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.
Spurs at Rockets
After years of being a playoff lock, San Antonio has struggled out of the gate this season to a 10-15 record. Is this the year the Spurs finally miss the postseason? If it is, it will snap of streak of 22 years in the playoffs. In addition, it would be just the fifth time in 44 NBA seasons that San Antonio will have missed out on playing in the postseason. Out of the previous four times the Spurs have missed playing in April/May, they landed David Robinson and Tim Duncan in two of those years. Safe to say that worked out just fine! But let’s not bury San Antonio just yet. They enter the week only one game out, as the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture features a couple of teams that are under .500 on the season.
Houston has similarly struggled to find their footing, but it’s relative to their expectations. The Rockets sit at 17-9, but it’s been a bumpy path to get there. James Harden continues to play at an MVP-level, but Russell Westbrook has been hit or miss to this point in the year. And Houston’s role players, outside of Clint Capela, have been a revolving cast of characters due to injuries. If the Rockets get healthy and stay that way, they’ve got enough to contend in the West. The challenge will be getting healthy with a group of players who don’t have a strong track record of good health.
Magic at Jazz
Orlando enters the week in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference at 12-14. The Magic have really struggled with the best teams in the league, as they are just 1-11 against the teams that currently project to win at least 50 games. Orlando has dealt with some injuries to starters, as Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic recently returned to the lineup. Right around the holidays is when Orlando took off last year. This season, things lighten up schedule-wise just after the New Year. Look for the Magic to make another strong playoff-push to close the season.
Utah sits in a similar spot to Houston, as they are still good, but a disappointment relative to preseason expectations. The issue for the Jazz has been the offense hasn’t improved as hoped for after adding Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic in the offseason. Conley has really struggled, with some of the worst offensive numbers he’s had since he became an established starter. Conley and holdover star Donovan Mitchell haven’t meshed in the backcourt the way Utah hoped they would either. Bogdanovic has been terrific, and you can make an argument he’s been Utah’s best player. One thing to keep in mind: under Quin Snyder, the Jazz have regularly started slow. He runs a pretty sophisticated halfcourt offense, so it can take a little while for it to get humming. Look for Utah to finish strong again in the West.
Raptors at Pistons
Toronto is waging a really admirable title defense. Despite some thoughts that the Raptors would really drop off without Kawhi Leonard, they’ve played well to start the year. Toronto is in the mix for homecourt advantage, and has gotten there despite missed time for three key rotation players in Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka. Pascal Siakam has established himself as an All-Star caliber player, while Norman Powell has stepped up to add consistent scoring at a career-best 14.1 points per game. And despite losing preeminent wing defenders in Leonard and Danny Green, Toronto still gets after it with the NBA’s fourth-best defense.
Detroit has managed to hang around the playoff race in the East, despite a long injury list that has cost almost every starter games. Blake Griffin is still playing himself into form, but Andre Drummond has been terrific to start the year. Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown have teamed up to stabilize the starting guard spots. And here’s betting that very few realize the Pistons are a top-10 offense in the league. Now that guys are getting healthy, Detroit will have plenty to say in the playoff race. Especially if they can avoid stumbles against teams that they should beat.
Nets at Spurs
Brooklyn knew they would be without Kevin Durant for most, if not all, of the 2019-20 season. They didn’t know that Kyrie Irving would miss half the season to this point in the year. Irving continues to struggle to get back from a right shoulder impingement that’s kept him out for over a month. To add to the injury woes, Caris LeVert has been out almost the same duration with a thumb injury. And Wilson Chandler just returned from his 25-game suspension for taking a banned substance. Despite it all, the Nets have put together a 14-12 record entering the week, good for seventh in the Eastern Conference. Holdovers like Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen have led the way, as right now Brooklyn looks more like last year’s scrappy bunch than the high-priced squad put together over the summer.
Kings at Pacers
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Indiana has won a bunch of games without Victor Oladipo. They did this last year too. Nor should it be a surprise that the Pacers are the league’s sixth-best defense. The middle of the pack offense is a bit of a surprise however. Behind Malcolm Brogdon and T.J. Warren, Indiana is doing enough to stay competitive offensively. Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner are still a bit of a clunky fit on offense, but there are signs that is sorting itself out as well. Add Oladipo, who should return sometime in the next few weeks, and Indiana might be a team to be reckoned with.
Sacramento went from disappointment to start the year, as they opened 0-5, to one of the NBA’s hottest teams, as they’ve won four-of-five entering the week. How are the Kings doing it? By slowing the game way down and keeping it close every night. With human blur De’Aaron Fox out due to an ankle injury, Sacramento has played at the league’s slowest pace, nearly half a possession behind 29th ranked Denver. With Fox’s return looming, that will likely pick up some, as he’s just too fast to play that slow. When Fox does get back, he’ll join recently-returned Marvin Bagley to complement a group of role players who got the Kings back in the playoff picture, as Sacramento sits in seventh in the Western Conference to start the week.
Rockets at Suns
Phoenix is hanging around the bottom of the West playoffs, despite missing several players due to injuries/suspension throughout the season. The Suns played exactly one game, on opening night, with their entire rotation available. DeAndre Ayton is eligible to return this week and should boost an already formidable Phoenix offense to even better heights. Unfortunately, Ayton’s return comes just as Devin Booker was forced out of the lineup with a wrist/arm injury. If Phoenix can get and stay healthy, they’ve got more than enough talent to stay in the playoff race in the West.
Hornets at Celtics
This spot would have gone to the Mavericks at Raptors, but it’s likely Luka Doncic will still be out due to a sprained ankle he suffered at the end of last week. That means Kemba Walker taking on his former team gets the spot. Boston has hit a bit of a rough patch in their schedule, as they dropped their first home game of the season and fell from second in the East to fourth to start this week. A schedule quirk gave the Celtics five days off between games, which should give some nicked up players a chance to rest and heal. The Celtics are currently one of five teams to rank in the top-10 in both offense and defense, as they join heavyweights the Bucks, Lakers and Clippers and similar upstart the Heat in that distinction.
Charlotte has been an early-season surprise, as they are currently just a game and a half out of the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference. They’ve done it behind the backcourt duo of Devonte Graham, who is waging an All-Star campaign, and Terry Rozier, who is making his return to Boston in this game. Those two have combined for 36.2 points, 11.7 assists and 8.5 rebounds per game. Without rookie P.J. Washington, who recently broke a finger, Charlotte starts a small backcourt in Graham/Rozier, but a jumbo-sized frontcourt with Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo and Miles Bridges. Look for the Hornets to try to keep this game played at a slow pace with lots of three-point shots as the potential recipe for an upset.