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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.

Stephen Curry says he, Warriors not fazed by power shift to West

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LeBron James is a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, taking a 35-win team and making them a threat in a deep West. Carmelo Anthony is joining the Rockets. DeMar DeRozan has been added to the Spurs. It’s not just them, literally every team in the Western Conference got better this off-season — even bottom two Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings should be noticeably improved.

How does Stephen Curry feel about that? He said this was to be expected and the Warriors will be ready for it, speaking to Monte Poole of NBC Sports Bay Area about this coming season.

“If you go through history, there’s has been blockbuster moves and trades every year, or most years,” he said. “Every team is trying to beat the champs, so nothing is really surprising. You just sit back and survey the league, survey what’s going on, and how we can get back on top this coming year and three-peat.

“There’s been some big names, obviously, with LeBron (James) and other guys moving. We need to control what we can control and be a better team this year. We have a couple new additions, so we’ve got to hit the ground running in September, in training camp. As every year is, chasing a championship, a different year and you can’t just carbon copy what you did last year and be successful.”

The Warriors big-name move this summer was adding DeMarcus Cousins, although he likely will not be back until Christmas or later. The Warriors can bring him along slowly because when they really need him is the playoffs — even a slowed and lessened Cousins is an upgrade over Zaza Pachulia. That said, when the game is on the line late, Cousins will be on the bench watching the “death lineup” with Draymond Green playing the five. That will remain the Warriors’ best lineup.

This weekend Curry will be playing in the Ellie Mae Classic at TPC Stonebrae — a stop on the Web.com tour (the secondary tour, behind the PGA Tour). Curry played in it last year and despite being near a scratch golfer he missed the cut by 11 strokes. That said, this is a course he plays a lot and he believes he can do much better.

“As a true golf nut, whether I can execute it or not is another question. But I feel like I can shave off 11 shots. Who knows what the cut will be this year? But that’s my goal.

“I feel like I could use the experience last year and the few chances I get to play tournament golf to my advantage and see what happens. I’ve just got to get off to a better start and not hit it into a cupholder or a golf cart on the first shot.”

 

Stat of interest: Half of 2017 NBA All-Stars have since changed teams

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Why does the NBA win the offseason every summer?

Because star players switch teams. A lot.

The combination of shorter contracts (something owners pushed for in recent CBAs to save themselves from themselves because they didn’t want to get locked into six-year deals they regretted) and elite players taking more control of their own destiny has led to a boom of player movement. That’s something fans find more interesting than the games themselves (just check any web site’s traffic numbers, and not just for basketball). In the end, the NBA wins.

How much player movement is there in the NBA: Marc Stein of the New York Times put out this stat in his must-read weekly newsletter, via the brilliant Tom Haberstroh:

In the 18 months since the 2017 All-Star Game in New Orleans, 12 of the 24 players who participated in that game have switched teams.

He’s the full list:

DeMarcus Cousins. He was traded pretty much during that 2017 All-Star game from Sacramento to New Orleans. He signed this summer with Golden State.

LeBron James. He left Cleveland this summer as a free agent to join the Los Angeles Lakers.

Paul George. Traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City, where this summer he re-signed.

Kawhi Leonard. He forced a trade from San Antonio and ended up in Toronto.

DeMar DeRozan. Traded from Toronto to San Antonio as part of the Leonard deal.

• Carmelo Anthony. He was a Knick at the 2017 All-Star Game, was traded to Oklahoma City before last season. This season he was traded to Atlanta, which bought him out, and within hours of this story going up he will sign with the Houston Rockets.

Jimmy Butler. Traded from Chicago to Minnesota (and former coach Tom Thibodeau).

Gordon Hayward. Left Utah as a free agent and signed with Boston (and his college coach Brad Stevens).

Kyrie Irving. Forced a trade out of Cleveland, was sent to the Boston Celtics.

Isaiah Thomas. Traded from Boston to Cleveland in the Irving deal, then traded again at the deadline from Cleveland to the Los Angeles Lakers. This summer he signed with Denver as a free agent.

DeAndre Jordan. Left the Los Angeles Clippers as a free agent, signing with Dallas.

Paul Millsap. Left Atlanta as a free agent, signed with Denver.

If you thought this summer was wild, wait until next summer when two-thirds of the league’s teams will have more than $20 million in cap space and nearly half the players in the league will be free agents.

DeMar DeRozan sits down with Popovich, ready to be leader for Spurs

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DeMar DeRozan is still mad about the trade that shipped him from Toronto — a city he had repped like no other NBA star — to San Antonio. He’s not talking to Raptors GM Masai Ujiri.

However, everyone around the league I’ve spoken to — from other players to front office people and scouts — has believed that DeRozan is going to buy into what is going on and San Antonio and be a good fit for them.

On the final day of Team USA workouts in Las Vegas, DeRozan talked about sitting down with coach Gregg Popovich and being a leader for the Spurs next season, speaking to Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“We talked about a little bit of everything,” he said (of Popovich). “There will be plenty more talks, but it was cool to just to get a chance to talk to him here (away from the court).”

That’s Popovich’s way — he wants to get to know the person, not just the basketball player and encourages his players to be well rounded.

“I’m going into my 10th year in the league, so with the knowledge and everything I’ve gained in this league, if I can help the next guy, that’s what it is all about,” DeRozan said after the second and final practice of Team USA’s minicamp. “And I plan to learn from those young guys as well, so I am definitely looking forward to it.”

The Spurs are going to be good next season — this was a 47 win team that just added an All-NBA player. How well they will do in a deep and brutal Western Conference is up for debate, but anyone counting a Popovich team out does so at their own peril.