As a way to help you set your NBA-watching calendar, this space gets you ready for the best games that aren’t on ABC, ESPN, TNT or NBATV each week.
Pistons at Jazz
It’s probably a good bet that most people don’t realize the Detroit Pistons have been a top-10 offensive team for most of the season. This is despite missing Blake Griffin, Reggie Jackson and other contributors for large chunks of the year. Detroit is still banged up, but Griffin is back and teaming with Andre Drummond to give the team good minutes up front. The challenge has been the guards. The Pistons have had to mix and match in the backcourt all season long and that’s led to some inconsistency, especially on defense. That could be a problem against a Jazz team that is starting to show signs of rounding into form.
After a tough start, the Jazz are up to 10th in defense and 18th in offense, and are continuing to climb. Mike Conley is back on the injured list with a strained hamstring, but that hasn’t seemed to hurt Utah at all. Bojan Bogdanovic has had an outstanding season, at 20.8 points per game on career-bests of 43.6% on 7.3 three point attempts. That combined with Donovan Mitchell getting it going after a slow start, has the Utah offense humming. Every year the Jazz come on strong right around the holiday. With an 8-2 record over their last 10 games, it seems like things are right on schedule.
Mavericks at Thunder
Right before you ring in the New Year, check out Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks against the surprising Oklahoma City Thunder. The Mavs are dropped off a bit to fifth in the Western Conference, in part because Doncic missed four straight games and most of the game prior. Dallas went 2-3 over those games. In a crowded West, that’s enough to drop you a few spots in the standings. But Doncic is back now and recently put up a 31/12/15 game in just 30 minutes. Kristaps Porzingis and Tim Hardaway Jr. have proven to be ideal running mates for Doncic, even if former NBA stars think Porzingis doesn’t post up enough.
The Thunder currently qualify as the biggest surprise in the NBA. They’ve gone 7-3 over their last 10 games to get up to 17-15 on the year, which is good for seventh in the Western Conference. Billy Donovan has leaned on Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander this year, with a lot of Dennis Schroder off the bench. The three guards have allowed OKC to stay competitive despite Danilo Gallinari missing time recently. Overall, the Thunder have been middle of the pack in both offense and defense, but keep the game played slow enough to avoid a blowout either way. For a team many expected to fall way out of the playoff race, being firmly in the mix is a little astonishing.
Magic at Wizards
This is one is a little bit of the unstoppable force against the immovable object. Orlando is 12th in the NBA in defense and climbing since getting healthy, but 25th in offense. Washington is fifth in offense, but 30th (by over 3 points!) in defense. The Magic may be without Aaron Gordon, who is dealing with some leg soreness, but they should have more than enough to keep up with the Wizards. If you haven’t checked in on Markelle Fultz yet, this is a great time to do it. He’s shot 46.6% on his way to 11.5 points, to go along with 4.3 assists. The three-point shot still isn’t there, in terms of percentage or volume, but Fultz is 73.9% from the free throw line, which shows signs of his improvement as a shooter.
The Wizards have been decimated by injuries. They played a game last week with an NBA season-high seven players on the inactive list. In that game, they started two players, Gary Payton II and Johnathan Williams, who were recently signed via the Hardship Exception. The good news is that frontcourt players Davis Bertans, Thomas Bryant and Moritz Wagner are all getting close to returns. On the flipside, Bradley Beal is dealing with leg soreness. The injuries have allowed for a lot of unknowns to step forward and put up numbers. That includes Payton, who may be playing himself into a rest of season contract, despite only being with Washington for about a week.
Nuggets at Pacers
Despite a less than ideal start offensively, the Denver Nuggets currently sit at second in the Western Conference. Now, Denver’s offense has climbed up to 10th in the league, complementing their strong defense, which is fifth in the league. The Nuggets are still playing a snail’s pace, but it’s working for them. Nikola Jokic has broken out of his season-long slump over the last couple of weeks and is back to being a nightly triple-double threat. Injuries have cropped up recently, but Denver has the depth to handle them. One reason? Michael Porter Jr. is starting to emerge. He had 19 points on 8-10 shooting in a victory over the Sacramento Kings and is showing signs of being the highly regarded prospect he was before he got hurt in his lone season in college.
The Pacers are stuck in the mud a bit as they can’t seem to climb out of sixth in the Eastern Conference. Part of the issue is Malcolm Brogdon, who has been Indiana’s best player, continues to be in and out of the lineup with various maladies. Victor Oladipo has ramped up his on-court activity, but he’s not expected to play in games until February from the latest reports. Domantas Sabonis has played at an All-Star level up front, as he averaging a 17/13/4 stat-line, but there is only so much he can do. Aaron Holiday has done a nice job as a backup/spot-starter, but the Pacers need Brogdon back, and soon with games against the 76ers and Nuggets this week.
Heat at Magic
Miami continues to maintain a top-10 offense, as they are at eighth entering the week. That’s pushed the Heat to second in the Eastern Conference. Jimmy Butler has done his all-around thing with averages for 20.5 points, 6.6 rebounds and a career-best 6.7 assists per game. Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro have been surprises as key rotation players all year. And Goran Dragic is back from his latest bout with injuries to provide some scoring off the bench and an additional late-game playmaker alongside Butler. But a main reason Miami is succeeding is the play of Bam Adebayo. He’s averaging a double-double at 15.6 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, with a surprising 4.6 assists a night. Adebayo is playing at an All-Star level and that’s changed Miami’s ceiling from just another playoff team to an Eastern Conference contender.
Spurs at Bucks
Take a break from the NFL playoffs to watch the best team in the NBA do their thing against a Spurs team that is finally showing signs of life. The Milwaukee Bucks are third in the NBA in offense, first in defense (by three points!) and first in net rating, at an absurd +12.4. And Milwaukee is doing this while playing at the NBA’s fastest pace. You know Giannis Antetokounmpo keys the attack and Khris Middleton is an All-Star, but did you know that 11 regular rotation players average at least 5.0 points per game for the Bucks? This roster fits perfect around the MVP and Mike Budenholzer is getting the most out of them for a second straight season.
The Spurs were left for dead after a terrible start to the season, but have started to show a pulse late. They’re tied with Portland entering the week for the last spot in the Western Conference playoffs. It’s an underwhelming race thus far, so simply by being better than the other bad teams, San Antonio has climbed up the standings. Now that their defense is starting to play a bit better, the Spurs are finally moving up the ladder. Their 22-year playoff streak may not be over yet.
Pistons at Lakers
It’s an underwhelming slate of games against the NFL Wild Card playoffs. The Pistons close out a five-game West Coast swing by visiting the Lakers. Los Angeles remains the best team in the West entering the week, as they snapped a four-game losing streak with back-to-back wins over Portland and Dallas to end last week. Both the offense and defense have dropped off just a bit for LA, which might be directly related to LeBron James and Anthony Davis both being banged up. Both are playing through their injuries, but James and Davis do seem limited at times, especially James. He hasn’t had that signature burst and explosion lately. That’s troublesome for the Lakers, because they don’t have a lot behind the two superstars. Kyle Kuzma is still working his way back from some injuries and he’s been inconsistent. The rest of the roster is filled with role players who are great at what they do, but limited in their ability to raise their games. If James or Davis has to miss any sort of significant time, it could cause a tumble in the Western Conference standings.