As a way to help you set your NBA-watching calendar, this space will get you ready for the best games that aren’t on ABC, ESPN, TNT or NBATV each week. We’ll provide a little insight about why you should check out each matchup and a few nuggets about the teams involved.
Knicks at Bucks
The Bucks are rolling with 11 straight victories entering Monday’s matchup with the Knicks. If not for the equally hot Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee would have the NBA’s best record. Giannis Antetokounmpo is waging an excellent defense of his MVP trophy, but it’s really the Bucks depth that sets them apart. They’re mostly healthy again, now that Khris Middleton is back. With games against New York and Detroit, Milwaukee might carry a 13-game winning streak into a game with the LA Clippers later this week.
The Knicks are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They’ve lost six straight after dropping a Sunday afternoon matchup with the Boston Celtics. R.J. Barrett has been solid as a rookie, but David Fizdale has yet to settle on a consistent backup rotation, Second-year player Kevin Knox has seen his playing time fluctuate, as have young guards Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. Fizdale is coaching for his job, and leaning on veterans, but a youth movement sooner, rather than later, would serve the Knicks well.
Lakers at Nuggets
This one is a League Pass treat! The Lakers are currently tied for the NBA’s best record and saw a 10-game win streak snapped on Sunday. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are waging MVP campaigns, and Davis is an early leader for Defensive Player of the Year as well. Los Angeles’ depth has allowed them to navigate around some injuries to key role players, as both Kyle Kuzma and Avery Bradley have missed time. This one could have a playoff type of feel, as these are two of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
Nikola Jokic is going to have to take advantage of his matchup with JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard for the Nuggets to win. Jokic was supposed to step forward as an MVP candidate, and he’s finally turned the corner after a sluggish start. Look for Denver to go Jokic early and often to try and get him going. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Nuggets try and push the pace a bit. They’ve played at one of the slowest paces in the league this year, and could benefit from their home court advantage if they speed the game up a little.
Heat at Celtics
Boston and Miami have been two early-season surprises in the Eastern Conference. Both teams are 14-5 entering the week, and both sport two of the NBA’s better defenses. And, keeping with the common theme, both the Celtics and Heat have worked around injuries to start the season.
Expect Boston to try and get the ball in the paint against Miami and to make Meyers Leonard move his feet defending against quicker players. The Celtics have had trouble controlling the defensive glass, and that will be a key against a much bigger Heat team. Marcus Smart has been one of the leading candidates for Defensive Player of the Year and he’ll defend everyone from Jimmy Butler to Bam Adebayo throughout the game. Look for Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown to be on the attack, as they should both draw favorable matchups.
The Heat have a significant advantage in bench production over the Celtics. Expect to see lots of Goran Dragic, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk and rookie Tyler Herro, as Eric Spoelstra generally goes nine deep, with those four supporting his starters. Jimmy Butler will likely draw Smart, Brown and then a combination of defenders from Jayson Tatum to Grant Williams to Brad Wanamaker throughout the game. This will likely be a slow-paced, low-scoring game that has a playoff feel to it.
Suns at Pelicans
Phoenix has fallen off a bit after a hot start, as injuries and the schedule seem to have caught up with them. The good news is that Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes are back in the lineup, and DeAndre Ayton’s return from his suspension is right around the corner. With Rubio and Baynes playing, Phoenix has an over .500 record. Devin Booker needs Rubio’s playmaking to take some of the pressure off of him to do it all. And Baynes helps set the tone defensively.
New Orleans has never really gotten going this season. Zion Williamson has been out all year (but is progressing towards his debut!), Brandon Ingram has been in and out of the lineup, and it’s the same story with Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart. That foursome represents the bulk of the rebuilding package for the Pels after trading away Anthony Davis. Jrue Holiday is still doing his thing, and a few other young Pelicans like Kenrich Williams, Jahlil Okafor and Jaxson Hayes have been solid, but New Orleans needs to get healthy to get this thing on track.
Clippers at Bucks
League Pass gets another beauty as the Clippers visit the Bucks. These two teams are two of the favorites to make it to meet in June, so we might be getting an early NBA Finals preview. We covered the Bucks above, but reminder that they could (and probably should!) be riding a 13-game win streak entering this game.
LA has everyone back from injury now, but is continuing to practice load management/preventative maintenance to keep Kawhi Leonard healthy. Paul George hasn’t missed a beat since returning from shoulder surgery and is playing at an All-NBA level. The rest of the regular starting five of Patrick Beverley, Maurice Harkless and Ivica Zubac complement the two stars perfect. Get past them and you’re looking at the best bench in the NBA. This is about as good an early-December matchup as you can get, so make some time to enjoy it!
Pelicans at Mavericks
Spend a Saturday afternoon watching Luka Doncic continue to do things that no 20-year old has ever done in the NBA. Entering the week, Doncic is averaging 30.6 points, 9.9 rebounds and 9.6 assists per game, and he’s shooting 48% on the season. He’s been every bit the MVP candidate that he’s been hyped as. What has made the difference to make Dallas a playoff contender, is that Doncic is getting a lot of help. Kristaps Porzingis is still finding his footing, but has generally been a solid running-mate for Doncic. Tim Hardaway Jr. has been terrific as of late. He’s finally figured out how to work in Rick Carlisle’s system and has been the beneficiary of Doncic’s passing prowess. Supplementing those three is a deep versatile cast of role players who all know exactly what is expected of them when their number called.
Raptors at 76ers
Most expected these two teams to be flip-flopped in the standings. To be fair, only a game separates them, but the Raptors enter the week in second place in the Eastern Conference, while the Sixers sit in fifth. Toronto has achieved the hot start despite being without Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka for a considerable amount of the season. Their absences have allowed Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell and OG Anunoby to step up. Powell recently had a 19-point quarter on the way to a career-high 33 points. The young, homegrown talent has supported Pascal Siakam, who has blossomed into an All-NBA level player. He’s been terrific and could actually be a candidate to win a second straight Most Improved Player award.
Philadelphia’s slow start has been a combination of injuries and their load management plan for Joel Embiid and Al Horford. The 76ers goal is to play deep into May and June, and won’t hesitate to sacrifice a few regular season wins along the way to keep their big man duo healthy. Another factor in the Sixers sluggish start is that the offense has sputtered. They currently sport one of the worst turnover rates in the NBA at 14.6%. Throwing the ball away that often doesn’t allow Philly to make the most of their size advantage. A win in a home game against the defending champs would go a long way towards quieting some bubbling discontent in the City of Brotherly Love.