Lance Stephenson will return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse with the Lakers on Tuesday, Feb. 5.
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Ten Games to Circle on the 2018-19 Schedule

by Mark Montieth
Pacers.com Writer
@MarkMontieth

1. Lakers at Pacers
Tuesday, Feb. 5 at 7:00 PM

LeBron. Lance. What else needs to be said?

Well, this, perhaps.

LeBron James has been a human Waterloo for the Pacers, the brightest star of the teams that have eliminated them from the playoffs four times in the past seven years. Downfall No. 4 came last season, when the Pacers dropped a seven-game first-round series to Cleveland, a team that leaned on LeBron like a kindergartner leans on Mom at lunchtime.

James is the monster who inspires fear and loathing wherever he goes but demands to be respected and seen. He fills a fieldhouse all by himself, but now he comes decked out in legendary purple and gold for the first time and brings an intriguing supporting cast, one led — from the viewpoint of Pacers fans, at least — by Lance Stephenson.

Most of those fans were shocked that Stephenson was not brought back for the upcoming season, given that the Pacers held a team option on his contract at a reasonable rate. He'll receive a warm welcome from what surely will be a capacity crowd, and no doubt will try to leave an impression on the fans who always loved him best. Not by blowing in LeBron's ear, though.
It's unfortunate for the Pacers that the game will be played the night following a road game in New Orleans, but the NBA's scheduling computer feels sympathy for no team.

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2. Golden State at Pacers
Monday, Jan. 28 at 7:00 PM

The Warriors won two of the past three championships and are the preseason favorite to win again this season. That's enough to draw a crowd.

The Pacers caught a major break last season by playing — and defeating — Golden State twice when it was either riddled by injuries or lacking motivation. The Warriors were missing all four of their All-Stars when the Pacers beat them in Oakland on March 27 and were locked into the second seed in the Western Conference when the Pacers won at The Fieldhouse on April 5.

Golden State won't have locked in anything when they arrive on Jan. 28, so should be another one of those educational endeavors for the Pacers to see how they match up with the elite.

3. Boston at Pacers
Friday, April 5 at 8:00 PM (ESPN)

Five years have passed since Brad Stevens coached at Butler, but his connection to the city will never be forgotten. Anytime the Zionsville native returns to coach a game in The Fieldhouse it becomes more special than one of 82 because (1) he's Brad Stevens, Coaching Whiz Kid, and (2) his Celtics are really good and difficult to beat.

They also are the preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference this season. Gordon Hayward should return after missing all but the opening minutes of last season, as will Kyrie Irving. With LeBron in LA, the Celtics are the consensus favorite to reach the NBA Finals out of the East.

The Pacers played them well last season, winning twice in Boston and blowing a game Indy. It likely will be a bigger challenge this season, if the Celtics are at or near full strength. If the Pacers want to be regarded as a legitimate contender in the East, they'll need to prove they can contend with the Celtics

Boston first comes to The Fieldhouse on Nov. 3, but the late-season visit — the Pacers' second-to-last home game of the season — should have more blatant playoff implications.

4. Oklahoma City at Pacers
Thursday, March 14 at 7:00 PM

Paul George returning to The Fieldhouse where he played for seven seasons won't be as emotional as last season, when a jilted fan base aired its venom in verbal and written form. He's still fresh in everyone's memory, though, and remains an attraction.

So does Russell Westbrook, whose hellbent style doesn't always win games — he had lost to the Pacers in four of the five games previous to last season — but consistently entertains.

There's also the subplot of Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis playing against their former team, although that seems like a long time ago now.

The Pacers' games against the Thunder have tend to be dramatic one way or another in past seasons, and this one likely will be no different.

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5. Houston at Pacers
Monday, Nov. 5 at 7:00 PM

It's easy to forget now that the Rockets had the best record in the Western Conference last season, seven games ahead of Golden State. They also held a 3-2 lead on the Warriors in the Conference Finals, then lost the last two games after losing Chris Paul to an injury.

The Pacers lost to Houston by 23 points at The Fieldhouse last season, although it came early on while they were still becoming acquainted with one another. The Rockets don't play classic team basketball, but James Harden still offers a unique brand of entertainment. He scored 26 and 29 against the Pacers last season. Paul George once had success defending Harden, so now the Victor Oladipo and others are stuck with the dirty work.

North Central High School's Eric Gordon, who revitalized his career after joining the Rockets last season, will be there, too.

Houston, which led the NBA in victories (65) last season, lives and dies with he 3-point shot. They died by it in Game 7 against Golden State, but led the NBA in 3-point attempts and makes during the regular season. That tends to lead to solid entertainment whether they're making them or not.

This game will fall in the middle of a three-game series of premier home games that also includes Boston and Philadelphia.

