Ten must-watch games from the first half of NBA season


The league office cut it a little close — we’re less than three weeks away from the start of the season — but the NBA released the schedule for the first half of the NBA season.

Every team is playing in multiple “series” — staying in town to play one team twice — and the TV schedule is unsurprisingly heavy on the Lakers, plus, as usual, the NBA loaded up on stars for opening night and Christmas Day. However, there are matchups to watch throughout the first half of the season (this part of the schedule runs through March 5, the second half will come later and adjust for the inevitable postponed games due to the coronavirus).

Here are 10 days of must-watch games from the NBA’s first-half schedule:

Note: This list does not include my early favorite for must-watch League Pass team (Atlanta) or teams I will tune in just to see what the experiment looks like (LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward in Charlotte); this is just games where you need to plant yourself on the couch and watch some good NBA basketball. You can get back to The Queen’s Gambit afterward.

Opening night, Dec. 22, 2020: Golden State Warriors at Brooklyn Nets

The headline game is the Lakers getting their rings, but it’s the early game that night that is must-watch: Kevin Durant makes his return to the court against Golden State and Stephen Curry, who is also making a return to action. How do those superstars look, and how do their reformed teams look around them? Brooklyn has the potential to be contenders in the East, but is Durant close to his old self, and are the role players meshing with the stars? We start to get answers to those questions.

Christmas Day, Dec 25, 2020: Los Angeles Clippers at Denver Nuggets

Christmas Day is always loaded with good games: Kyrie Irving returns to Boston wearing a Brooklyn uniform, and LeBron James and the Lakers against Luka Doncic and the Mavericks. But it’s the nightcap where teams with bad blood get together: The Clippers had a 3-1 series lead against Denver, were up in Game 5, and thought they were going to coast into the Western Conference Finals. With Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic, Denver showed more grit and chemistry than a Clippers team that thought it could flip the switch. Do the Clippers with Tyronn Lue in the coach’s chair have a different attitude?

(The NBA is really trolling the Clippers to start the season, making them watch the Lakers get their rings, then sending them to face the team that humiliated them in the playoffs last season.)

Dec. 29, 2020: Pelicans at Suns

These are two teams with the potential to get the seven or eight seed in the West facing off. How much better does Chris Paul make Devin Booker, and particularly Deandre Ayton? Is Zion Williamson going to stay healthy and take an explosive leap forward? Has Stan Van Gundy got the Pelicans playing good defense? How does the New Orleans offense look without Jrue Holiday? With a shortened schedule in a brutal and deep West, games like this will carry extra weight.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 18, 2021: Phoenix at Memphis

The NBA always loads up good games on MLK Day, but the Grizzlies at home is always a special moment. This also is a chance to see Rookie of the Year Ja Morant against Chris Paul head-to-head in another matchup of teams with playoff dreams in the West. Other games to check out that day include the Timberwolves at the Hawks (Atlanta was where Martin Luther King was born and raised), Milwaukee at Brooklyn, Dallas at Toronto, and the Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State.

Jan. 20/Jan 22, 2021: Boston at Philadelphia

These are two of the series games, where the two teams play each other in the same arena two nights apart as the league tries to reduce travel. These two teams expect to be near the top of the East and back-to-back games could get chippy. How has Brooklyn come together a month into the season? Has Boston gotten Kemba Walker back, and if so, do they look like a contender or a team taking a step back without Hayward? These games should be fun.

Jan. 21, 2021: Los Angeles Lakers at Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Bucks see themselves as contenders, but a second-round playoff exit at the Heat’s hands led to an off-season of changes. Jrue Holiday is now in a Bucks uniform. Is that and another year together for the Milwaukee core turning this team into a true contender? We get to watch the Bucks in a measuring stick game against the Champions and favorites in the LAkers.

