The 2020-21 season is set to tip off in less than three weeks and today we got our first glimpse at the schedule with the slate of games from opening night on Dec. 22 to the NBA’s 73rd NBA on Christmas Day showcase.
Let’s dig in and take a closer look at these must-watch matchups.
Opening Night: Tuesday, December 22
Golden State Warriors at Brooklyn Nets (7 ET, TNT)
Kevin Durant is set to play his first NBA game in 18 months and make his debut with the Brooklyn Nets when he faces his former team in the opening game of the 2020-21 NBA season.
Durant’s run as a Golden State Warrior ended in Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals as he suffered a torn Achilles’ tendon that not only derailed Golden State’s hopes for a three-peat (the Raptors would clinch the series in six games), but also cost Durant the entire 2019-20 season as he rehabilitated one of the most devastating injuries for a basketball player.
Durant is one of the most potent scorers the game has ever seen – he ranks sixth all-time with a 27.02 career scoring average – but admits he’s unsure of what to expect in his first game action after a year-and-a-half.
“Who knows?” he told the media on Tuesday. “I’ve just got to see how I feel in a real NBA game again.”
This game will also mark the debut of the Durant/Kyrie Irving partnership as the two signed with Brooklyn as free agents prior to last season but knew it would be a full year before they could be on the court together. It will also mark the head coaching debut of Steve Nash, who worked as a consultant the Warriors in the past, but now will be opposite Steve Kerr on the sidelines.
For the Warriors, they have not played since the season was suspended the night of March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic. With Klay Thompson out for the full season and Stephen Curry playing only five games, the Warriors’ streak of five straight Finals appearances and seven straight playoff appearances came to a halt as they finished the year at 15-50. Golden State selected James Wiseman with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 Draft, but on the same day learned that Thompson had suffered a torn Achilles’ that would cost him a second straight season.
LA Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers (10 ET, TNT)
The Los Angeles Lakers were crowned 2019-20 NBA champions on October 11 … and will begin their title defense just 72 days later in a matchup against their intra-city rivals. The Lakers’ 17th championship tied them with the Boston Celtics for the most in NBA history, and they take their first step to try to break that tie against the Clippers on Dec. 22.
The Lakers will open with a number of new faces: Dennis Schroder (traded from Oklahoma City), Marc Gasol (signed from Toronto), Wes Matthews (signed from Milwaukee) and reigning Kia NBA Sixth Man Montrezl Harrell (signed from the Clippers). Harrell’s decision to move down the Staples Center hall to join the Lakers adds another layer to an already fun rivalry.
The Clippers added Serge Ibaka from Toronto to join former teammate Kawhi Leonard (they won the 2019 title together with the Raptors) and Paul George as the core pieces for the Clippers, who will be led by new head coach Tyronn Lue; the Clippers and Doc Rivers parted ways after seven seasons. The Clippers and Lakers split their season series last season and will open the campaign against one another for the second straight year.
Wednesday, December 23
Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics (7:30 ET, TNT)
The Milwaukee Bucks have finished atop the Eastern Conference standings in each of the past two seasons, but have not been able to match their regular-season success in the playoffs. Last season, the No. 1 seed Bucks and No. 3 seed Celtics each saw their seasons end at the hands of the No. 5 Miami Heat. Yet both the Bucks and Celtics enter the 2020-21 season among the top contenders in the East.
The Bucks will be led by the reigning back-to-back Kia NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo. Only three players in NBA history have ever won three consecutive MVPs – Bill Russell (1960-61 to 1962-63), Wilt Chamberlain (1965-66 to 1967-68) and Larry Bird (1983-84 to 1985-86). Can Giannis become the fourth?
The Bucks shook up their roster a bit to add Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans. The one-time All-Star and two-time All-Defensive Team selection is expected to bolster the Bucks lineup and give Milwaukee a big three of Giannis, Khris Middleton and Holiday to lead them this season.
The Celtics will be counting on the continued development of young stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to lead them this season, especially early on — Kemba Walker is expected to be out until January following a knee procedure that addressed an injury that hampered him last season. Gordon Hayward left in free agency, but Boston added veterans Tristan Thompson (signed from Cleveland) and Jeff Teague (signed from Atlanta) to add depth to their lineup.
Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns (10:30 ET, ESPN)
What does Luka Doncic have in store for his third season in the NBA? Doncic made a huge leap in his sophomore season, earning All-NBA First Team honors as he averaged 28.8 points (6th in NBA), 9.4 rebounds (17th), 8.8 assists (3rd), racking up a league-high 17 triple-doubles over 61 games. Doncic became the first player to earn All-NBA First Team honors in either his first or second season since Tim Duncan in 1998-99.
The Mavs will be without fellow All-Star Kristaps Porzingis as he continues to recover from offseason knee surgery. Dallas did add Josh Richardson (from Philadelphia) and James Johnson (from Minnesota via OKC) in trades to help bolster their lineup.
The Suns were the story of the NBA restart as they went a perfect 8-0 in the bubble, but finished just a half-game back of qualifying for the play-in game for the final playoff berth. Coming off that progress, they made a big play in bringing Chris Paul to the Valley.
