With the NBA schedule released, it’s time to get excited for some of the most anticipated regular season matchups. This year’s schedule will certainly have it all, from the return of a hero turned villain, to hard fought battles among contenders. I can’t wait for the season to start, so without further ado, here are my top five games for this season.
1. Golden State Warriors vs Oklahoma City Thunder, February 11, 2017. Oklahoma City.
This could easily be the most anticipated regular season game since LeBron James’ first game back in Cleveland as a member of the Miami Heat. First, this game features a rematch of the WCF, where the Warriors defeated the Thunder in seven games. Add in the hatred the Thunder fans have for Draymond Green, and this matchup has so much brewing. But Green won’t be the most hated man in OKC that night. That inglorious distinction will belong to none other than Kevin Durant, who will be playing in his first game back in OKC since spurning the Thunder to join the Warriors this offseason. Expect Durant to be resoundingly booed by the OKC fateful every time he touches the ball. Furthermore, I cannot wait to see what Russell Westbrook has up his sleeve for this. Westbrook is arguably the most ruthless competitor in the NBA, and I expect him to unleash a level we have never seen before, fueled by his hatred for the Warriors and spite for KD. Frankly, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Westbrook drop 50 points, 20 assists and 15 rebounds that night.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers vs Golden State Warriors, January 16, 2017. Oakland.
For the second straight season, this finals rematch headlines the list of one of the best games of 2016-17. The Warriors core has undergone a complete makeover, with the departure of Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut. Nonetheless, the Warriors have improved tremendously with the addition of Kevin Durant. The Cavs meanwhile retain most of their core, and they have made under the radar acquisitions such as acquiring Mike Dunleavy from the Bulls and re-signing key veteran Richard Jefferson. The matchup of these title contenders in Oracle has more luster as it’s the sight of the Cavs championship celebration.
Last season, when Stephen Curry was asked about returning to the visitors’ locker room at the Q, the first since the Warriors clinched their title, Curry exclaimed “Hopefully, it still smells a little bit like champagne.” I’m sure a reporter is going to ask LeBron or Kyrie that same question, hoping to generate a similar inflammatory remark. It’ll be interesting to see if they oblige. Now, about the game itself. I’m most intrigued by how the Cavs plan to defend the Warriors with Kevin Durant in the fold. Last year in the finals, the Cavs ran timely traps on Steph Curry, and strong hedges out on the three point line to stunt the Warriors’ three point prowess. At the expense of their aggressive defensive style, the Cavs often left Harrison Barnes open, daring him to make threes. In addition, the Cavs often hid their worst defender on Barnes, Kevin Love. And Barnes couldn’t capitalize, seemingly missing every shot he took. With Kevin Durant in Barnes’ place, the Cavs can ill afford to deploy such aggressive defense, as Durant will make them pay dearly. I expect the Cavs to really struggle in this game, but they will learn from this, as they are likely to see the Warriors again in June
3. Chicago Bulls vs Miami Heat, November 10, 2016. Miami.
The allure of this game is once again driven by the return of a longtime franchise icon, Dwyane Wade in this case, returning home. Unlike KD, Wade’s return will have a different tenor as his departure was largely driven by a standoff with management than by personal desires. Further, Wade helped bring the Heat’s first three championships to South Beach over the course of his Heat tenure. Expect the crowd to cheer and salute their hero, with Wade soaking up every last minute of it. It’ll be nice to see a celebratory homecoming as opposed to the acrimonious one in OKC
4. San Antonio Spurs vs Golden State Warriors, October 25, 2016. Oakland.
This matchups features a duel between two Western Conference heavyweights. Last year, almost everyone pegged this matchup to be the WCF, and heading into this year, it is the odds on favorite for the WCF. Unlike last year, however, the Warriors, at least on paper, are the far superior team. The Warriors boast the superior starting five, and the Spurs will have even more trouble defending them without Tim Duncan on the court. What’s more, the Spurs greatest advantage, their bench, isn’t as formidable as its been in years past. The Spurs lost Boban Marjanovic and David West to free agency, with West jumping over to the Warriors no less. They also lost versatile big man Boris Diaw as a cap casualty.
The Spurs bench is still well above average, featuring Olympic star Patty Mills, up-and-comers Kyle Anderson and Jonathan Simmons, and new comer David Lee. Nevertheless, it lacks trusted veterans, something that might hamstring Gregg Poppovich. The facet of this game that’s most captivating is how the Spurs will utilize Kawhi Leonard on the defensive end. During last year’s matchups, Leonard saw time defending Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and Steph Curry. Now the Spurs have Kevin Durant to contend with.
The Spurs will have some difficult choices in deploying their defensive ace. It would behoove the Spurs to have Leonard check Klay Thompson, and have Patty Mills guard Curry. Leonard struggled sticking with Curry at times, and Mills’ tenacious play could give Curry fits. Additionally, Gregg Poppovich has shown a propensity to have Danny Green guard Durant, and Green, despite his lack of size, has done so rather capably. This chess match between the Spurs stifling defense and the Warriors prolific offense highlights the appeal of this terrific matchup
5. Cleveland Cavs vs Boston Celtics, March 1, 2017. Boston.
It’s no surprise that the Celtics plan on making serious noise in the East this year. After two straight playoff berths, but failing to make it past the first round, the Celtics are poised to take the next step. And they aren’t lacking in confidence either. Speaking at the Hall of Fame last month, Celtics SF Jae Crowder claimed “I think our ceiling is the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto is not a team we’re worried about. I think Cleveland is the top team. That’s what it comes down to.” Those are some bold words. If Crowder and company are serious about making noise in the Eastern conference, there’s no better stage to make a statement than in a regular season game vs Cleveland on their home floor. The Garden will be rocking and it will feel like a playoff atmosphere. The only question is, will this be the Celtics temporary moment in the sun or will they be able to keep pace with Cleveland in the East?
We’ll have to wait and see.
photo via llananba