against a lot of different teams that play different ways,” McCollum said.

But to do that, Portland needs McCollum back. He averaged 21.3 points per game this season, but what he brings in terms of shooting and ability to drive opens up much more for all his teammates. McCollum is part of the backcourt, along with Damian Lillard, that fuels everything Portland does.

Which means he needs to get his knee healthy. However long it takes.