The NBA is back… almost.
The plans are agreed to, the schedule is out, there’s a decision to focus on social justice, and now tip-off of the restarted season is a little more than a month away. Concerns are rising along with the coronavirus cases in Florida, but Friday Adam Silver said it would take a “significant spread” of the virus inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble to shut down the league again.
Which means we can start to focus on the must-watch games on the NBA schedule.
And that new schedule is stacked. Remove the eight worst teams from the mix, throw in the race for the eighth and some important seeding games, and every night there is a matchup worth watching. There are a lot of games with weight and meaning.
Here are our seven must-watch NBA games of the restart.
1) July 30: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers 9 p.m. (TNT)
Opening night we get the Hallway Series — just played 2,500 miles from the Staples Center hallways. It’s a matchup of (arguably) the two best playoff performers in the NBA right now — LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard — it’s the top teams in the West, two teams sharing a city, and a budding rivalry. That said, this could look a lot like two NFL teams meeting in week 16 knowing a playoff matchup looms — nobody wants to tip their hand. If there’s a matchup Doc Rivers loves, he’s not going to wear it out in this first game of the restart. Same with Frank Vogel. Expect some lineup experimentation and not too many minutes for the stars.
That said, it’s still opening night and both teams want to get off on the right foot. The Lakers need to find rotations that work without Avery Bradley and have some work to do. These are the best teams in the West, and fans or no fans the competitive juices will be flowing.
2) July 31: Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo has been clear-and-away the best team in the East this season, led by the best defense in the NBA. Boston has been the team on the rise this season, another top-five defense and with an emerging star in Jayson Tatum the Celtics look like the biggest threat to the Bucks Finals run. Milwaukee doesn’t have to worry about losing its seed, but it would love to make a statement — as would the Celtics.
3) Aug. 2: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets, 8 p.m. (ABC)
This will be pure fun. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. a skinny James Harden. The small-ball, bomb-from-three Rockets against the best defense in the NBA — a Bucks defense predicated on taking away the paint and forcing teams to beat them from three. Every game will matter for a Rockets team in the middle of a seeding fight in the West, but mostly this game just should be as entertaining as basketball gets.
4) Aug. 3: Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
An easy addition to the NBA’s must-watch games list. It’s more than just Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant… although it is that too. Zion was making a push in the Rookie of the Year race despite playing just 19 games — 40 fewer than Morant — and his only hope of catching the Grizzlies point guard is to completely outplay him in the restart and get the Pelicans into the playoffs. (Even that may not be enough.)
New Orleans had the easiest schedule remaining in the NBA when the league was forced to shut down. The league replicated that as best it could heading to Orlando — New Orleans is the only team where the cumulative records of their opponents are below .500. Throw in a healthy Zion ready to shock the world and the Pelicans are the biggest threat to get into a play-in tournament with the Grizzlies. Picking up a head-to-head win would be a huge plus for the Pelicans in that chase.
5) Aug. 7: Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors, 9 p.m. (TNT)
These two teams are the second and third best teams in the East — but in what order? Toronto has been an elite defensive team this season, Pascal Siakam has taken a step forward, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are still making veteran plays, coach Nick Nurse has been nothing short of brilliant, and the Raptors look every bit the dangerous defending champions. But do they have an answer for the emerging Tatum and an interesting, switchable Boston team on the rise? Bet the under in this game, both defenses are far better than the offenses.
6) Aug. 10: Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (TNT)
Skinny Nikola Jokic is for real — but are the Nuggets for real? Denver will likely finish as the third seed in the West, but in NBA circles there is a sense this team is headed for another early playoff exit in a tight West. Denver’s defense looked good on paper early in the season, but a lot of that was just teams missing shots they usually hit (looking at the NBA’s Second Spectrum tracking data). The Nuggets have to find that defense and answer other questions, such as can Jamal Murray step up and be a No. 2 option on a dangerous playoff team? There would be no better time for Denver to make a statement before the playoffs than beating LeBron James and the top team in the West.
7) Aug. 12: Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)
Philadelphia is the dangerous darkhorse in the East. They are long, they can defend (sixth-best in the NBA this season), they have an elite big man in Joel Embiid who can carry the team for a stretch, they get a healthy Ben Simmons back, and they got one of the softer schedules in Orlando. If the Sixers can just find enough shooting to both score and space the floor, watch out. This will be a good test for them, going against the defending champs and a team with both talent and a real identity.
Toronto knows who it is, does Philadelphia.