The NBA officially revealed the nationally televised portion of its 2018-19 opening week schedule, as well as its annual Christmas Day and Martin Luther King Jr. Day showcase slates, on Wednesday afternoon. The common thread, unsurprisingly: a loooooooot of stars, including some very familiar faces in new places.
Opening night: Two potential conference finals previews
The new campaign kicks off on Tuesday, Oct. 16, with a TNT double-header:
• Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics (8 p.m. ET): The latest chapter in a storied NBA rivalry, as well as a rematch of last year’s hard-fought second-round Eastern Conference playoff series, in which the Celtics dispatched the young Sixers in six games. Philadelphia’s looking to make an even deeper postseason run this year behind rising young All-Star center Joel Embiid and reigning Rookie of the Year Ben Simmons, with high hopes for a major bounce-back season from 2017 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz. The Celtics, meanwhile, have their sights set on a trip to the NBA Finals sparked by the returns of All-Stars Gordon Hayward, who missed nearly all of last season after fracturing his leg on opening night, and Kyrie Irving, who missed Boston’s entire postseason run following knee surgery.
• Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Golden State Warriors (10:30 p.m. ET): After they receive their 2018 NBA championship rings, the Warriors will begin their pursuit of a third straight title by renewing unpleasantries with former league MVP Russell Westbrook, re-signed All-Star forward Paul George, and a Thunder team intent on pushing their way back to the top of the Western Conference behind a bruising defense (that welcomes back Defensive Player of the Year candidate Andre Roberson) and a revamped second unit now led by former Atlanta Hawks point guard Dennis Schröder.
Night No. 2: Melo’s Rocket launch plus two Rookie of the Year candidates
Things keep rolling on Wednesday, Oct. 17, with a pair of ESPN tilts:
• New Orleans Pelicans vs. Houston Rockets (8 p.m ET): Without the departed DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo, superstar forward Anthony Davis will look to get the Pelicans on the right foot in what promises to be a brutal race for Western Conference playoff positioning against reigning NBA MVP James Harden, all-world point guard Chris Paul and new addition Carmelo Anthony, who joins the Rockets after an up-and-down season in Oklahoma City and whose presence in place of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute has some observers wondering whether Houston’s still in prime position to give the Warriors a run for their money atop the West.
• Dallas Mavericks vs. Phoenix Suns (10:30 p.m. ET): Two of the top three picks in June’s 2018 NBA draft will square off, as a Mavericks team led by vaunted European prospect Luka Doncic (and top free-agent addition DeAndre Jordan) travels to Arizona to take on No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton, high-scoring guard Devin Booker and a Suns team chock full of interesting young players in search of something to bring it all together.
Night No. 3: LeBron’s Lakers debut
The action shifts back to TNT on Thursday, Oct. 18, for:
• Chicago Bulls vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8 p.m. ET): Our second opening-week look at the Sixers will come against a rebuilding Bulls club that spent big this summer to retain its own high-scoring free agent, shooting guard Zach LaVine, and to import another team’s, bringing Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker back to Chicago. They’ll team with rising sophomore Lauri Markkanen, No. 7 overall pick Wendell Carter Jr. and point guard Kris Dunn to form the core of an intriguing young team that might put up points in bunches, but seems like it could struggle mightily to get stops. One suspects Embiid, Simmons and company won’t mind getting to test out that theory.
• Los Angeles Lakers vs. Portland Trail Blazers at 10:30 p.m. ET: As previously discussed: our first look at LeBron in a Lakers uniform will come at Moda Center, against the high-scoring backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
I wonder if LeBron remembers the last time he played in Portland. I bet Jusuf Nurkic does.
Night No. 4: Kawhi’s back and Utah takes aim at the throne
The first Friday night ESPN showcase of the season will feature:
• Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors (8 p.m. ET): When LeBron left Cleveland, Boston (the team LeBron beat in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals) and Toronto (the team LeBron had, well, destroyed) were two of the most likely potential replacements for the Cavs to represent the East in the Finals. The Celtics mostly stood pat this summer, bringing back their own guys and believing that a healthy Hayward and Irving would put them over the top. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, however, took two big swings, replacing Coach of the Year Dwane Casey with highly regarded assistant Nick Nurse and then trading All-NBA shooting guard DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA First Team forward who, if he’s healthy, is exactly the kind of top-five player who could vault Toronto to great new heights.
