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

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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.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.

Three things to know: Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Watch Jamal Murray drain game-winning 3 to beat Blazers

This game felt like a 2019 playoff time capsule, with Damian Lillard and Jamal Murray trading blows in a dramatic game.

Lillard landed more of them, he finished with 40 points — and his final three were vintage Dame Time.

But Murray had the final word.

The final minutes of this game were insane.

It was a needed win for a Denver team that some nights look like they can compete with the best in the league, then turn around 48 hours later and mail in a loss to a tanking team. Nikola Jokic scored 33 against Portland (with 10 boards and nine assists) — he is again putting up numbers that will have him in the MVP conversation (even if it’s a longshot he wins it). However, the Nuggets’ bottom-five defense makes them inconsistent night to night.

Portland revamped their roster to get younger and more athletic around Lillard this past offseason, but one of the results of that is the inconsistency of youth. The Blazers don’t bring the same level of execution every night. If they don’t learn that lesson, they may be different in makeup but the results will be the same as many Portland teams of the last decade — an early playoff exit.

2) Brittney Griner is home on U.S.soil

After spending 10 months in Russian jails — including being convicted and sent to a penal colony — on trumped-up drug charges that made her a political pawn in a massive geo-political battle, Brittney Griner is finally home on U.S. soil, her plane landed in Texas overnight.

The Biden administration worked out a prisoner exchange with Russia that brings Griner home to be with her wife, family and friends — that is something to be celebrated.

Of course, there was some pushback online/in the media from people who care only about trying to score political points for their selfish ends. Fortunately, we had the family of Paul Whelan — a Michigan corporate security executive who has been behind bars in Russia since December 2018 on trumped-up espionage charges — who praised the president for bringing Griner home and making “the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen.”

An American citizen is home. She happens to be a WNBA star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, but those things are not what matters most, and are secondary to her family who are just happy to hug her and tell her they love her again. We all hope that day comes soon for American political prisoners held around the globe (including Whelan), but we should celebrate the big victory of Griner being back on U.S. soil.

3) Spurs snap 11-game losing streak behind 32 from Johnson

Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs’ 11-game losing streak.

“This has been the first game in a while where we were clicking defensively,” Johnson told the Associated Press after the game. “You can tell when we get stops, get out and run and be able to get out front. If we can keep that mindset of defense first, get stops and we let the offense take care of itself, we’ll be in great shape.”

All of that is interesting, but the real debate of the night: Was this an offensive foul by Alperen Sengun, or a block by Zach Collins?

Sengun was in the air when Collins came over, but he also used his off hand to create space for the dunk. This is a bang-bang call and the challenge of the block/charge call — I think that’s a block by Collins, but that’s not how the referee or many others have seen it. How would you have called it?