The NBA’s 9 spiciest games of the regular season

It seems like only yesterday LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and the rest of the Los Angeles Lakers ended the Miami Heat’s Cinderella run in the NBA’s Disney bubble to win the championship. After a truncated offseason that included the draft and free agency, the league is now ready to go once again. NBA basketball will be here before Christmas, and we already know the first half of the schedule.

The league isn’t doing a bubble, and it’s playing only 72 games during the regular season. That means more head-to-head ‘series’ to reduce travel and squeeze as many games as possible into the shortened schedule. The threaten of the global pandemic continues to hang over society and has already had high-profile impacts on both the NFL and college basketball. For all the precautions the NBA has in place, you can expect schedule delays and positive tests as the season gets into full swing.

Here are nine regular season matchups we’re already looking forward to:

Rockets vs. Wizards, Jan. 26 and Feb. 15

The Russell Westbrook for John Wall swap shook up both the Wizards and Rockets just as training camps were opening. While it will be entertaining to watch two of the best lead guards of their era go head-to-head after being traded for each other, we’re just as interested to see them go at their former teammates. James Harden and Westbrook were reportedly both very fine with parting ways in Houston, while there have been rumors about a shaky relationship between Wall and Bradley Beal for years. This isn’t exactly a Finals preview, but the individual matchups will make sure this game gets plenty of buzz.

Pelicans vs Hornets, Jan. 8

Sure, brothers squaring off in an NBA game isn’t totally unprecedented — we’ve seen the Lopez, Morris, Plumlee, and Zeller battles over recent years — but this will be the first time it’s ever happened between a pair of top-three picks. Lonzo and LaMelo Ball are both creative players who will badly want to show one another up. The fact that they’re likely to guard each other at least for certain stretches makes it even more fun. Throw in Zion Williamson, Gordon Hayward, Papa LaVar, and the bright lights of ESPN, and this is going to be a regular season matchup low on stakes but full of fireworks.

Trail Blazers vs. Clippers, Dec. 30

The Clippers and Blazers do not like each other. The beef started in the seeding round of the bubble when Damian Lillard missed a clutch free throw late that got Patrick Beverley and Paul George chirping and led to a savage response from Dame. Portland sure seemed elated when the Clippers lost in the second round of the playoffs, but it didn’t hit as hard because they were already at home. Grab your popcorn for this matchup.

Bucks vs. Lakers, Jan. 21

The dream of seeing Giannis vs. LeBron in the NBA Finals never came to fruition last season, but this remains the best individual player matchup on the schedule. Who could forget Antetokounmpo placing a metaphorical crown on his head as the Bucks defeated the Lakers last season? This is another opportunity for LeBron to prove he’s still the best player alive, and for Giannis to show he can beat the best of the best.

Heat vs Bucks, Dec. 29 and Dec. 30

The Bucks seemed destined for an NBA Finals appearance until the Miami Heat stunned them with a convincing five-game second round victory. The upset put Milwaukee into panic mode heading into Giannis Antetokounmpo’s last year under contract: the team found a big upgrade in the backcourt by trading for Jrue Holiday, but saw their dreams of also adding Bogdan Bogdanovic fade away (he ended up in Atlanta). If the Bucks want to show that they put last season’s flame out behind them, beating the team that sent them home is a good place to start.

Rockets vs 76ers, Feb. 17

Daryl Morey’s brilliant career with the Houston Rockets came to an end during the offseason, and his move to the 76ers sent shockwaves around the league. Morey didn’t waste any time making changes to Philadelphia’s roster, adding Danny Green and Seth Curry to a team that desperately needed shooting. Since Morey left Houston, the Rockets have started to fall apart, most notably with James Harden trade rumors flying everywhere. If Harden eventually does get traded, expect the Sixers to be a serious suitor.

Lakers vs. Clippers, Dec. 22

NBA fans spent the entirety of last season waiting for a Lakers-Clippers matchup in the Western Conference Finals that never happened after the Clips blew it against Denver. The Lakers, meanwhile, were dominant in their run to a championship and enter this season as the odds-on favorite to repeat. There are very few teams that possess the top-end talent to compete with the Lakers, but the Clippers are still one of them even after last year’s disappointment. This is a good opportunity for the Clippers to prove last season’s troubles are behind them.

Clippers vs. Nuggets, Dec. 25

The Clippers enter the season in dire need to show that they’ve fixed everything that killed their championship aspirations last year. There’s no better way to do it than a game against the Denver Nuggets, the team that eliminated them from the NBA bubble after coming back from a 3-1 series deficit in the Western Conference semifinals. The Clips have a new coach (Ty Lue) and a couple notable roster additions (Serge Ibaka and Luke Kennard), but this remains the Kawhi Leonard and Paul George show.

Do the Clippers deserve to be mentioned as a legitimate title contender? This game could clue us in.

Warriors vs. Nets, Dec. 22 and Feb. 13

Kevin Durant’s first meaningful on-court action since tearing his Achilles in Game 6 of the 2018 NBA Finals comes against the dynasty he left: the Golden State Warriors. It will be fascinating to track KD’s return from one of the sport’s most brutal injuries, and the NBA knew exactly what it was doing lining up a game against Golden State on opening night. Durant will want to prove he can still be one of the best players in the world, while Stephen Curry and Draymond Green would like nothing more than to show they can still have success without him (and the injured Klay Thompson). There are many teams projected to be better than the Nets and Warriors going into the year, but there isn’t a spicier matchup on the schedule.

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