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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.

NBA schedule reduces back-to-backs, provides some mid-season homecomings

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For a couple of seasons now, under Commissioner Adam Silver’s direction, the NBA has looked for ways to improve the regular-season product. The playoffs work, they have plenty of drama, but the marathon of an 82-game regular season can lead to some tired players and flat play.

Once again the NBA is trying to adjust to that, something evidenced by the drop of the full NBA season schedule on Friday. Here are a few notes along those lines:

• No team has a four-games-in-five-nights stretch.

• Teams will averaged just 1.2 five-games-in-seven-nights stretch (something most teams had three of just a few years back).

• No team has eight-games-in-12-nights for the first time in NBA history.

• Back-to-backs are reduced to an average of 13.3 per team (meaning just under one-third of most team’s games are on one of a back-to-back). For comparison, that was at 14.4 last season, and four seasons ago a lot of teams had 20 back-to-backs (nearly half the schedule).

That’s all good. Coaches are still going to rest players and give them nights off, but that will happen less often now. Also, the league is pressuring teams not to rest players in big nationally televised games (and most of the time, when a team plays on TNT Thursday or an ABC weekend game, they will be coming off a day or two of rest). This is good for the longevity of players, and just for the level of play.

While we already knew about the opening week of the season and Christmas Day, there also were some new homecoming dates dropped with the full schedule release — we are going to have some fun midseason matchups:

• On Nov. 21 LeBron James returns to Cleveland wearing a Laker uniform. Don’t expect him to get booed like his return with the Heat, LeBron will get a warm welcome from the Cavaliers faithful — he brought them a title as promised.

• On Jan. 3 2019, Kawhi Leonard returns to San Antonio in a Toronto Raptors uniform, that will not be a warm welcome.

• On Jan. 14, 2019, Tony Parker will make his return to San Antonio wearing Charlotte Hornets’ teal.

• On Feb. 2, 2019, Blake Griffin returns to play the Clippers for the first time. He was traded away at the deadline last February, but by that point the Pistons had made their West Coast swing. This will be the first time Griffin takes on the shell of what was his former team.

• On Feb. 22, 2019, DeMar DeRozan returns to Toronto with the San Antonio Spurs. He will be greeted like a conquering hero, fans there love him.

Matt Barnes on what held Chris Paul, Blake Griffin Clippers back: ‘Egos’

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There was a stretch of time, from 2012 through 2016 (maybe 2017) when the Los Angeles Clippers looked like contenders. In Doc Rivers first four seasons coaching Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, plus J.J. Redick and the rest of a solid core, they had a top-four point differential in the league three times (and were sixth the other year). These were outstanding teams that showed so much potential.

Then never got past the second round.

Matt Barnes was on some of those Clippers teams, then later went on to the Warriors where he won a ring. Barnes was on the “Lunchtime with Roggin and Rodney” show on AM 570 LA Sports (a show featuring Los Angeles sports broadcasting legend Fred Roggin and former NFL quarterback Rodney Peete) and was honest about the downfall of that team.

“We really had one of the most talented teams that never won a championship in L.A. and I think it was our own fault. We were in our own way. Just too many egos, young acting. We thought we were going to be the Warriors right up until they won the championship. We knocked them out of the playoffs the year before they came back and won, so we had a very talented team. We just couldn’t get on the same page. It was crazy. We were all cool off the court and I was like ‘how are we cool off the court and can’t get it together on the court?’ That was our… our mental toughness was what kept us from winning championships for the Clippers.”

Why couldn’t they get it together?

“Egos. Egos. And now looking back on it from my perspective, because I was fortunate enough to go to the Warriors with a whole handful of superstars and there was no egos. Everyone left their ego… the only thing that mattered in Golden State was to win and winning the championship. If we had that mentality with the Clippers we would have won a championship.”

Nobody wins a ring in the NBA without talent, that is first and foremost. A team has to be one of the most talented in the league to have a shot. But it’s more than that — it’s about sacrifice. It’s about putting aside what is best for you to do what is best for the team. Some guys do that effortlessly — Stephen Curry, Tim Duncan, others — and some guys have trouble learning that lesson.

Still others never figure it out. Those Clippers never did, and they missed their window.

Pistons’ Andre Drummond says he’ll shoot 3-pointers next season

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The NBA’s 3-point revolution is spreading to centers.

Even ones who’ve shown no mid-range game and an awkward stroke on free throws.

Pistons center Andre Drummond, via Joseph Casciaro of theScore:

“I don’t do stuff (on the court) just to have fun,” Drummond told theScore when questioned about his 3-point shenanigans. “If I’m taking those shots, (it’s because) I’m working on it for the upcoming season. Those are shots that I’m gonna be taking.

“I make at least 200 corner 3s every day before I leave the gym. I’m getting them up. I’m getting the same shot up over and over again, so I’m getting more comfortable with it. It’s been great so far,” he explained.

Drummond, like most players, likes to be involved offensively. For years, that meant terribly inefficient post-ups. Last season, Detroit found a clever solution – using Drummond in the high post as a passing hub. But then the Pistons traded for Blake Griffin, who pushed Drummond out of that role.

So, Drummond spotting up for 3s could get him shots that keep him engaged in other aspects of the game, like defense. He could also pull a big out of the paint and make it easier for his teammates to attack the rim. He needn’t hit a high percentage of shots to make this strategy worthwhile, but he must hit enough to warrant taking them and to draw a defender to him.

Will he?

Drummond loves to take halfcourt heaves at the end of quarters, and maybe that somewhat translates. His problems on free throws are partially mental, and he won’t necessarily bring that block to 3-pointers. New Pistons coach Dwane Casey had success turning Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas into more of a 3-point shooter.

But I’m skeptical. Drummond’s stroke free throws, even massively improved last year, is still often so ugly. Other bigs showed more propensity from mid-range before expanding their shot selection beyond the arc. This could be another situation like post-ups, where Drummond’s eagerness far outpaces his ability.

Drummond has made himself a star by leveraging his awesome combination of size and athleticism. Adding reliable 3-point shooting could take his game to a far higher level. The upside is so high.

But, for now, I’m in wait-and-see mode.

Trainer: Markelle Fultz will be All-Star next season if 100 percent

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Those rumors about trainer Drew Hanlen fixing Markelle Fultz‘s jumper?

Hanlen sure isn’t downplaying them.

Fox Sports 1:

Hanlen:

I literally think that, if he’s back to 100 percent, I think he’s immediately an All-Star. I know that’s a bold statement, but I work with a lot of other All-Stars. So, I think I have the right to say that.

Fultz won’t technically be a rookie next season, but he’s pretty close to warranting that status. No active player has made the All-Star game in his first NBA season. Only Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Blake Griffin, Derrick Rose, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter did it in their second.

This is an extremely high bar for Fultz to clear.

Hanlen has a business to run, and provocative quotes like this generate publicity. But I’m not sure it’s good for Fultz, and I mean that with all sincerity. There isn’t much history for a player so dependent on his jumper to, as Hanlen himself described it, get the yips.

76ers teammate J.J. Redick tried to shield Fultz. Hanlen went the opposite way by raising expectations. To his credit, Fultz spoke candidly  about about his struggles early in the season (though I talked to him before the scope of the problem might have set in).

I really don’t know the right approach for him.

No matter what’s said now, Fultz will have to make jumpers with millions watching during games if he’s ever going to fulfill his potential. He could do that next season. I hope he does.

But I’m not sure even a confident and healthy Fultz is an All-Star yet, and it’d be a shame if tremendous progress is deemed not good enough because we expected too much.