6. Philadelphia at Pacers
Thursday, Jan. 17 at 7:00 PM (TNT)

The 76ers are the X factor of the Eastern Conference, the team that could run the gamut from challenging for a championship in a year or two...or imploding.

Their roster includes two No. 1 draft picks, Markelle Fultz (2017) and Ben Simmons (2018) and a No. 3 pick in Joel Embiid. They've added Villanova's Mikal Bridges, the 10th pick in this year's draft. So they're loaded with young talent. Question is, can it all come together?

The Pacers won two of three from Philadelphia last season. That task could become more difficult in future seasons, and it will be imperative to maintain an advantage against a fellow contender in the East.

The Jan. 17 game will be the 76ers' second trip to The Fieldhouse next season, following a Nov. 7 stop. By midseason, we should have a firmer handle on which direction they're going. The Pacers, too, for that matter.

7. Pacers at Lakers
Thursday, Nov. 29 at 10:30 PM

Playing the Lakers in Los Angeles has always been a litmus test for the Pacers, and one they often fail. They struggle there even when they're the better team, as they have been for the past seven seasons. Something about the city's "bright lights" seems to blind them.

Take last season. The Pacers rolled into L.A. with a 24-21 record. The Lakers were 15-29. The Pacers were missing one starter. The Lakers were missing three. Yet the Lakers won (99-86) despite hitting just 2-of-14 foul shots because the Pacers hit just 2-of-25 3-pointers and didn’t move the ball well enough to get easy shots inside the arc.

Now that the Lakers have their best team since at least 2012-13, their most recent winning season, the challenge becomes greater. The Pacers are a mature team, but this game likely will reveal something about their poise.

Playing the Lakers in L.A. brings the aura of a playoff game, and the Pacers need to prove they can win those kind of games on the road. The Lakers aren’t likely to be the best team in the NBA, but this one could be the Pacers' most revealing road game of the season.

It won't start until 10:30 p.m. on a Thursday, but it'll be worth staying up for. Or, setting a recording to catch up with later.

8. New Orleans at Pacers
Friday, Feb. 22 at 7:00 PM

The Pelicans aren't regarded as an elite NBA team, but they should be one of the more interesting groups to watch this season, especially for Pacers fans.

Anthony Davis is one of the league's elite talents, the player who carried New Orleans to a 48-34 record (same as the Pacers) despite the loss of Demarcus Cousins after 48 games. Davis scored 37 points against the Pacers at The Fieldhouse and 27 against them in New Orleans, leading victories in both games.

Even without Cousins, Davis will be surrounded by a capable and interesting cast of teammates, some of whom will be familiar to Pacers fans. They include former Pacers forward Solomon Hill, former Purdue star E'Twaun Moore, and perhaps former Park Tudor sensation Trevon Bluiett, who signed a two-way contract with the Pelicans after going undrafted in June.

New Orleans' roster also includes point guard Jrue Holiday (Aaron's older brother), former Lakers forward Julius Randle, and former Orlando point guard Elfrid Payton, whose hairstyle will no longer have radio analyst Slick Leonard wondering if he's wearing a hat.

Just because they aren't likely to contend for the NBA championship next season doesn’t mean the Pelicans won't be interesting to watch. Especially on a Friday night following the All-Star break.

9. Portland at Pacers
Monday, Oct. 29 at 7:00 PM

Portland tends to get lost in the shuffle of Western Conference teams, but finished third last season behind Houston and Golden State.

It also handled the Pacers with ease last season, twice. Just two nights after the Pacers opened their season with an emotional 140-131 victory over Brooklyn, they fell hard to the Blazers at The Fieldhouse, 114-96. Portland also won its home game, by 14 points.

Damian Lillard, who averaged 26.9 points last season, is one of the lesser-sung greats in the NBA. His backcourt partner, CJ McCollum, averaged 21.4. They'll be joined by former Purdue All-American Caleb Swanigan, who split time between the NBA and G League as a rookie, and former Pacer Evan Turner. Bloomington native Terry Stotts is the head coach in the unenviable position of having to butt heads with Golden State and Houston four times each season.

10. Denver at Pacers
Sunday, March 24 at 5:00 PM

Denver missed the playoffs by one game last season, losing out to Minnesota on the final day of the regular season. It seems to have improved since then, and has a few local angles for Pacers fans as well.

Nikola Jokic is one of the NBA's best centers, averaging 18.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 6.1 assists last season. It's not ridiculous to say he might be the all-time greatest passing center in league history.

Former Hamilton Southeastern High School star Gary Harris averaged 17.5 points. Former Tech High School star Trey Lyles averaged 9.9, and hit the Pacers for 25 in the matchup at The Fieldhouse last season. Mason Plumlee, who was born in Fort Wayne and grew up in Warsaw, averaged 7.1.

The Nuggets have an added attraction this season in former All-Star Isaiah Thomas, who signed as a free agent in the offseason and will be trying to resurrect his career on a modest one-year contract.

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

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