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.
76ers at Pacers
If you had guessed before the season in mid-January that the Indiana Pacers would be in the sixth spot in the East, no one would have batted an eye. If you have predicted they’d be just a half-game behind the fifth-place Philadelphia 76ers, you would have gotten some questions. That says a lot about how the Pacers have overachieved to stay close to the top Eastern Conference teams, despite their current slot in the standings. It also says a lot about how the Sixers have underachieved.
Philadelphia has been one of the better defensive teams in the NBA, but not the dominant group many predicted, as they’re currently sixth in Defensive Rating. The offense has been clunky at times, which accounts for their middle of the pack Offensive Rating at 16th. To put it simply, the 76ers can look like the best team in basketball when things are going well. But when things go sideways, Philly looks like they’ll be out in the first round of the playoffs. And now they’ll be without Joel Embiid for at least a couple of weeks, as he deals with a torn ligament in his left hand. For a team that is so big across the board, the Sixers don’t really have all that much big man depth. That puts pressure on Al Horford to not only play every night, but to play well. And, of course, any success Ben Simmons has while Embiid is out will lead to the inevitable chatter that Philadelphia is best served to split up their two young stars.
As for Indiana, they’re still without Victor Oladipo for a couple more weeks. His return-date is targeted at 1/29. Assuming Oladipo is able to shake off the rust fairly quickly, his return will be a boon to a Pacers team that has struggled with injuries all season long. Malcolm Brogdon has played near an All-Star level when healthy, but he’s already missed 12 games with assorted injuries. Domantas Sabonis, who is also pushing for All-Star berth, has been nicked up recently. If Indiana can get and stay healthy, they’ll make a lot of noise in the season’s second half.
Jazz at Nets
If it feels like the Utah Jazz have been on the road all season, no one could blame you for that feeling. When they meet the Nets in Brooklyn on Tuesday, it will be Utah’s 22 road game compared to 18 home games. That’s not incredibly unbalanced, but it can speak a bit to the slow start the Jazz got off to. But that bodes well for a home-heavy second half of the season. Boding even better? Utah has ripped off nine straight wins entering the week. They’ve found their footing by returning to Joe Ingles in the starting lineup in place of the injured Mike Conley. Utah is 15-4 with Ingles as a starter and 12-8 with him coming off the bench. Even when Conley returns, it may be best for the Jazz to play him off the bench for a while. That could allow Conley to find his footing, while keeping the continuity that Utah has found with Ingles starting.
The Nets recently got Kyrie Irving back from a nearly two-month absence due to shoulder impingement. Irving’s return, combined with the recent return of Caris LeVert, should help boost a Brooklyn offense that currently ranks 25th in the NBA. Brooklyn had a nine-game slide that dropped them to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. As they get healthy, look for them to eventually climb up the standings. But that climb may be delayed a bit as the Nets play the Jazz, Bucks, Lakers and 76ers (twice) over the next two weeks.
Raptors at Thunder
Toronto enters the week at 25-14, good for fourth in the Eastern Conference. The Raptors continue to chug along, no matter who is available. Right now they’re stuck in a “get a guy back, lose a guy” cycle. Pascal Siakam returned over the weekend, but Fred VanVleet went down earlier in the week. If Toronto ever gets the entire group healthy at the same time, they’ll be a tough matchup for just about anyone. The injuries might even be a blessing in disguise, as several reserves have seen their roles increase and have given the Raptors depth they were sorely lacking early in the season.
The Thunder continue to surprise, as they are up to seventh in the Western Conference and firmly in the playoff picture. Oklahoma City plays at a slow pace (26th in the league), but that fits their personnel. They allow Chris Paul to do his thing, as he probes defenses to find his own shots or set up his teammates. Paul is shooting 52.4% from mid-range on the highest percentage of attempts in his career. He’s also way above his career-best shooting percentage at the rim at 81.5%. Paul’s assist numbers are down a bit, but that’s a product sharing playmaking duties with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder for almost all of his minutes and the Thunder’s glacial pace of play. Overall, Paul is putting together a terrific season at age 34 and is a huge part of the reason OKC is looking at extending their playoff streak for an unexpected fifth straight year.