With young stars like Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton continuing to develop under Paul’s steadying presence, the Suns will look to build on their success from the bubble as they open the 2020-21 season with an eye on playoff contention.
Christmas Day: Friday, December 25
New Orleans Pelicans at Miami Heat (Noon ET, ESPN)
The five-game slate of Christmas Day games begins in Miami where the defending Eastern Conference champion Heat open their season by hosting the New Orleans Pelicans. The Heat are coming off a remarkable run to the NBA Finals in October, even as their title hopes were dampened by injuries suffered by starters Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo. Behind Big Face Coffee owner Jimmy Butler and young stars like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson, the Heat took two games off the Lakers but were unable win the franchise’s fourth title.
The Heat will look to run it back as they re-signed Dragic, and added veterans Avery Bradley and Maurice Harkless to offset the losses of Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill and Derrick Jones Jr. They face an up-and-coming Pelicans squad led by the duo of Brandon Ingram and last year’s No. 1 overall pick Zion Williamson.
The Pelicans re-signed Ingram to a max deal in the offseason and Williamson is set to begin his second season healthy after missing the first half of his rookie campaign due to a knee injury. Joining the young duo will be a pair of veterans acquired via trade: Eric Bledsoe (from the Bucks) and Steven Adams (from the Thunder).
Golden State Warriors at Milwaukee Bucks (2:30 ET, ABC)
The Warriors open the season with a pair of road games against two of the top teams in the Eastern Conference as they follow their season-opener in Brooklyn with a Christmas Day meeting in Milwaukee.
Both teams will be fun to watch early on, mainly to see how their new pieces fit in with their established stars. After adding Andrew Wiggins last season, the Warriors acquired Kelly Oubre Jr. from the Thunder in the offseason to help offset the loss to Klay Thompson to his second-straight season-ending injury. Throw in rookie James Wiseman and you get an interesting chemistry experiment for Steve Kerr and veterans Stephen Curry and Draymond Green to solve.
The Bucks moved a lot of pieces for a team that finished atop the regular standings in each of the past two seasons. In addition to acquiring Jrue Holiday, the Bucks signed free agents Torrey Craig, D.J. Augustin, Bobby Portis and Bryn Forbes to complement All-Stars Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton.
Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics (5 ET, ABC)
If you’re looking for a battle of dynamic duos, how about Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown against Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving? Throw in Irving facing his former team in Boston for an extra layer of intrigue in this matchup of Eastern Conference contenders.
Tatum was named to the All-NBA Third Team in 2019-20 as he continued his steady climb into NBA stardom in his third season. He averaged career-highs across the board — 23.4 pts, 7.0 reb, 3.0 ast, 1.4 stl, 0.9 blk, 2.9 3PM, 40.3 3P% — and was rewarded with a max contract extension by the Celtics.
Irving was limited to 20 games during his first season in Brooklyn as both he and Durant look to make a strong and healthy start to the 2020-21 campaign. Irving did average a career-best 27.4 points in those 20 games to go with 6.4 assists (the second-highest average of his career). Irving finding his balance between scorer and playmaker while playing alongside Durant will be fascinating to watch.
Dallas Mavericks at Los Angeles Lakers (8 ET, ABC/ESPN)
LeBron vs. Luka. It’s a matchup that sets one of the game’s all-time greats — who continues to defy Father Time as he enters his 18th season — against a young phenom that has taken the league by storm and will be one of the faces of the NBA for the next decade or more.
Both were members of the 2019-20 All-NBA First Team. For LeBron, it was a record 13th First Team Selection and 16th overall (also a record). For Luka, it was his first; he became the third-youngest player to earn First Team honors. One of the two players he’s trailing? LeBron James.
Youngest Players to Earn All-NBA First Team Honors
- LeBron James, 2005-06 (21 years, 110 days)
- Max Zaslofsky, 1946-47 (21 years, 114 days)
- Luka Doncic, 2019-20 (21 years, 168 days)
Doncic led the NBA in triple-doubles last season with 17, with LeBron tied for second with 13. LeBron ranks fifth on the all-time triple-double list with 94; Luka already has 25 as he enters this third NBA season. The Lakers won the 2019-20 season series, 3-1, as LeBron averaged a triple-double (28.0 pts, 11.0 ast, 10.8 reb) against the Mavericks.
LA Clippers at Denver Nuggets (10:30 ET, ESPN)
Christmas Day is capped off with a rematch of last year’s Western Conference semifinal series that saw the Denver Nuggets overcome a 3-1 deficit as they rallied to eliminate the Clippers in seven games to advance to the Western Conference finals.
This is our first national TV look at the Nuggets, who are led by the one-two punch of Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic. There were 13 40-plus point performances during the 2019 NBA Playoffs — Murray had a league-high four of them. Murray showed off all aspects of his offensive arsenal during the postseason: he shot from distance, drove to the hoop for acrobatic and crafty finishes and had his pull-up and floaters working as he frustrated opposing defenders on a nightly basis. Meanwhile, Jokic one of the game’s best passers and playmakers, a 7-footer who made a second-straight All-NBA showing.
The Clippers have a formidable duo of their own in Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, who are looking to bounce back from last season’s disappointing end in their debut season as teammates. A good first step would be knocking off the team that knocked them out of the postseason back in September.