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5 NBA things to know for Jan. 22

Some key storylines and NBA tidbits to know for the day ahead

1. It’s Zion time (at last)!

After more than 215 days, the New Orleans Pelicans and their fans will get a look at No. 1 pick Zion Williamson in a real-life, regular-season NBA game. The sports world at large (and the NBA world in particular) will be closely eyeing Spurs vs. Pelicans (9:30 ET, ESPN) to see what the explosive rookie can do. Lost in all this hype, perhaps, is the fact New Orleans is playing better of late as they’re 11-5 since a putrid 6-22 start. As for the amount of playing time Williamson gets, it seems like all restrictions may be off (based on what lead exec David Griffin said back on Jan. 22). No matter what, this is one of the most exciting rookie debuts in recent memory and a must-watch moment.

2. Who will challenge Bucks in East?

Milwaukee is running away with the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference (and the NBA at large). Yet there a handful of teams — the Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics at the forefront — who might pose a threat to the Bucks come playoff time. That pecking order is hardly decided, of course, and tonight’s Sixers-Raptors game in Toronto (7 ET, ESPN) should give the winner a measure of confidence in that department. Toronto is feeling good at the season’s midpoint thanks to a healthy roster and improved play from Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet. For the Sixers, Ben Simmons is on a tear: he’s averaging 21.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.7 assists over his last 10 games.

3. Celtics flashing their might

Martin Luther King Jr. Day was a banner one for Boston after it dominated the rival Los Angeles Lakers. Now comes the harder part for a team hoping to be a Finals contender: taking care of business against a young, scrappy team. That foe takes the form of the visiting Memphis Grizzlies (7:30 ET, League Pass), who saw their seven-game win streak end on MLK Day. The good news for Boston? Grizzlies star rookie Ja Morant is a little more tame vs. East foes (15.6 ppg, 7.9 apg, 3.1 rpg on 47.2% shooting). The bad news for Boston? Morant is rolling over his last eight games (18.9 ppg, 9.0 apg, 4.8 apg on 56.1% shooting).

4. Nuggets, Rockets set to tussle

Denver is banged up, but keeps finding a way to win thanks to its superior depth. Such was the case in an MLK Day win in Minnesota, where Michael Porter Jr., Malik Beasley and others were a huge help. All of the above can’t be said for Houston, which hosts the Nuggets (8 ET, League Pass) and has hit a decided rough patch in 2019-20. Since beating the Nuggets on Dec. 31, Houston is 3-5 and has lost four straight games. James Harden is in the midst of an awful stretch while the Rockets rank 22nd in rebound percentage (49.1%) and 20th in true shooting percentage (55.3%) in January.

5. On this date: Kobe’s 81

Heading into Jan. 22, 2006, the 70-point margin had been crossed six times and just twice since 1963. That all changed when Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant rang up 81 points on 28-for-46 shooting (and 7-for-13 on 3-pointers) in a 122-104 comeback win against the Toronto Raptors. With his team trailing by 18 points in the third quarter, Bryant simply exploded, scoring 27 points in the third and 28 in the fourth. He accounted for all but 18 of the Lakers points in the second half and single-handedly put the game away.