Magic at Clippers
It seems like every team is dealing with injuries at this time of year, but Orlando has been among the hardest hit teams in the league. The Magic are likely to be without forwards Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu for the remainder of the season. Aaron Gordon has been in and out of the lineup with various leg injuries. Nikola Vucevic missed some time earlier this season, and backup point guard D.J. Augustin is currently dinged up. That Orlando is within striking distance of a .500 record and has a 4.5 game lead for the East’s final playoff spot is a testament to Steve Clifford and his staff. The Magic are predictably stingy on defense, at fifth in the NBA. The offense has been a work in progress, as Clifford mixes and matches depending on who is healthy. The two constants for Orlando have been Evan Fournier and Markelle Fultz. Fournier’s numbers are at career-bests nearly across the board, while Fultz is one of the league’s best comeback stories.
On the other side, the Clippers look like they are playing the regular season to get it over with. Doc Rivers has been liberal with his use of load/injury management days for almost all of his veteran players. Despite that, LA is one of only four teams to rank in the top-10 in both Offensive Rating (5th) and Defensive Rating (7th). On the rare occasion that most of their rotation plays the same game, the Clippers look like title contenders. The goal was to stay in the mix for homecourt advantage in the first round, which seemed like a given. Now, with the Lakers, Nuggets, Jazz and Rockets all playing well, the Clippers may need to pick up their pace and skip a few of the rest days to be at home when the postseason starts.
Heat at Thunder
Miami continues to impress, as they’ve maintained a top-10 offense at seventh in the NBA. Two things that worry a bit however: The defense has been just OK, at 13th in the league. And the Heat have very drastic home/road splits. Miami is 17-1 at home vs just 10-11 on the road entering the week. Defense usually travels, while offense can come and go away from the friendly confines. Miami seems to be proving that out, as they score eight less points on the road, while allowing almost seven more points per game. That’s something to keep an eye on as the season approaches the second half and playoffs.
No team in the NBA has been more reliant on their top-5 players than Oklahoma City. OKC gets over 78% of their offense from starters Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams and top reserve Dennis Schroder. If the Thunder could get one more scoring threat, even just someone who could reliably knock down jumpers, it’d really improve their profile as a playoff threat. Also, given the relative creakiness of Paul and Gallinari as well, no team can afford an injury less than Oklahoma City.
Celtics at Suns
Celtics recently fell victim to a three-game losing streak, which caused panic throughout New England. It wasn’t as much the losses, as it was how Boston lost those games. They got crushed by the Spurs, after losing a game where they played poorly to the Washington Wizards, and then the 76ers won the season series by beating the Celtics for a third time this season. Despite it all, Boston bounced back to crush New Orleans and sports the NBA’s third-best record entering the week. The Celtics are also third in the league in scoring differential at +7.0. Finally, Boston is one of four teams to rank in the top-10 in both Offensive (6th) and Defensive Rating (4th) in the NBA. They join the dominant Bucks and Lakers and assumed contender Clippers, in that distinction. Three straight losses or not, things are just fine for the Celtics.
The Suns dropped out of the Western Conference playoff picture with eight straight losses to end December. Phoenix has bounced back to play .500 ball since then, but the damage may have been done. DeAndre Ayton has returned from suspension and is playing well, but Monty Williams seems to be struggling to find the best fit for his talented young center. Ayton has both started at power forward alongside Aron Baynes up front and has come off the bench behind Baynes since coming back. Eventually, Ayton should resume the starting role, but Baynes has played so well that Williams is hesitant to put him on the bench. The next few weeks leading up to the trade deadline will give us a sense if the Suns are playoff contenders or if this is yet another development year in Phoenix.
Pacers at Nuggets
It’s a light slate against the NFL Conference Championship games, as there are just two NBA matchups on the schedule.
The Nuggets have consistently improved as the season has gone along and enter the week tied for second in the Western Conference. Denver’s offense has rapidly risen up the ranks, and now ranks eighth in the NBA. A little surprising is a bit of a defensive fall-off, as the Nuggets are down to 12th. Denver is still playing incredibly slow, as they’re just ahead of 30th-ranked Charlotte, but it’s working for the Nuggets. Nikola Jokic has shaken off a slow start and looks like an All-Star again. Maybe a little concerning for Denver is that Jamal Murray hasn’t really taken any steps forward in his fourth season, as he looks a lot like the same player as he did in years two and three. Encouraging for the Nuggets is that Michael Porter Jr. has looked pretty good since becoming a rotation player at the beginning of December. Porter has put up some big games, while being a consistent contributor most nights. That has helped Denver work around some injuries to Paul Millsap, as Porter is adding additional depth up front.