The most welcoming part of the announced 2021-22 regular season schedule is … normalcy. Yes, the key word is “regular.” After two years of being pinched and shortened by a shakeup caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the NBA is back to 82 games and an October start with an April finish for the regular slate.
Starting Oct. 19 until April 10, the league will revert back to an autumn-spring lifespan that should feel more like an actual season and, of course, feature all the marquee matchups and circled dates and debuts that accompany a typical season. Also: The Lakers are scheduled to be on national TV a whopping total of 42 times. Normal, in other words.
Here are the dates to circle and matchups to anticipate:
A Finals rematch: The Suns and Bucks will revisit their 2021 championship series on Feb. 10, and the finalists will look almost identical to the teams that squared off last month. Neither Milwaukee nor Phoenix made major changes to their rotations, with the exception of the Bucks losing PJ Tucker to Miami in free agency. Suns center Deandre Ayton gets another chance to solve the Giannis Antetokounmpo enigma, Chris Paul — who inked an extension this summer to stay in Phoenix — will see Jrue Holiday for 94 feet again, and Khris Middleton will exchange jumpers with Devin Booker.
Bucks-Nets: These teams had the most spirited and suspenseful playoff series last summer, with the outcome decided by Kevin Durant’s shoe size. As you recall, Durant’s toe was on the 3-point line when he launched the potential series-winning shot in the East semifinals, and that 2-pointer enabled the Bucks to rally in overtime and eventually take the NBA title. The Nets were without Kyrie Irving in that game while James Harden was hobbled, and so, as the popular opinion goes, the Nets were shortchanged. The first meeting between these Eastern Conference goliaths will be Opening Night and presumably, the Nets will be at full strength for that and the others to follow. The Bucks-Nets season series should become a chess match of sorts as they size each other up for the chance to (re)claim the conference.
Canadian comeback: Kyle Lowry put in work during his time with the Raptors and captained the franchise to its first and only championship in 2019. He’s regarded as a basketball hero in Toronto and perhaps the Raptors’ most important player in history — if not the greatest (Vince Carter might have a say). Therefore, Lowry will most certainly receive a warm welcome when he returns Feb. 3 as a member of the Heat, who signed him in the offseason. Actually, Lowry hasn’t played a game in Toronto in two years because the Raptors were forced to set up shop in Tampa last season. Lowry will have another reasonably strong chance to return to the NBA Finals with the Heat, who made it that far without him in 2020. Meanwhile, the Raptors are in the throes of a semi-rebuild but still boast Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam.
Ball in the family: For the second straight season, two celebrated brothers will square off when Lonzo Ball faces LaMelo Ball on Nov. 29 in Chicago. The twist here is Lonzo is now with the Bulls, having left the Pelicans for a fresh start, while LaMelo is the reigning Kia Rookie of the Year. There could be another twist if LiAngelo Ball makes the Hornets’ roster after playing for Charlotte’s Summer League team. As an aside, Lonzo makes his return to New Orleans on March 24.
Wall with the family: For pretty much his entire NBA career, John Wall was the face of the franchise in Washington before things changed rather suddenly. Injuries convinced the Wizards his supermax contract was an albatross, and Washington traded Wall to the Rockets after 10 years. Well, there will be basketball interest in D.C. on Jan. 5 when Wall makes his return to the Capitol, and hopefully, he’ll be healthy and refreshed.
KD back in the Bay: Actually, Durant played at Golden State last season for the first time since leaving in 2019 but that was without fans. He gets his chance to receive what should be a warm reception Jan. 29 at Chase Center. As an added bonus, Klay Thompson might be recovered from injuries and ready to play by then.
Star swap?: When the Trail Blazers and Sixers meet on Nov. 1, will Ben Simmons and Damian Lillard both be on the floor? And if so, will they be in the uniform they wore last season? As training camp creeps closer, both All-Stars are in a state of flux with their teams. Simmons was tossed around (reportedly, anyway) as trade material, while Lillard expressed skepticism about the direction of the Blazers and would not rule out asking to leave Portland. Wouldn’t it be peculiar if one, or both, were wearing the other team’s uniform on that date?
The real MVP: There seems to be a discussion, a heated one in some circles, about the identity of the game’s best player. Well, when the Bucks and Lakers meet Nov. 17 in Milwaukee, Giannis and LeBron could address the debate. They are the two most recent Finals MVPs, at least, and once again are centerpieces of teams with championship aspirations.
Westbrook vs. Everybody: For a former Kia MVP and triple-double king, Russell Westbrook sure has moved around a lot lately. He’s now on his fourth team in four years with the Lakers, and so trying to pin down his “homecomings” can be exhausting. Anyway, he’s in Oklahoma City on Oct. 27, in Houston on March 9, and back to Washington on March 19.
Pop and friends: When the Nets meet the Spurs on Jan. 9, it might get a bit emotional for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Not only will he see Durant, who helped Team USA to a gold medal with Pop as coach last summer, the Nets also signed Patty Mills in the offseason. Mills, of course, was a crucial member of the Spurs back when they were on the doorstep of championships. Well, the Spurs are now trying to regroup with young players while Mills and Durant and the Nets are aiming higher.
Lakers-Celtics with a twist: This traditional rivalry always brings the sauce, and this year should be no different with LeBron and Anthony Davis and Jason Tatum … and Dennis Schroder? He was the starting point guard with the Lakers last season, turned down a rich contract extension in the $80 million range, and ultimately settled for an economical one-year deal with the Celtics this summer when the money dried up in free agency. Schroder might have a bit of incentive to do well against the Lakers and Westbrook, his replacement, on Nov. 19.
Big man battle: Two of the three finalists for last season’s Kia MVP award were centers. And Nikola Jokic came away with the trophy. He and Joel Embiid are heads and shoulders above their peers because of their versatility and ability to carry their teams to winning seasons and the playoffs. The Nuggets and Sixers meet Nov. 18 in Denver for a sneak preview of perhaps another MVP struggle.
Jazzy matchup: Dwyane Wade won three championships in Miami, but on Nov. 6 he could return to the city while rooting for the visiting team. That’s because Wade is now a part owner of the Jazz. The good news is Wade will be bringing Donovan Mitchell with him, along with Rudy Gobert. The better news for everyone involved? Both the Heat and Jazz are fairly loaded and will have a voice in how the East and West will be won next season.
L.A.-LA: Last season when the Clippers and Lakers met, it was appointment TV. This could be the case again, but much depends on Kawhi Leonard and if/when he recovers from offseason knee surgery. Nobody expects Kawhi to be in uniform for the first of four meetings Dec. 3 at Staples Center between the teams, if at all this season. Still, the Clippers are fortified enough without Kawhi to make some noise in the West and therefore L.A. vs. LA still has some juice.
Another important schedule perk: The league once again is providing for as much game spacing as possible, all designed to give players rest and discourage load management as much as possible.
Therefore, no team will play four games in five days. This is the fourth consecutive 82-game season with no four-in-fives on the start-of-season schedule. The estimated average miles traveled is a record low for a season with 30 teams and 82 games per team. The previous estimated record low for average miles traveled in a season with 30 teams and 82 games per team was 45,000 miles in 2012-13. And single-game road trips are down 28% from the 2019-20 season.
The Play-In Tournament returns and will be held April 12-15, the playoffs begin April 16 and the first date for the Finals is June 2 as opposed to a July start. Therefore, the schedule, once again, is back to having a genuine NBA feel.
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