Jan. 26, 2021: Washington at Houston

Houston gave up a lot to get Russell Westbrook. One year later he wanted out, and James Harden said good riddance — Westbrook was traded for John Wall. It’s the first time Wall will play Wizards again, and Westbrook will look to drop 60 on his old team. Revenge makes for the best games. (I’d say Westbrook would be greeted with a chorus of boos, but who knows if or how many fans will be in the stands at that point.)

Feb. 13, 2021: Brooklyn at Golden State

Kevin Durant returns to Golden State, where he won two rings, to go up against his old teammates Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. If this were a normal time and fans filled the Chase Center, would they boo Durant as the guy who bolted town, or cheer him as a key player to the franchise winning two more rings? Or, are the San Francisco fans just staring at their phones and miss the whole thing?

Feb. 15, 2021: Houston at Washington

This time it is John Wall returning to Washington — and I hope there are fans in the stands because he will be treated like the prodigal son. Wall is beloved in our nation’s capital, in part because he led the best Wizards team since the 1970s, and in part because he was incredibly active and gave back generously in the community. Wall deserves a warm reception upon his return.

Feb. 20, Miami at Los Angeles Lakers

Finally, the first rematch of last year’s NBA Finals. The Lakers got better this offseason with the additions of Dennis Schroder, Montrezl Harrell, and Marc Gasol. There are some around the league convinced the Heat are good but that their Finals run was a bubble fluke; Miami will be playing with a chip on its shoulder all season to prove them wrong.

Three takeaways from wild night where Celtics force Game 7 thanks to Derrick White


You were not alone in being stunned, blown away or whatever other description you can conjure up for the finish to Game 6. Look at the reaction from around the NBA.

The Celtics won 104-103 on a dramatic putback from Derrick White to force a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Monday.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

1) What. An. Ending.

When was the last time any one of us saw a game this entertaining, this dramatic? Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, highlighted by the LeBron James chase-down block on Andre Iguodala? Game 7 of the 2019 second-round series between the Raptors and 76ers, the one with Kawhi Leonard‘s corner shot that bounced around on the rim three times before falling? There are others on the list, but whatever game you choose, this one enters the conversation of all-time greats.

On a night where they struggled from 3 — 7-of-35 for the game — the Celtics were still up 10 midway through the fourth quarter and seemingly in control. Then Boston gave it all away, slowing the pace down and not executing — or Miami seized the moment, depending on your perspective. While the Celtics got tight and struggled with their shot in those final five minutes, the Heat went on a late 15-4 run sparked primarily by Jimmy Butler (15 points in the fourth) and Duncan Robinson, with Miami attacking and pushing the pace, drawing fouls and getting to the line. It was a stunning turnaround.

Those drawing fouls included Butler drawing a three-shot foul on Al Horford with :03 seconds remaining. Butler drained all three free throws to put the Heat up one. Boston called a timeout to set up the final play, which didn’t go to plan — Marcus Smart took a turnaround 3 — but worked out thanks to Derrick White.

“I was passing it in. [Gabe] Vincent was on me, and he kind of was up top denying [Jayson Tatum], so I couldn’t get him the ball,” White said of the play. “And they did a good job of denying [Jaylen Brown], too and [Marcus] Smart flashed, hit him, and there really was nobody on me, so I just spaced to the corner, and when he shot it just tried to crash. Ball came to me, I made the shot.”

If Boston wins Game 7, White’s putback will be remembered in Boston sports lore like Dave Roberts stealing second for the Red Sox in their legendary 0-3 comeback against the Yankees. It was that kind of moment, that kind of play which capped off the wildest of nights.

2) The Heat will need more from Butler, Adebayo in Game 7

This was almost a culture win for the Heat. They were going to win because their role players stepped up — Caleb Martin (starting over Kevin Love) was the Heat’s best player on the night scoring 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting with 15 rebounds. Gabe Vincent returned from his sprained ankle to score 15, Duncan Robinson had 13 off the bench, and Max Strus added 10.

