Jamal Murray

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Seven must-watch games from NBA Orlando restart

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The NBA is back… almost.

The plans are agreed to, the schedule is out, there’s a decision to focus on social justice, and now tip-off of the restarted season is a little more than a month away. Concerns are rising along with the coronavirus cases in Florida, but Friday Adam Silver said it would take a “significant spread” of the virus inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble to shut down the league again.

Which means we can start to focus on the must-watch games on the NBA schedule.

And that new schedule is stacked. Remove the eight worst teams from the mix, throw in the race for the eighth and some important seeding games, and every night there is a matchup worth watching. There are a lot of games with weight and meaning.

Here are our seven must-watch NBA games of the restart.

1) July 30: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers 9 p.m. (TNT)

Opening night we get the Hallway Series — just played 2,500 miles from the Staples Center hallways. It’s a matchup of (arguably) the two best playoff performers in the NBA right now — LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard — it’s the top teams in the West, two teams sharing a city, and a budding rivalry. That said, this could look a lot like two NFL teams meeting in week 16 knowing a playoff matchup looms — nobody wants to tip their hand. If there’s a matchup Doc Rivers loves, he’s not going to wear it out in this first game of the restart. Same with Frank Vogel. Expect some lineup experimentation and not too many minutes for the stars.

That said, it’s still opening night and both teams want to get off on the right foot. The Lakers need to find rotations that work without Avery Bradley and have some work to do. These are the best teams in the West, and fans or no fans the competitive juices will be flowing.

2) July 31: Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo has been clear-and-away the best team in the East this season, led by the best defense in the NBA. Boston has been the team on the rise this season, another top-five defense and with an emerging star in Jayson Tatum the Celtics look like the biggest threat to the Bucks Finals run. Milwaukee doesn’t have to worry about losing its seed, but it would love to make a statement — as would the Celtics.

3) Aug. 2: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets, 8 p.m. (ABC)

This will be pure fun. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. a skinny James Harden. The small-ball, bomb-from-three Rockets against the best defense in the NBA — a Bucks defense predicated on taking away the paint and forcing teams to beat them from three. Every game will matter for a Rockets team in the middle of a seeding fight in the West, but mostly this game just should be as entertaining as basketball gets.

4) Aug. 3: Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

An easy addition to the NBA’s must-watch games list. It’s more than just Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant… although it is that too. Zion was making a push in the Rookie of the Year race despite playing just 19 games — 40 fewer than Morant — and his only hope of catching the Grizzlies point guard is to completely outplay him in the restart and get the Pelicans into the playoffs. (Even that may not be enough.)

New Orleans had the easiest schedule remaining in the NBA when the league was forced to shut down. The league replicated that as best it could heading to Orlando — New Orleans is the only team where the cumulative records of their opponents are below .500. Throw in a healthy Zion ready to shock the world and the Pelicans are the biggest threat to get into a play-in tournament with the Grizzlies. Picking up a head-to-head win would be a huge plus for the Pelicans in that chase.

5) Aug. 7: Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors, 9 p.m. (TNT)

These two teams are the second and third best teams in the East — but in what order? Toronto has been an elite defensive team this season, Pascal Siakam has taken a step forward, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are still making veteran plays, coach Nick Nurse has been nothing short of brilliant, and the Raptors look every bit the dangerous defending champions. But do they have an answer for the emerging Tatum and an interesting, switchable Boston team on the rise? Bet the under in this game, both defenses are far better than the offenses.

6) Aug. 10: Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (TNT)

Skinny Nikola Jokic is for real — but are the Nuggets for real? Denver will likely finish as the third seed in the West, but in NBA circles there is a sense this team is headed for another early playoff exit in a tight West. Denver’s defense looked good on paper early in the season, but a lot of that was just teams missing shots they usually hit (looking at the NBA’s Second Spectrum tracking data). The Nuggets have to find that defense and answer other questions, such as can Jamal Murray step up and be a No. 2 option on a dangerous playoff team? There would be no better time for Denver to make a statement before the playoffs than beating LeBron James and the top team in the West.

7) Aug. 12: Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Philadelphia is the dangerous darkhorse in the East. They are long, they can defend (sixth-best in the NBA this season), they have an elite big man in Joel Embiid who can carry the team for a stretch, they get a healthy Ben Simmons back, and they got one of the softer schedules in Orlando. If the Sixers can just find enough shooting to both score and space the floor, watch out. This will be a good test for them, going against the defending champs and a team with both talent and a real identity.

Toronto knows who it is, does Philadelphia.

Denver’s Jamal Murray: ‘We know we can go win the title’

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After three months off, the perception has not changed about what team will come out of the West has not changed as the NBA gears up to go to Orlando and play out the season.

It’s the Lakers, the Clippers, and a huge gap to anyone else. Look at the current betting odds at Ceasers Palace, where the Lakers are 2-1, the Clippers are 9-4, and then it jumps to the Rockets at 15-1 and the Nuggets at 22-1.

Don’t tell that to Denver’s Jamal Murray. He told reporters Friday that Denver believes it can win a title this season (hat tip Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN).

