Break out the calendar: Key NBA dates you can't miss in 2018-19

These matchups will be ones you cannot afford to miss once season begins

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith NBA.com

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Aug 10, 2018 4:48 PM ET

The sneak-a-peak provided by the NBA scheduling powers that be at a portion of the 2018-19 slate only served to tease me for what is to come during the season.

Like any meticulous planner, I love knowing where I need to be on opening night (Oracle Arena for ring night as the Oklahoma City Thunder visit), Christmas Day (back at Oracle, where LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers hope to put a lump of coal in the Warriors’ stocking) and Martin Luther King Jr. Day (Memphis, for sentimental and basketball reasons).

But it's all those other days and nights filled with NBA action that need to be scoped out. And thankfully, today’s release of the full 2018-19 season schedule provides an opportunity to make some plans for the 82-game marathon each team will run from Oct. 16 and April 10.

Here are just a few of the must-see games on my list, which is sure to expand as the season progresses.

(Note: The games are listed in no particular order and each has an explanation as to why it made the cut)

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LeBron era begins in L.A.

Houston Rockets vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Oct. 20, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

 
LeBron James recently had a summer workout with some of his new teammates.

Watch it because ...  The Staples Center debut for LeBron James is the No. 1 event on the sports and entertainment calendar -- in the sports and entertainment center of the universe -- now that LeBron has taken up residence in Brentwood, Calif. A veritable Who’s Who of celebrities and influencers are sure to be in the building. Lakers fans around the globe have been clamoring for the day their beloved franchise returns to relevance. Well, this is officially the night the lights come back on for the Lakers.

(And, yes, you might see LeBron and the Lakers on this list a few more times.)

A Texas-sized welcome back?

Toronto Raptors vs. San Antonio Spurs
Jan. 3, 2019: 8 p.m. ET, TNT

 
Kawhi Leonard went to the Raptors in a blockbuster swap the Spurs made.

Watch it because ...  Kawhi Leonard’s first (and potentially only) trip back to San Antonio. A heartfelt Dear San Antonio letter weeks after the Spurs granted his wishes and traded him away (to Toronto -- and not his desired Lakers) won’t shield Leonard from the fury he’ll surely face at the AT&T Center this night. Leonard was supposed to be the player who carried on "The Spurs Way" from the Tim Duncan era into the future. It’s still a bit tough to digest how quickly things came unraveled between Leonard and the Spurs. Anyone expecting there to be no hard feelings from the Spurs' home crowd is divorced from reality.

Hayward's debut, part deux

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics
Oct. 16: 8 p.m. ET, TNT

Boston fans are ready to see Gordon Hayward back in action this season.

Watch it because ...  Boston Celtics forward Gordon Hayward lasted a grand total of five minutes and 15 seconds in the Celtics’ season opener last year before a gruesome leg injury ended his season. It was a cruel way to kick off his tenure in Boston, after he selected the Celtics in free agency in the summer of 2017. Seeing him flex his skills during the remix season opener this time around should be a feel-good moment for Hayward, the Celtics and their adoring fan base.

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Warriors-Rockets, again (and again ...)

Houston Rockets vs. Golden State Warriors
Nov. 15 (in Houston): 8 p.m. ET, TNT
Jan. 3, 2019 (in Oakland): 10:30 p.m. ET, TNT
Feb. 23, 2019 (in Oakland): 8:30 p.m. ET, ABC

 
The Warriors ousted the Rockets in Game 7 of the 2018 West finals.

Watch them because ...  We didn't stutter. Every. Single. One. Of. Them! Take your highlighter and circle all of the matchups between these two league (and Western Conference) titans. The former foes waged an epic Western Conference finals in 2018 and reunite three times in 2018-19. While statement games have been given short shrift during the Super Team era, you should expect Houston and Golden State to stalk other all season. There’s no room for passive-aggressive behavior when the Rockets and Warriors threaten each other's NBA championship goals. 

Boston to the Bay and back

Boston Celtics vs. Golden State Warriors
Jan. 26, 2019 (in Boston): 8:30 p.m. ET, ABC
March 5, 2019 (in Oakland): 10:30 p.m. ET, TNT

Watch them because ...  When Boston heads to Oakland (and vice versa two months later), these are power showdowns you cannot miss. The Celtics will looking to make a statement of their own when they face the two-time defending NBA champs. And they should. The path has been cleared for them to take that final step and get back on The Finals. And what better way to measure their readiness for that than going after the Warriors? If the Celtics are built to combat what the Warriors do best, we’ll see it these games (even if it is just two doses of them).

Welcome back, DeMar

San Antonio Spurs vs. Toronto Raptors
Feb. 22, 2019: 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

 
Few players were as beloved by Raptors fans as DeMar DeRozan was.

Watch it because ...  DeMar DeRozan’s Toronto homecoming might be the one return visit for a star player that results in a genuine standing ovation. DeRozan’s desire to finish his career with the franchise that drafted him has been well-documented in the wake of the shocking blockbuster deal that sent him to San Antonio in a package for All-Star Kawhi Leonard. Expect a raucous scene when he returns to Air Canada Centre and the bosom of a proud fan base that is sure to turn out (Drake included) for his one trip back to the Six.

Dashed Banana Boat dreams

L.A. Lakers vs. Houston Rockets
Dec. 13: 8 p.m. ET, TNT
Jan. 19, 2019: 8:30 p.m. ET, ABC

Watch them because ...  The Lakers' two visits to Houston will be tough ones to swallow for folks who dreamed of a potential semi-banana boat reunion for LeBron James and Chris Paul. They were talking about the possibilities during the first round of the playoffs on local sports talk stations, only to see LeBron meet with only the Lakers and Sixers before deciding to cast his lot with the Lakers. Seeing him in purple and gold in the flesh at Toyota Center will hammer home the choice he made. An that probably still won’t keep the dreamers in Houston from thinking about what might have been.

