NBA schedule release 2018-19: Warriors-Lakers, Rockets-Thunder among 15 games to mark on your calendar
Also, Boston vs. Philly gives us a first look at one Finals favorite and ... Markelle Fultz!
The NBA released its full 2018-19 schedule on Friday, which means the beginning of the season is closer than you think. Here are 15 intriguing games you should mark on your calendar right away.
This is a perfect opening-night matchup, and it has very little to do with Kevin Durant going up against his old team. That's already a tired story. What we have here is an OKC team that has the talent to be a fringe championship contender, a team that is almost perfectly equipped to defend the Warriors, led by a guy in Russell Westbrook who takes these kinds of statement games deadly seriously. This has fireworks written all over it. OKC went 2-1 against Golden State last season. They'll be doing everything they can to spoil ring night in the Bay.
Philadelphia at Boston (Tuesday, Oct. 16, TNT)
Last season it didn't take long to realize that Philly and Boston were, are, the future of the Eastern Conference. For Boston, the future could very well be right now. The Celtics are good enough to win the whole thing next year, no question. Philly still has a ways to go, and while the first game of the season can only tell you so much, it will be interesting to see how these two match up. There's a very good chance we'll be seeing them square off in the playoffs, perhaps with a trip to the Finals on the line. Plus, who isn't salivating to see if Markelle Fultz has somehow turned himself into a functional shooter over the offseason? This will be our first glimpse.
Do we really need to say much more than LeBron will be returning to Cleveland for the first time in a Lakers jersey? This will be must-see TV. That said, it won't be like when LeBron returned in a Miami Heat uniform. That was toxic. LeBron left on much better terms this time, having done what he promised he would do in delivering Cleveland a championship and also leaving behind an absolutely amazing school for at-risk kids in Akron, which his foundation is sinking some $41 million into -- including paying for full tuition to the University of Akron for every kid who graduates. Please celebrate this man, Ohioans. I know you will.
Lakers at Warriors (Tuesday, Dec. 25, ABC and ESPN)
Give LeBron credit for going to the Western Conference, where he'll no longer be able to avoid the Warriors until the Finals. The Lakers are not good enough to contend for a title as currently constructed, but they're clearly back as a marquee team, and besides that, LeBron playing for anyone against the Warriors is basically an NBA holiday. I keep thinking about Game 1 of last year's Finals, when LeBron scored 51 and nearly single-handedly beat Golden State. This Lakers team is better than last year's Cavs team. Through that lens, I don't think anyone is ruling out what a LeBron-led Lakers team could do if everything is clicking come playoff time.
Raptors at Celtics (Friday, Nov. 16, ESPN)
The NBA pitted Boston and Philadelphia on opening night because Philadelphia is a bigger TV draw, but to me, Toronto is the Celtics' main competition to go to the Finals. Like everyone, I'm fascinated to see what this team looks like with Kawhi Leonard, and what Kawhi looks like in general. The Raptors have a chance to be really, really good if Leonard is back to his old self relatively quickly, which is why I'm more excited about the second matchup between these two. Give Toronto and Leonard some time. Let's see what they look like against an elite opponent when they're closer to a fully realized version of themselves.
This is my Super Bowl. I could not be more excited to watch Trae Young and Luka Doncic, who of course were traded for one another on draft night. Barring something unforeseen, I will likely watch every one of their games, so watching them go against one another is a cherry on top. Personally, I think they are both going to be electric. I think Doncic is the safer bet to be a an All-Star sooner, but Young is more must-see. Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk told me they will turn Young loose and let him fire away as he pleases, from wherever he pleases, and he's also a dazzling passer. Do not step away from your televisions, people.
Spurs at Raptors (Friday, Feb. 22, ESPN )
This one goes both ways with Kawhi facing off against San Antonio and DeMar DeRozan going against the Raptors. I'm more intrigued by the game in Toronto because DeRozan is going to get a hero's welcome and it will be cool to see. DeRozan was not happy about being traded, which is understandable, but he has nothing to be sour about. Kawhi is a better player than he is, and the Raptors gave him a $139 million contract that he was never able to fully deliver on. This, as they say, is a business, and DeRozan wasn't even playing well enough to get of the bench in the fourth quarter with Toronto's season on the line in last year's playoffs. That said, he gave a lot to Toronto. He was their best player since Vince Carter. Give him the standing ovation he deserves.