“We know we can go win the title,” the Nuggets’ guard said in a Zoom call with Denver reporters. “Me and Joker [Nikola Jokic] have been in Denver this whole time, working out.”

“Why not?” Murray later replied when asked about winning it all. “We have proven to be one the best teams year in and year out since we have been building. We have beaten good teams consistently. We shouldn’t have lost to Portland [last year in the conference semifinals]. That was more on us, our inexperience and they are a good team. But we don’t think that there is a team that can beat us in a seven-game series when we are playing at our best.”

This is exactly what Murray should say, what the Nuggets should believe. This is a quality team that should be thinking about taking the next step.

They just have to prove that to the world, because when play stopped they did not look like a contender.

Denver heads to Orlando for the “seeding games” as the third seed in the West at 43-22, just 1.5 games behind the Clippers for the two seed but 1.5 games up on Utah for the four seed. For the season they had a +3.1 net rating (meaning they had been a little lucky, that’s more of a 36-26 pace) with the ninth-ranked offense and the 12th ranked defense in the league. In their 10 games after the All-Star break before play was halted, the Nuggets were 5-5 with the 19th ranked defense in the league. That’s not the numbers of a contender.

Jokic is in the best shape of his career, according to Murray and president of basketball ops Tim Connelly, which is a good sign. This is also a team that has had excellent continuity over the past couple of seasons, which should help them hit the ground running in Orlando.

Is that enough? Denver has work to prove they are ready for the next level. At least the team is starting with the belief they can do it.

Jerami Grant: Not leaning toward taking $9,346,153 player option with Nuggets

Nuggets forward Jerami Grant
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The Nuggets have their starting point guard (Jamal Murray), shooting guard (Gary Harris), small forward (Will Barton) and center (Nikola Jokic) locked up a combined 11 more seasons.

The big question comes at power forward.

Paul Millsap will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Michael Porter Jr. has shown promise. And Jerami Grant holds a $9,346,153 player option for next season.

Jerami Grant on “Posted Up with Chris Haynes,” via Quenton S. Albertie of Nugg Love:

I’m definitely not leaning towards picking up the player option.

Grant appeared bound for a raise. He’s a good finisher who active seeks opportunities at the basket and has improved his 3-point shooting. His versatile defense is valuable in any system. And he has the track record of hard work that should make teams comfortable investing in the 26-year-old.

But the NBA’s coronavirus-caused revenue decline presents a major variable. We’ll have to see where the salary cap lands. If the wrong teams have space, Grant could be stuck with just the mid-level exception, which – depending on the cap – could be less than $9,346,153.

In any cap environment, Denver has optionality. Millsap is still solid, though at 35, it’s unclear how many more good years he has left. Porter is exciting, though he’s still raw, and health remains a concern. Another impending unrestricted free agent, Mason Plumlee plays in plenty of two-center lineups with Jokic.

The Nuggets – who just traded a first-rounder for him – surely want to keep Grant. But they have other options, which gives them leverage.

Grant’s leverage comes with declining his player option and exploring unrestricted free agency. He’s setting that stage now.

Without games, NBA players use social media to spread message of coronavirus safety

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Cleveland’s Kevin Love did his best to reassure a skittish and scared public.

Denver’s Jamal Murray sat at his piano and played theme songs.

Atlanta’s Trae Young shot balled-up socks into a trash can.

Miami’s Goran Dragic, in his native Slovenian, told people to stay inside.

This is the new NBA normal in a coronavirus-dominated world.

Even without games, the league is trying to engage and even encourage fans in these tough times.

So far, almost 20 current and former players have partnered with the NBA and WNBA for a new sort of public-service announcement as the world continues dealing with the coronavirus pandemic that is known to have struck about a quarter-million people worldwide, killed nearly 10,000 and has essentially shut down sports around the globe.

“We’re able to reach a number probably in the hundreds of millions, but as far as kids go, tens of millions of kids just by pressing send on an NBA PSA,” Love said. “So for me, it was considering that community aspect as well as, you know, thinking of young kids now being at home being homeschooled, at-risk youth being homeschooled … we have to reach them.”

Love’s PSA, released earlier this week, went for nearly three minutes and was a continuation of sorts of the conversation he’s been having publicly for some time about mental health. “Now more than ever, we have to practice compassion. … We need more of that,” Love said in his video.

Love went public two years ago about his struggles with depression and was one of the first NBA players to announce a donation to help arena employees who aren’t at work right now because of the shutdown. He gave $100,000 and has been raising money through his Kevin Love Fund to directly donate to mental health organizations working with high-risk children and teens who need help with their mental well-being.

Love didn’t hesitate before deciding whether to talk directly to fans.

“This is just incredibly anxiety-ridden, stressful, and I think the unknown is what really scares us,” Love said. “So, it’s completely normal to feel this way and what people are feeling is normal. And I think that just being isolated at your home, it’s tough to stay away from this 24-hour news cycle where all people are getting are things that will send them down a slippery slope and in a spiral because it just seems to be so negative.”

The league started these PSAs on March 13, two days after the NBA’s shutdown because of the virus went into effect. In less than a week across all platforms – NBA.com, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tik Tok – the videos collected more than 36 million views, or reaching, on average, 70 people every second.

