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.
Thunder at Rockets
Martin Luther King Day has become a showcase day for the NBA. This year there are 14 games, including four nationally televised games on NBATV and TNT. The best of the League Pass bunch is Chris Paul’s return to Houston as he leads Oklahoma City against the Rockets. The Thunder are a surprising seventh in the Western Conference and are currently just three games behind the sixth place Rockets. Paul, second-year guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schroder have given OKC the best trio of guards in the NBA to this point in the season. When healthy, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams are a nice offense/defense combo up front. The Thunder don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
Houston has hit a rough patch and enter the week on three-game losing streak. In a competitive and tight West, that’s dropped the Rockets to unfamiliar territory. James Harden is doing his thing as an MVP candidate. Russell Westbrook has gotten past some bumpy play to start the year and is fine alongside Harden. Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker are providing defense and rebounding in the frontcourt. The issue for the Rockets? That’s about all they can count on right now. Eric Gordon has been up and down as he works his way back from injury. The small forward spot remains in flux. Houston would love to make a move as we approach the trade deadline, but they don’t really have the trade pieces to make that happen. For now, they’re just going to hope Harden and Westbrook can carry them through until some other options emerge.
No League Pass Games
The only two teams who don’t play on MLK Day are the Clippers and Mavericks. They’ll meet in a terrific NBATV matchup on Tuesday.
Nuggets at Rockets
Houston’s tough times might not get any easier, as they open the week with Oklahoma City and then welcome Denver to town. The Nuggets are currently in the mix with the Clippers and Jazz for the second seed in the West, just ahead of the Mavericks and Wednesday’s opponent, the Rockets. Nikola Jokic looks like an All-Star again, but his supporting cast is really banged up at the season’s mid-point. Paul Millsap has been in and out of the lineup, as has Gary Harris. And recently Jamal Murray went down and will be out for the foreseeable future according to head coach Mike Malone. Those absences have allowed for Will Barton to step forward and play like an All-Star candidate himself. Barton’s shooting and scoring are near career-bests, while his rebounding and playmaking have taken a leap. Michael Porter Jr. has also emerged as a consistent scoring option off the Denver bench. One thing to keep an eye on... In part due to all the injuries, the Nuggets normally excellent defense has been on a major slide and is now sitting outside the top-10.
Wizards at Cavaliers
Just one League Pass game on Thursday, as TNT has a double-header on a light night. While Washington and Cleveland aren’t playing for much, they’re two fun, young teams to watch. The Cavs young guards, Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, are really figuring things out. Both are still score-first, but there are glimmers of both finding their way as passers as well. It’s still unclear how well the two fit together long-term, but this year is all about trying things out for Cleveland.
The Wizards are getting healthy, well, sort of. Jordan McRae, who is having a career-year, may be out for a bit after rolling an ankle, and both Rui Hachimura and Moritz Wagner remained sidelined. But starters Bradley Beal and Thomas Bryant recently returned to the lineup, as did reserve Davis Bertans. That trio, around some other players who have stepped forward, gives Washington a lot of offense. Defense? The Wizards don’t play any. That makes their games highly entertaining.
Celtics at Magic
Boston and Orlando are different places in the standings, but facing similar issues with injuries to key players. The Celtics are working around short-term injuries to both Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker. This is after Gordon Hayward missed time earlier this year. The injuries are a major culprit for Boston’s recent shaky play. All told, the Celtics have only had their original starting five together for only 13 games. That’s kept them from building the continuity and consistency that you hope to have heading into the All-Star break.
As for the Magic, their injuries are long-term and significant. Forwards Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu are out for the season. Backup point guard D.J. Augustin is likely out through the All-Star break. Markelle Fultz has stepped up and is playing really well in his first full NBA. Evan Fournier is putting up the best numbers of his career. But Orlando needs more from Nikola Vucevic and Aaron Gordon. They’ve both been nicked up, but they’ve got to give the Magic consistent scoring, rebounding and defense up front. Otherwise, it’s just too hard for Orlando to get wins. Entering the week, the Magic have a four-game cushion in the playoff race, but that could get quickly erased with one bad week.
Mavericks at Jazz
Utah has overcome their now traditional slow start and has won 16 of their last 18 games. That’s pushed the Jazz in the mix for the second seed in the Western Conference. And they’re getting healthy too, as Mike Conley recently returned from his hamstring troubles. The plan seems to be for Conley to come off the bench for now, as Utah’s starting five really meshed well while Conley was out. That gives the Jazz two great bench guards with Conley pairing with Jordan Clarkson to provide scoring and playmaking. This is the deepest team Quin Snyder has had. If they can stay healthy, Utah might finally get over the hump in the West.
The Mavs are getting healthy too, as Kristaps Porzingis is poised to rejoin the lineup this week. With Porzingis back, that gives Rick Carlisle back his deep and versatile frontcourt. With lots of different options on the wing and in the backcourt, Carlisle has a lot of talent to put around Luka Doncic. Doncic is playing like an MVP, as he racks up triple-doubles on a weekly basis. Keep an eye on Dallas in trade talks too. The Mavericks are always active, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them make a deal to reinforce their first playoff run after a three-year absence.
Raptors at Spurs
Toronto is back to full health now. That’s tough for the rest of the Eastern Conference, as the Raptors weathered in the injury storm quite well. Toronto enters the week just a game behind Miami for second place in the East. Nick Nurse used the games missed due to injury to play his reserves and bolster what was a shaky bench. Now Nurse can count on Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell, Rondae-Hollis Jefferson and young players Chris Boucher and Terence Davis to give him quality minutes. That five-some is behind one of the NBA’s more versatile starting groups. Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet are interchangeable at the guard spots, as are Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby at forward. Marc Gasol isn’t the dominant defender he one was, but he’s got plenty of veteran know-how to make it work up front.
San Antonio has slowly, but surely turned things around. They start the week just 1.5 games behind Memphis for the last spot in the West playoff. LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan went from looking cooked to start the season to playing like All-Stars over the last month. Gregg Popovich has done what he always does and gotten more out of his role players than anyone could have ever imagined. When the Spurs and Raptors played two weeks ago, it was a great game that came right down to the final buzzer. This should be another good contest, as Toronto tries to keep pace at the top of the East, while San Antonio battles to keep their two-decade playoff streak alive in the West.