Raptors at Spurs (Thursday, Jan. 3, TNT)
Same team, flip the city. Kawhi gong back to San Antonio is going to be quite the scene. His exit was so ugly, and so strange. I don't think anyone has the full details of what went on. I imagine there will be a lot of boos and taunts every time Leonard touches the ball and a lot of cheering if and when he screws up, and I cannot wait to watch the expression on Leonard's face change not one single iota.
Warriors at Rockets (Thursday, Nov. 15, TNT)
I know the regular season doesn't mean anything to the Warriors at this point, but the Rockets will be out to prove they are the better team and would've eliminated Golden State last year if not for Chris Paul's hamstring injury. The first time they meet up will still have some of the bitterness from that series in the air. After that, both these teams will be setting their sights on the playoffs.
Nuggets at Celtics (Monday, March 18, NBA League Pass)
Isaiah Thomas never got his honorary night last season in Boston, and he will surely get a monster standing ovation this year. With the way last year went for IT with injuries and trades, it's easy to forget the guy was an MVP-level stud for Boston in 2016-17. He was on track to finally get his big payday when the hip injury, and subsequent trades to Cleveland and then L.A., happened, and his value has plummeted. He got a one-year deal with Denver and he says he's ready to play with that same chip he's always had on his shoulder and, once again, prove people wrong. You have to be rooting for him to find something close to his old form. Either way, he can help Denver, which is one of the exciting teams to keep any eye on this year.
Warriors at Celtics (Saturday, Jan. 26, ABC)
These are the two best teams in the league, and barring injury, the safe bet to meet up in the Finals. Personally, I think Boston has what it takes to beat Golden State in a seven-game series right now. No more development needed. Boston has played the Warriors tough throughout this era, but they've never matched up better than they do with this year's squad with defensive length and playmakers everywhere. For everyone wanting the Warriors' reign to come to an end, Boston feels like your best chance.
Rockets at Thunder (Thursday, Nov. 8)
To me, the Thunder are every bit Houston's equal on paper. Think about it: Westbrook and Harden are pretty close to wash, Paul George and Chris Paul are pretty close to a wash, Steven Adams and Clint Capela are pretty close to a wash and Andre Roberson and Eric Gordon are pretty close to a wash. The difference is, we know what Houston is as a collection. They proved that last year. We still need to see if Russell Westbrook can actually be relied upon as the lead dog on an elite team. With this roster, OKC should expect to be the second-best team in the West.
The Ben Simmons vs. Donovan Mitchell Rookie of the Year debate was legitimately fun even if that award seems relatively meaningless. Either way, both these guys are great and way ahead of the curve in terms of being ready to lead a team. That said, I'd take Mitchell right now. The lack of any kind of jumper is just too much for Simmons to overcome to be a real force deep in the playoffs. Last year Brett Brown was legitimately playing T.J. McConnell over Simmons for crucial playoff minutes. Both Utah and Philly probably believe they're better than they actually are at this point, but that doesn't mean they both aren't really good. I worry about the shooting Philadelphia lost. I love the Grayson Allen addition in Utah, which doesn't exactly make me unique after the way he looked in Summer League.
This game doesn't exactly scream marquee matchup, but these are two teams that feel like they have an outside shot of competing for a Finals berth. That might sound far-fetched, but the East feels wide open with LeBron gone, even if Boston is clearly ahead of everyone else. I'm curious to see how Indiana plays now that nobody will be taking them for granted, and Giannis is worth two hours of your time by himself.
Warriors at Raptors (Thursday, Nov. 29, TNT)
Another potential Finals preview. Adding Kawhi makes the Raptors extremely versatile on the defensive end, perfect for matching up against Golden State, and alongside sophomore OG Anunoby, he gives the Raptors two isolation defenders who can feasibly disrupt Kevin Durant's rhythm on their own. All year long we're going to be appraising this Raptors team to try to quantify just how different they feel after this trade. No better bar than the Warriors.
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