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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.

Is feud brewing between Luka Doncic, Michael Porter Jr.?

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At one point, Luka Doncic and Michael Porter were considered potential No. 1 picks in the 2018 NBA draft.

After slipping behind Deandre Ayton and getting passed on by the Kings for some reason, Doncic went No. 3 to the Hawks on behalf of the Mavericks. Porter got hurt and fell to the Nuggets at No. 14.

Neither Doncic nor Porter played summer league, but they’re going head-to-head now – on social media.

Porter liked an Instagram comment calling Doncic overrated:

Dino Radoncic‏ stuck up for Doncic, his former Real Madrid teammate:

Doncic liked Radoncic’s tweet.

Typical warning: Likes aren’t necessarily endorsements. No matter what Instagram and Twitter call the feature, people can use it for different reasons. It’s also easy to unintentionally like something.

But even if neither player intended to call his draft-classmate overrated, good luck convincing the other of that. Something benign can easily spiral into genuine resentment.

To Radoncic’s comment, Doncic’s loftier accolades give him more room to be overrated. Likewise, Porter falling out of the spotlight while injured gives him more room to be underrated.

Personally, I think both players are underrated. I had Doncic No. 2 and Porter No. 7 on my draft board, and nothing since the draft would push either player below their actual draft slot to me.

It’s official: Lakers vs. Warriors, 76ers vs. Celtics headline Christmas games as NBA drops big games

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The NBA has released the big news days of the schedule — opening night, Christmas Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. day. Fans are going to get what they want: a heavy dose of Stephen Curry and Golden State, LeBron James and the Lakers, plus the revived rivalry of the Celtics and 76ers.

Here are the significant dates to note released Wednesday (the rest of the schedule comes out Friday):

Opening night, Oct. 16: Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Golden State Warriors. The battle for supremacy in the East starts opening night, while Russell Westbrook and Paul George get to watch the Warriors raise another championship banner, then try to wipe that smug smile off their faces.

Oct. 17: New Orleans Pelicans vs. Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns. Houston has to open its run against Anthony Davis and company, then we get our first regular-season look at No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton.

Oct. 18: Los Angeles Lakers at Portland Trail Blazers. LeBron makes his Lakers debut on the road against Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and the Trail Blazers. It may be Game 1 for both teams, but in a brutal West all these matchups of teams fighting for playoff slots will matter. LeBron’s home debut is two days later, Saturday Oct. 20, vs. Houston.

Christmas Day, Dec. 25: Milwaukee Bucks at New York Knicks, Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets, Philadelphia 76ers at Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers at Golden State Warriors, Portland Trail Blazers at Utah Jazz. Five games again on Christmas for the day the NBA owns (well, besides your family and all that stuff). LeBron vs. Curry and Kevin Durant headline the day as expected, as well as another Boston/Philly clash. The fun ones will be that Thunder and Rockets game, and it’s great to see Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz land a prime-time slot. They have earned it.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 21, 2019: New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets at Philadelphia 76ers, Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers. A TNT triple-header of teams fans love to watch (and Memphis, which if healthy is going to be sneaky good this season).

Here is the full schedule released so far, the rest will be released Friday.

Report: Suns trade Jared Dudley, second-rounder to Nets

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The Nets already got draft picks for taking Kenneth Faried‘s ($13,764,045) and Darrell Arthur‘s ($7,464,912) expiring contracts from the tax-avoiding Nuggets.

Now, Brooklyn will get more draft consideration for flipping Arthur for Jared Dudley‘s costlier expiring contract ($9,530,000).

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

What happens if the pick lands between Nos. 31 and 35? That determines exactly how valuable it is, but this still seems like a high price to save just $2,065,088 – especially when it’s probably just about the real money, not the cap room.

The Suns open a little more cap space, but still less than their $4,449,000 room exception. At this point, it appears unlikely they use either.

Owner Rob Sarver will appreciate the reduced payroll, and if general manager Ryan McDonough doesn’t keep the owner happy, the lost draft pick will be the next guy’s problem.

Brooklyn is already over the cap and never counted on Arthur as a player. The only cost of this trade is the real money in the difference between Dudley’s and Arthur’s salaries, and the Nets are willing to pay that for a draft pick. Good for them.

Neither Dudley nor Arthur played much last year. Maybe that’s because Dudley was on a tanking team trying to empower youth and Arthur was buried behind a deep power-forward rotation. But maybe Dudley (33) and Arthur (30) are just washed up and no longer capable of contributing at an NBA level. Getting them in different situations could reveal plenty. They’re both smart players, the type teams want to add.

Lakers’ Josh Hart wins Summer League MVP

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The Lakers wanted to test Josh Hart this summer: What would happen if they gave him a more substantial role? He was solid as a backup point guard last season (a good showing for a rookie), averaging 7.9 points per game and shooting 39.6 percent from three, but with Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo in the fold point guard minutes will be hard to come by next season.

What happened if they put the ball in Hart’s hands and made him the leader of a team on and off the court?

Hart responded by winning the NBA Las Vega Summer League MVP, averaging 24.2 points a game and leading the Lakers to the championship game. He dropped 37 on the Cavaliers and Collin Sexton in the semi-finals.

The award was announced Tuesday, in advance of the title contest between Hart and his Lakers vs. the Portland Trail Blazers.

Hart is the second Laker in a row to win the award, last year Lonzo Ball won it in leading the Lakers to a Summer League crown.

It’s an honor, but don’t assume Summer League MVP means NBA success. Sure, Damian Lillard won the award, but he was co-MVP with Josh Shelby. Glen Rice III won the award. The MVP list includes Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones and other good but not All-Star players.

Hart also made the All-NBA Summer League first team. (Both the MVP award and All-NBA Summer League teams were voted on by a select media pannel.)

Here are the Las Vegas All Summer League teams:

All-NBA Summer League First Team

Wendell Carter Jr. (Chicago)
Josh Hart (Los Angeles Lakers)
Kevin Knox (New York)
Collin Sexton (Cleveland)
Christian Wood (Milwaukee)

MGM Resorts All-NBA Summer League Second Team

Deandre Ayton (Phoenix)
Wade Baldwin IV (Portland)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis)
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Los Angeles Lakers)
Trae Young (Atlanta)