All of that made up for the fact Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were not good enough for the first 43 minutes of this game. The two Heat stars shot a combined 7-of-35 up until that late run where Butler got a 3 to fall and got to the line a few times. It was almost enough, but the Heat need Butler to set a better tone in Game 7.

“Like I told the guys on the bench, I told the guys in the locker room, that if I play better, we’re not even in this position, honestly speaking,” Butler said. “And I will be better. That’s what makes me smile, because those guys follow my lead. So when I’m playing better, I think we’re playing better as a whole.”

“Jimmy leads with everything — his spirit, his soul, his competitive nature,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Butler pregame. “It’s all out there on his sleeves. That’s what we love about him.”

Butler looks a little tired and a little less explosive, but give the Celtics’ defense credit, they have packed the paint and cut off Butler’s drives, and their length clearly bothers his shot inside. Joe Mazzulla, who drew the wrath of Celtics fans early in this series, deserved credit for his adjustments in this series.

Butler and Adebayo have to rise above them in Game 7. Caleb Martin can not again be the best Heat player on the floor. Spoelstra is right, everything with the Heat starts with Butler and he has to summon up one more elite game.

3) Jayson Tatum owned the first half as Celtics’ best players stepped up

While Miami’s best players struggled, Boston’s best players stepped up.

At the front of that line was Jayson Tatum, who 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting with two assists in the first half. While he wouldn’t score in the second half until some free throws midway through the fourth, Tatum hit some clutch shots down the stretch and finished with 31.

Jaylen Brown added 26 points despite battling foul trouble all night, and Marcus Smart finished with 21.

All of that made up for a dreadful night shooting from 3, the Celtics were 7-of-35 on the night. Shoot 20% from 3 in Game 7 and they will lose, that Boston got away with a win on an off-shooting night like that is lucky.

However, their stars are used to stepping up in elimination games, they have just done it three times in a row, and they did it in Game 7 against these same Heat a year ago. Do Boston’s stars have one more great game in them?


Watch Derrick White putback force Game 7 as Celtics edge Heat


What. A. Game.

In the best game of these playoffs — as good as one in any postseason — it looked like the Miami Heat were going to get a culture win on a night their star Jimmy Butler was off his game until the final minutes. Three Butler free throws with :03 remaining put the Heat up by one, but the Celtics got one last chance. Marcus Smart short-armed that chance, but Derrick White was hustling along the baseline.

Miami gets the 104-103 win to even the series 3-3 and force a Memorial Day Game 7 back in Boston.

This was the kind of ugly, gritty game the Celtics tend to give away. They were certainly not at their peak in this one, shooting 7-of-35 from 3 as a team — usually a stat that leads to a loss for this Celtics team, which leans into the 3-pointer.

What saved them was a brilliant first half from Jayson Tatum, some solid play from Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart in the second half, and an off night at the worst time for the Heat stars.

The first half was the Tatum show as he scored 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting, with 11 free throws and a couple of assists. He was attacking and aggressive, and the rest of the Celtics offense flowed off that and they got the lead up to 11.

However, the Heat closed that lead down to four at the half, 57-53, thanks largely to 9-of-15 shooting from 3.

This was almost a culture win for the Heat. Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo were not the stars the Heat needed — they shot a combined 7-of-35 until the final minutes of the game — but the Miami role players stepped up. Caleb Martin got the start over Kevin Love and was the Heat’s best player on the night with 21 points on 7-of-13 shooting plus 15 rebounds. Gabe Vincent returned from his sprained ankle to score 15, Duncan Robinson had 13 off the bench, and Max Strus added 10.

With their stars off their game the Heat struggled to score in the third, starting the quarter shooting 5-of-24 (20.8%), yet by the time the quarter was over the Heat were still only down seven. Miami was hanging around in a game they should have been blown out of.

That’s because the Celtics shot 5-of-25 from 3 through 3 quarters, plus Boston had 11 turnovers through three (compared to four for the Heat).