“Just a reminder to make sure you guys wash your hands, avoid large crowds and if you might be sick, quarantine yourself,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said in his PSA. “This is only a virus that we can beat together.”

Toronto coach Nick Nurse was one of many who spoke about the need to listen to medical professionals and wash hands frequently; the official guideline is 20 seconds, Nurse suggested raising the bar to 24 seconds in a nod to the NBA shot clock.

“This is one time we don’t mind a shot clock violation,” Nurse said.

Other NBA players are making sure to keep their social-media contact with fans up in different ways. Phoenix’s Frank Kaminsky and New Orleans’ JJ Redick are among the players who have dropped podcasts this week, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James took his enormous following inside his home for a 45-minute live video Thursday night while he played cards with his family.

James talked about such things as the Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference finals when he led Miami to a season-saving road win at Boston – “if we lose, Pat Riley may break us all up,” he said, recalling what his mindset was that night – to his favorite wines and sneakers, to how he hopes to remain with the Lakers for the rest of his career.

“I might do this more often, man,” James said shortly before he ended the live broadcast. “Going to be quarantined for the next 12, 13 days.”

More PSAs are coming from the NBA and some will be geared toward the league’s international fan base. Slovenian star Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks is part of a PSA, as is Spanish legend Pau Gasol. Ricky Rubio of Spain, Danilo Gallinari of Italy, Rui Hachimura of Japan and Buddy Hield of the Bahamas have ones scheduled to be released soon.

Plus, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell – Utah Jazz All-Star teammates and the first two players in the NBA to have positive tests for COVID-19 – taped PSAs in the opening days of the initiative.

All the messages are different, but to Love, the theme is the same: The virus is affecting virtually everyone on the planet. And if NBA players talk about their angst, maybe fans won’t find their own angst to be so troubling.

Mock NBA expansion draft: Nuggets, Timberwolves, Thunder, Trail Blazers, Jazz

Mock NBA expansion draft
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The NBA season is on hiatus. NBC Sports is not – even if we have to venture into fantasy.

We’re holding a mock NBA expansion draft. Keith Smith is setting protected lists for existing teams. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman will run two new teams as this project culminates in an expansion draft.

Current teams can protect up to eight players. Each team must make at least one player available. If selected, restricted free agents become unrestricted free agents. Pending options can be decided before or after the expansion draft at the discretion of the option-holder. Anyone selected in the expansion draft can’t return to his prior team for one year. Players entering unrestricted free agency and players on two-way contracts are essentially ignored.

We’re unveiling protected/unprotected lists by division (here is the Atlantic Division, Central Division, and Pacific Division). Players are listed with their 2020-21 salary. Up now, the Northwest:

Denver Nuggets

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 2

Ineligible – 4

Analysis: Denver had maybe the easiest protections decisions in the NBA. Two rotation players (Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee) are ineligible, so the Nuggets simply protect their other rotation players.

Keita Bates-Diop is the exact type of player an expansion team should snag. He’s shown some upside in limited minutes. Vlatko Cancar has the benefit of an additional year on his contract, and will be only 23 years old at the start of next season.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 1

Analysis: The Wolves are keeping guys who might be a part of the future. Most were no-brainers. The decision point was Omari Spellman v.s Juancho Hernangomez. Keeping Hernangomez doesn’t mean Minnesota will definitely re-sign him, but he has more upside than Spellman.

After Spellman, the rest are take it or leave it. Also, the Timberwolves aren’t paying either expansion team to take James Johnson off their hands.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: If this was done before the season, there could have been an argument for the Thunder to expose both Chris Paul and Dennis Schroder. Both have played far too well to chance that now. Steven Adams is overpaid, but not by enough to leave him unprotected. The rest of the players, led by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, are young players with upside.

Abdel Nader has been a part of the rotation at times for OKC, but he’s not getting protected over a younger player. Deonte Burton and Mike Muscala were easy decisions due to their minimal roles for the Thunder.

Portland Trail Blazers

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 3

Ineligible – 3

Analysis: Portland is keeping its key veterans and younger players. The decision point was Wenyen Gabriel vs. the three unprotected veterans. In the end, the Trail Blazers chose to protect Gabriel, who they’ll likely renounce in free agency.

As for the three veterans, they all had strong cases against protecting them. Trevor Ariza is overpaid at this point his career. Rodney Hood is coming off a torn Achilles’. And Mario Hezonja just isn’t worth protecting, even despite his minimum salary.

Utah Jazz

Protected – 8

Unprotected – 5

Ineligible – 2

Analysis: Utah’s first seven players were easy decisions. They are all rotation players. The decision point was keeping a non-guaranteed player (ultimately chose 2019 second-round pick Miye Oni) over either Mike Conley or Ed Davis.

The Jazz are leaving Conley and Davis unprotected because neither acquisition has worked out as hoped for. If Utah can clear Conley’s salary, that would be helpful for a team that is starting to get very expensive. Davis makes less than Conley, but the fit just doesn’t work. And of the minimum players, none have found a rotation role.