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.
Magic at Nets
It’s not a great night for League Pass, as no matchup features two teams with winning records. Orlando and Brooklyn are both playoff teams at least!
Brooklyn has started their postseason push sans Kyrie Irving, after he was ruled out for the rest of the season due to a shoulder injury. Odd as it may seem, the Nets have been better without Irving than with him this season. Without Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie reassumes his role as the lead ballhandler. It also frees up additional time for Caris LeVert to work with the ball in his hands. In short, Brooklyn starts to look a lot more like last year’s scrappy bunch again. The Nets hold a two-game lead over the Magic for the seventh seed and putting a little more distance between the two would be big heading down the stretch.
Orlando comes to Brooklyn with a tweak to their starting group. James Ennis has taken over the starting small forward sport for the Magic with Steve Clifford alternating between Wesley Iwundu and bigger lineups featuring Khem Birch. Ennis’ presence in the opening group should create a little more floor balance for Orlando, as he’s a 35% shooter from behind the arc for his career. In addition, D.J. Augustin is back after missing a month due to knee soreness. While Ennis and Augustin might not move the needle for a lot of teams, the Magic need quality role players to take up rotation minutes. Just in time for a playoff push, Orlando is getting healthy.
Celtics at Trail Blazers
Boston is in the middle of a difficult West Coast swing. They kicked off the trip with a win over Minnesota before a two-point loss at the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday afternoon. That loss was just the third in the last 15 games for the Celtics, who have rounded into form as a team as Jayson Tatum has reached star level. Boston continues to manage through consistent knee soreness for All-Star guard Kemba Walker, but Brad Stevens has said he doesn’t believe it to be a long-term thing. When fully healthy, the Celtics have four separate players in Tatum, Walker and Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward that can go for 30 points on any given night. One thing to keep an eye on when Marcus Smart starts: the Boston bench is very hit or miss. More often than not lately it’s been misses.
The Trail Blazers got a hard-fought win against the Pistons on Sunday night, as they picked up a game on the Grizzlies in the race for the Western Conference’s final playoff spot. Portland will have to keep it going without Damian Lillard for at least a few weeks, as he recovers from a strained groin. With Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins still out up front, the Blazers can occasionally struggle to find offense. C.J. McCollum is capable of carrying his own weight, but Carmelo Anthony has to do more with Lillard out. Anthony delivered on Sunday with his best game of the season, as he scored 32 points on 11-of-16 shooting. If he can continue to play well while Lillard is out, it will go a long way towards Portland returning to the postseason.
Mavericks at Spurs
Luka Doncic is back and doing his thing for Dallas. Rick Carlisle is still figuring out how to incorporate Willie Cauley-Stein and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, after they were added to the roster over the last few weeks. The presence of the two veterans gives the Mavs some different options defensively, as the majority of the rest of the roster is offense-leaning. In addition, Kristaps Porzingis and Doncic seem to be finally creating chemistry with each other. That’s important as Dallas looks likely to make a long-awaited return to the playoffs.
The Spurs might not be so lucky. As of Monday, San Antonio had slipped four games behind Memphis for the eighth seed in the West. Just as important, the Spurs are now behind both the Trail Blazers and Pelicans in the standings. The task of extending their playoff run to 24 straight years keeps getting a little more daunting. One thing holding back San Antonio seems to be a reluctance to embrace the three-point shot as a weapon. The Spurs rank 29th in the NBA in three-point attempts, despite having the league’s seventh best percentage.
Kings at Thunder
Sacramento recently said they weren’t counting out making a playoff run. It’s a big ask, as the Kings are five games out of the playoffs, but winning two straight heading into this week is a step in the right direction. Marvin Bagley and Richaun Holmes both remain out, but Luke Walton’s recent lineup changes seem to have sparked the team. Bogdan Bogdanovic is playing well as a starter and gives the Kings a secondary playmaker off the dribble with De’Aaron Fox. Buddy Hield wasn’t happy about his move to the bench, but he’s creating instant offense a reserve. At least for now, Sacramento seems to have found better rotation balance.
The Thunder are no longer a fun story of a team that might make the playoffs. Oklahoma City is now 9.5 games clear of dropping out and is a virtual lock to get back to the postseason. And the Thunder are finally starting to get a little healthier too. Terrance Ferguson returned recently and he gives the team another wing with size. Ferguson hasn’t regained his starting spot, but is providing a little defense and shooting off the bench. Considering OKC lacks for bench scoring outside of Dennis Schroder, anything they get from Ferguson is welcomed.
Mavericks at Heat
Dallas at Miami was supposed to be a national TV game, but was bumped in favor of Oklahoma City at Milwaukee. That’s a gain for League Pass viewers as the Mavs bring their solid road record to South Beach.
While the Mavericks been good on the road, the Heat are the opposite. They’ve been wonderful at home at 23-3 entering the week, but miserable away from Miami at just 13-17. That makes the race for the fourth seed in the East an important one. The Heat are currently 1.5 games up on the 76ers. Given Philadelphia is equally as bad on the road, both sides will make a hard push to be at home in the first round. Miami relies heavily on young role players, making homecourt advantage big for them. Young players and role players are always better in the friendly confines during the postseason.
Lakers at Grizzlies
On a Leap Day League Pass night, the Lakers bring Showtime to Memphis. The Lakers enter the week with a five-game cushion for the top seed in the West over the Denver Nuggets. That’s important not just for seeding, but for the Lakers to be able to manage their roster throughout the rest of the regular season. With the addition of Markieff Morris on the buyout market, Los Angeles added another veteran up front. That should allow them to spot Anthony Davis some rest days down the stretch. The Lakers are also monitoring the availability of wings, including Dion Waiters. Don’t count out another addition before the end of the season. That would allow a similar maintenance approach for LeBron James. Given the relative importance of James and Davis to the Lakers fortunes, it’s the prudent path forward.
The surprising Grizzlies are trying to hold off several challengers for the final spot in the West playoffs. That test got a little harder with news this past weekend that Jaren Jackson Jr. would be out at least a couple of weeks due to a sprained knee. Memphis has the depth to get by without Jackson for a little while, but he’s important to their hopes of getting back to the postseason. Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks can only carry so much of the scoring load. Look for Kyle Anderson, Brandon Clarke and resurgent Josh Jackson to be more involved moving forward. If the Grizzlies and get Justise Winslow on the floor, he’ll have the opportunity to make an immediate impact as well.
Raptors at Nuggets
Toronto and Denver are both trying to hold on to the second seeds in their respective conferences. The Raptors have a bit bigger of a cushion in the East, but have a tough closing schedule. Toronto still has to play Milwaukee three times, and they’ve got a matchup with Boston that will give the Celtics the tiebreaker if they win. In addition, the Raptors still haven’t been able to get and keep their full rotation healthy. Marc Gasol and Norman Powell are both still out. They’ll both be back before the playoffs, but their absence is something Nick Nurse will have to work around until then.
On the other hand, Denver is finally getting everyone back. The Nuggets came out of the All-Star break with their full complement of players available. Mike Malone is finally getting to the play the lineups he envisioned back in training camp. And now Malone has a guy like Michael Porter Jr. available with additional experience. The Nuggets are legitimately 10 deep in rotation players. That depth should allow Denver to work around any sort of bumps and bruises the rest of the way. If the Nuggets can get Gary Harris back to form, they’ll be a tough out come playoff time.