Tatum finished with 31 points to lead Boston, Jaylen Brown had 26 despite battling foul trouble all night, and Marcus Smart added 21.

Boston had a 10-point lead midway through the fourth quarter but gave it away with missed shots and sloppy play under pressure. Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler hit a big 3-pointer, kept attacking, and got to the free throw line with the chance to put his team ahead in the final seconds. And did. It looked like a classic, gutty, Heat culture win.

And then Derrick White happened.

And now there is a Game 7.

Milwaukee Bucks reportedly to hire Adrian Griffin as head coach

Detroit Pistons v Toronto Raptors
Vaughn Ridley/NBAE via Getty Images

Buzz had been growing for a week that Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin was the favorite Bucks coaching candidate of Giannis Antetokounmpo. Nick Nurse had his backers in the organization, but in a superstar-driven league, the wishes of players like the Greek Freak hold a lot of sway (especially with him up for a new contract in a couple of years).

The Milwaukee Bucks are reportedly hiring Griffin as their next head coach, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

This reaction from Fred VanVleet should tell you all you need to know about how the Raptors players felt about Griffin.

This hire is a gamble by the Bucks, turning the keys of a contender over to a rookie coach, but Griffin is more than deserving of a shot. Griffin spent eight years as a role player in the NBA — after going undrafted out of Seton Hall hand having to play in the Philipines — and then got into coaching, starting as an assistant in Milwaukee from 2008-2010. Griffin is seen as a defensive-first coach with a strong player development background (he worked with Jimmy Butler in Chicago). He’s been at or near the top of the “guys who deserve a shot” list for years and was in consideration for the open Raptors job in Toronto.

Instead, he now takes over a contender, although with a roster that is getting older and more expensive fast (free agent center Brook Lopez turns 35 this year, Khris Middleton is 31 and has a $40.4 million player option, Jrue Holiday is 31 and extension eligible come the fall).

Griffin will replace Mike Budenholzer, who was let go despite winning a championship with this team in 2021. Budenholzer is a process guy and was considered too rigid and slow to make adjustments in the playoffs, and this year’s first-round elimination by the No. 8 seed Miami Heat was seen as the culmination of that (even though Antetokounmpo missed two games due to a back injury). Griffin will bring a different voice and some new looks to a Bucks team still in its championship window.

Don’t be surprised if the Bucks hire a former NBA head coach to be Griffin’s lead assistant, to give him a veteran voice as a sounding board.

Nurse had been considered one of the frontrunners for this job, but now looks like someone destined to land in Philadelphia or Phoenix.

Heat guard Gabe Vincent reportedly to play in Game 6


Officially, Heat guard Gabe Vincent is listed as questionable for a critical Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday night. He missed Game 5 due to a sprained ankle suffered late in Game 4 but was a partial participant in Saturday’s shootaround, according to Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel.

However, a report from Ben Rohrbach of Yahoo Sports points to what everyone expects: Vincent will play in Game 6.

Miami needs him back if they are going to win Game 6 at home and end this series (the Heat lead the series 3-2).

Not just because Vincent has averaged 17.5 points per game this series, but because of his ball handling and shot creation. In the second half of Game 4 and through Game 5, the Celtics changed their defensive game plan, becoming aggressive at jumping passing lanes, bringing doubles on drivers, and trying to force turnovers. During the regular season the Celtics were a bottom-five team in forcing turnovers by design — they bet that their impressive one-on-one defenders could make shots difficult and so off-ball defenders largely stayed home on guys off the ball and didn’t take risks. That changed and Miami struggled to adjust in Game 5, with Kyle Lowry — starting in place of Vincent — having three costly early turnovers.

Vincent back in the lineup could help counter the Celtics’ defense. Miami also needs great games from Jimmy Butler (who looked tired in Game 5) and Bam Adebayo, who also had an off game in Boston.

The Heat want no part of a Game 7, they need to close this series out Saturday night. They need Vincent to do that.