The two big questions in the aftermath of Toronto’s big move: can they convince Leonard (who’s widely expected to push for an exit to L.A. in free agency next summer) to stick around long term? And, even with a healthy and locked-in Leonard, do the Raptors have the firepower to go toe-to-toe with an extremely deep and talented Celtics team? We’ll start to get our answers on the season’s first Friday night.
• Golden State Warriors vs. Utah Jazz (10:30 p.m. ET): After a remarkable second half of the season and a push to the second round of the playoffs behind a meat-grinder defense led by Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and an offense sparked by thrilling rookie guard Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz look poised to push for both more national spotlight and a higher-tier spot among the West’s elite. What comes with that: an early-season meeting with Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the gang that could serve as a measuring stick for whether a Utah team that won’t be sneaking up on anybody this year will still be able to trade haymakers with the best of the best.
Night No. 5: LeBron’s Hollywood premiere
The national games continue into the weekend, with Saturday, Oct. 20, turning up:
• Toronto Raptors vs. Washington Wizards (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV): A rematch of last year’s opening-round playoff series, in which the DeMar-led version of the Raps knocked off the sulky and underwhelming Wiz in six games. It ought to be fascinating to find out how much the presence of Dwight Howard changes things for Washington … and, y’know, whether it changes them for the better.
• Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): In your first game in your new home, LeBron, please enjoy dealing with Harden, CP3, Clint Capela and P.J. Tucker fire-hydranting his way around for 48 minutes. Welcome to the West!
Night No. 6: It’s kind of a long week, TBH
And, on Sunday night, Oct. 21, we wrap up the national TV opening week with:
• Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Clippers (9 p.m. ET): The emotions won’t be quite as strong when Paul squares off against his former team this fall, but it’ll be interesting to see how the rebooted Clippers — an extremely guard-heavy team after holding onto vets Lou Williams, Avery Bradley and Milos Teodosic while drafting lottery picks Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, and one that believes it can still push for a playoff spot — matches up against a team roundly expected to rank among the conference’s top two teams again this season.
The Christmas Day quintuple-header
The NBA also formalized the five games you’ll be ducking away from your family to check out on Dec. 25, all of which were reported on Tuesday:
• Milwaukee Bucks vs. New York Knicks (12 p.m. ET, ESPN): Giannis Antetokounmpo is a gift for us all.
• Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Houston Rockets (3 p.m. ET, ABC): The last two MVPs square off, and Melo gets a chance to show that maybe he wasn’t the problem in OKC last season.
• Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics (5:30 p.m. ET, ABC): I wonder what kind of present Marcus Smart will get for Ben Simmons. My guess is extreme aggression and disapproving looks.
• Los Angeles Lakers vs. Golden State Warriors (8 p.m. ET, ABC): For the fourth straight year, LeBron will spent his Christmas taking on the Dubs. One wonders if he’s ready for a different present at this point.
• Portland Trail Blazers vs. Utah Jazz (10:30 p.m. ET): Maybe not the most overtly thrilling combination, but Lillard and McCollum vs. Mitchell and Ricky Rubio ain’t too bad a nightcap.
The Martin Luther King Jr. Day slate
Lastly, the league spotlighted the three games that TNT will televise on Monday, Jan. 21, 2019, during the NBA’s annual celebration of the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
• New Orleans Pelicans vs. Memphis Grizzlies (5:30 p.m. ET): Independent of the possibility for a fun and competitive game — again, I like these Grizzlies if Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are healthy — it’s just good that the league got a game back in Memphis, a city with such deep ties to Dr. King’s life and tragic death. (I do, however, agree with Grizzlies play-by-play voice Pete Pranica: it’d be awfully nice for the Atlanta Hawks to have been featured, too.)
• Houston Rockets vs. Philadelphia 76ers (8 p.m. ET): There’s plenty of compelling talent here, but the real headliner is the non-zero chance that Embiid and CP3 get on on another’s nerves so badly that they both just spontaneously combust.
• Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET): The last three MLK Day games against the Warriors haven’t gone well for LeBron; now, we find out how much (besides the mid-January weather) his move to L.A. has changed.
The rest of the schedule — all 82 games for all 30 teams, nationally televised or no — will be released on Friday.
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