Thankful or not in Cleveland?

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers
Nov. 21: 8 p.m. ET, ESPN

 
The Cavs have a new look for the 2018-19 season.

Watch it because ...  You’ll have to forgive fans in Northeast Ohio if they are struggling to muster the energy for this holiday season showdown. Hosting LeBron James and his new team on Thanksgiving eve gives Cavaliers fans a chance to process James' exit all over again -- the second time the former Kia MVP bolted the Cavs in his career. To their credit, they’ve handled his departure the second time around much better than they did when he left for the Miami Heat. On a side note, there has to be a visit to Akron and LeBron’s I Promise School on the Lakers’ travel itinerary, since this is their only known Ohio visit this season.

It's a Utah Christmas!

Portland Trail Blazers vs. Utah Jazz
Dec. 25: 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

 
Donovan Mitchell set the tone for the Jazz time and again last season.

Watch it because ...  What can a surprising and breakout rookie season do for you in Salt Lake City? It can put your team on the radar as a host for one of the league’s five coveted Christmas Day showcase games. How else do you explain Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz getting this Dec. 25 treat? Mitchell showcased himself as an ascending star both during his rookie season and especially as Utah reached the Western Conference semifinals. One of his rewards for all that is a heightened level of fame and a visit from the Blazers in Christmas' final game.

Glad to see you, Kawhi

Toronto Raptors vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Nov. 4: 9:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass

Watch it because ...:  When the Raptors make their lone trip to play the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center, you have to believe the Lakers faithful will be eager to show him what could await him back home. (As of now, Leonard will be an unrestricted free agent next summer.) Those fans only get one shot to show Leonard, a Califorina native, how bad they really want him. Something tells me this won’t be the only time the home crowd is pulling double duty (rooting for the Lakers while low-key recruiting help for LeBron's new crew).

The Process, starring Jahlil and Joel

New Orleans Pelicans vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Nov. 21: 7 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass

Watch it because ...  The Sixers will have plenty to deal with when Anthony Davis and former Sixers All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday come to town. But the guy with the real chip on his shoulder might be Jahlil Okafor, one of the casualties of "The Process" during his brief and tumultuous stint with the franchise. Everything Okafor thought he would be when the Sixers selected him with the third pick in the 2015 Draft is what Embiid has become. Okafor is just 22 and on a mission to revive his career with the Pelicans.

The House that Dirk built

Phoenix Suns vs. Dallas Mavericks
April 9, 2019: 8:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass

 
Where will Dirk Nowitzki finish on the NBA's all-time scoring list?

Watch it because ...  Dirk Nowitzki’s (potential) final call at American Airlines Center could very well be the last time he takes the floor in a league he helped reshape for international players. There has been no kind of official announcement that this will be his last season. But just in case, the season finale for the Mavericks is a must-see for fans around the globe. That he spent his entire (Hall of Fame) career in one place is even more impressive given the times where hardly any player simply stays put.

Fear the Deer, Philly

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Philadelphia 76ers
April 4, 2019: 8 p.m. ET, TNT

Watch it because ...  Giannis Antetokounmpo has already served notice that he’s ready to take over for LeBron James as the best player in the Eastern Conference. But he’s also poised for a true Kia MVP-caliber season now that new coach Mike Budenholzer is in place to smooth out the Bucks' rough edges. There’s no better place to show off all the work he’s done than against the other big man (Joel Embiid) who thinks he’s going to assume the mantle in the East. And we’ll know who is winning the battle at this late date in the regular season.

Casey's comeback

Detroit Pistons vs. Toronto Raptors
Nov. 14: 7:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass

Watch it because ...  Coach Dwane Casey spent seven seasons transforming the Toronto Raptors into an Eastern Conference power. And in his final season coaching in Toronto, he earned Coach of the Year honors ... only to be dumped after being swept out of the playoffs (again) by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Casey rebounded well with a Pistons team eager for a new voice and direction. Casey’s new crew will no doubt have this date circled on the calendar.

Suns or Kings the future?

Sacramento Kings vs. Phoenix Suns
Dec. 4: 9 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass

 
Deandre Ayton and Marvin Bagley III made their mark at NBA Summer League.

Watch it because ...  The matchup of the top two picks in the Draft always inspires some interesting subplots. For Deandre Ayton of the Suns and Marvin Bagley III of the Kings, that means every time you see each other people are going to compare and contrast where you are your respective career tracks. This first game (Bagley’s first official trip back home as a pro) of four is only the beginning for these two young giants. The scrutiny will be there for years to come, fellas, so get used to it.

Doncic vs. Young begins

Dallas Mavericks vs. Atlanta Hawks
Oct. 24 (in Atlanta): 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Dec. 12 (in Dallas): 8:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass

Watch them because ...  You’ll be linked together forever thanks to that Draft night trade. Time will tell who ends up being the better player. Neither rookie will be playing on a team expected to make much noise in term of the playoff chase. But they could be in the thick of the Rookie of the Year race, if things go as planned for both of them.

Don't forget about D.C.

Washington Wizards vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Jan. 8, 2019: 7 ET, NBA League Pass

Watch it because ...  John Wall says the Wizards are every bit as good as the other contenders in the Eastern Conference. Their track record the past few seasons says otherwise. The Celtics and Raptors have both made it to the conference finals and the Sixers are poised to get there in the near future with their talented, young group. Meanwhile, Wall, Bradley Beal and the Wizards have routinely come up short of that goal. Maybe the addition of Dwight Howard is the move that finally pushes them over the top … or not.

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Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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