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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.

John Wall says he talked to DeMarcus Cousins about joining forces but timing wrong

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John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins are buddies, going back to Kentucky in college when they teamed up (with Patrick Patterson) on a 35-3 team that went to the Elite Eight before bowing out.

Since they both got to the NBA the duo has talked about teaming up again — and they did so last summer, too, the timing was just off. Wall spoke to Ben Standig of The Sports Capitol about it (the story is behind a pay wall, but if you’re a DC sports fan you should be investing in their coverage).

“At the time I [thought] we needed a center who could play right [away],” Wall told The Sports Capitol about his free agency talks with Cousins. “Nine times out of 10 [Cousins] is not going to be ready at the beginning of the season. I think we need a guy who can be a starting center right now.”

Cousins, coming off a torn Achilles, more likely will not be ready to play until, at best, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cousins signed with Golden State, a team that can wait for him to get healthy and not pressure him to be back because they need the wins.

Washington will need the wins from their opening game (and they have a big, nationally televised game Oct. 20 against Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors). Washington ended up signing Dwight Howard at center, who is healthy and was solid for Charlotte last season.

NBA players discuss teaming up all the time, but usually practical considerations get in the way. That’s what happened here. Cousins wasn’t getting July 1 offers and started calling around, but the Wizards were never going to be a good fit. Not now, anyway.

Cousins will be a free agent again next summer, and then the Kentucky reunion talk can start again.

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis gives Ernie Grunfeld an ‘A’ for offseason

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Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has repeatedly extended the contract of team president Ernie Grunfeld – who was already running the front office for seven years when Leonsis bought the team eight years ago – without announcement.

So, it’s a slightly different tune when Leonsis praises Grunfeld publicly. And there’s nothing hedged in this commendation.

Chase Hughes of NBC Washington:

Leonsis, in fact, said he would give team president Ernie Grunfeld and his team an A-grade for their summer so far.

“I thought what Ernie did this offseason is exactly what we had planned,” Leonsis said. “I think when a season ends you sit down and see what you want to accomplish. For the Wizards, it was we need to have more balance and more depth and be more prepared for injuries.”

That is high praise, and Grunfeld did pretty well this year.

Dwight Howard (mid-level exception) and Jeff Green (minimum) were fine signings for a team with no realistic route to cap space. Getting Austin Rivers for Marcin Gortat was a fine trade for a team short on moveable assets. Drafting Troy Brown was fine for a team in the middle of the first round.

Just don’t forget Grunfeld’s role in Washington being fairly trapped at “pretty good.”

To be fair, many teams wish they were “pretty good.” Whether it’s appreciated is in the eye of the beholder.

If history is any indication, Leonsis will eventually show his appreciation with a contract extension for Grunfeld without saying anything this strong – or anything at all.

John Wall believes Wizards have chance in wide-open East

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LeBron James — the man who has led his team to eight straight NBA Finals — has moved from the East to the West and the Los Angeles Lakers. With that has come the perception that the Eastern Conference is more wide open than it has been since LeBron started to dominate it.

Is it? Toronto and Boston were the top two regular season seeds in the East and both should be seriously improved — the Celtics will have a healthy Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward on a team that almost made the Finals without them, and the Raptors just upgraded with a potential MVP in Kawhi Leonard. Plus, the Sixers should get noticeably better with their young roster of Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and Markelle Fultz (now with a jumper) all a year older and having worked on their game this summer.

That’s not even getting into the potential of the Milwaukee Bucks with a new coach, and what should be an improved Indiana Pacers team.

John Wall believes it will be more open.

And he believes his Wizards can be part of that mix, just like he thinks they could/should have been the past couple of years. Here is what he said in Las Vegas at the USA Basketball mini-camp, via Bleacher Report.

“I think we have a better team now, and the East is more wide-open now that [LeBron James is] out of the picture,” Wall said…

“I think we could have competed the last two years if we didn’t have to deal with injuries,” Wall said… “Falling to the eight seed (last season), playing Toronto, a heck of a team, I felt like we should have beaten those guys, but they came out the better team at that time,” Wall said…

“I think we have a better team now.”

On paper, the Wizards can be dangerous. Wall at the point, Bradley Beal at the two, and Otto Porter at the three makes up a terrific perimeter starting group. With them are solid role players such as Markieff Morris, Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green, and then they now have Dwight Howard in the paint. (Howard can be a fit with the Wizards, if he plays his role, but that hasn’t always gone smoothly.)

However, I need to see it before I buy in.

I need to see Wall play all-out on both ends and look more like an All-NBA level player (he’s only made that team one time). Beal and Wall both need to stay healthy. Howard needs to set picks, not demand the ball in the post a lot, and be a nightly force on defense, not an occasional one. Most importantly, will their notoriously troubled locker room chemistry improve with the addition of Howard to the mix?

There are a lot more questions than answers for Washington heading into next season. It’s on Wall and company to answer them.

Dwight Howard says he had contact with Warriors but John Wall made him pick Wizards

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Dwight Howard was one of many NBA veterans rumored to have interest in the Golden State Warriors this summer. Howard ended up with the Washington Wizards, and instead former All-Star DeMarcus Cousins was the big man that inked with the reigning NBA champions.

But according to a recent interview, Howard says that he did have interest in the Warriors and the two sides did talk before he signed his deal with Washington.

Speaking to NBC Sports Washington’s Chase Hughes, Howard admitted that the Warriors were a tempting destination, but that Wizards star John Wall reached out via his own accord on Instagram made him feel wanted.

Via NBC Sports Washington:

“He just said ‘do you want to come to D.C.?’ It wasn’t too much to be said. After he said that, I was like ‘bro, I’m with it.’ That conversation was like a confirmation for me,” Howard said. “Him reaching out, I’ve never had a guy like John Wall as a point guard, so why lose that opportunity?”

“Golden State called and I thought about them. But once John sent me that message, I was like man. I couldn’t tell him at first, but I was like ‘man, I’m going to be a Wizard.’ That was my mindset,” he said.

How Howard fits into Washington’s roster is still a question mark. Howard is still a numerically productive player, but he isn’t at the level he was just a couple of years ago. That, plus the impact that he has on his teammates both on and off the floor is still one of the biggest issues around the three-time Defensive Player of the Year.

It’s nice that Howard felt wanted by wall and the Wizards organization. No doubt the fact that the Wizards offered him a multi-year deal over the minimum played a huge factor, too. Whether those good vibes continue is yet to be seen. As is always the case with Dwight, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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