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.