HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Six months seems like a long time to wait for a loved one to return. But when we saw the Christmas Day lineup of NBA games that the schedule making powers-that-be whipped up for us, it melted any lingering animosity we might have had about the 149-day lockout.
By the time you are finished opening gifts, sipping a little coffee and smacking on that cinnamon roll on Christmas morning, you’ll be able to dive into another pile of gifts from the NBA. The blockbuster, five-game lineup (the rest of the schedule comes next week) includes some of the league’s top teams and top stars on a day-long showcase that starts with a special Christmas morning episode of GameTime on NBA TV, followed by an episode of Inside The NBA on TNT that leads into the action.
Boston Celtics at New York Knicks, Noon ET, TNT
Keep An Eye On: Might this wind up being a battle between the Celtics’ Big 3+1 against the Knicks’ Gotham City remix of the Big 3, including the much-discussed Chris Paul joining Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire?
It’s hard to say which way that will go right now, what with somewhat conflicting reports that Paul’s agent is seeking a trade from New Orleans to New York and then Paul saying he has asked for nothing of the sort. That said, the Celtics have some intrigue going on, too. Rajon Rondo‘s name has been all over the trade rumor mill, despite blanket denials from Celtics’ boss Danny Ainge that he loves his franchise point guard and has no interest in moving him.
Either way, we’re tuning in for this continuation of the playoff matchup that the Celtics won going away last season. And with all of the principles, whoever they might be, well rested and eager to kick off the season the right way, there’s no way this game is anything other than a colossal battle of wills. It’s the perfect way to kick off the big day.
Miami Heat at Dallas Mavericks, 2:30 p.m. ET, ABC
Keep An Eye On: One can only imagine what sort of splendid banner raising/ring/whatever-else-it-might-be ceremony Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has planned for opening day in Dallas. Having the same Heat team they vanquished in The Finals on the other side of the floor for the festivities is a brilliant move by the schedule makers, who guaranteed that this rivalry gets an immediate dose of energy by pitting these two contenders against each other from the start.
There was plenty of hostility between the two sides by the time The Finals ended. It’s been a long offseason, but surely Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t forgotten about how LeBron James and Dwyane Wade clowned him about being sick during the series. And James must remember all of the heat he took for his struggles throughout the fourth quarters in The Finals. And you know Mavericks sharpshooter Jason Terry can’t wait to get another crack at the Heat.
We do have to wait a while to see who else is suiting up alongside those stars we already mentioned, including a reportedly bigger and bulkier Chris Bosh. Tyson Chandler is a free agent and has expressed some doubts that he will return to his post anchoring the Mavericks’ defense. Playoff hero Jose Barea is also on the free agent hit list for a number of teams and could end up elsewhere.
Rest assured, whoever suits up will understand the intensity expected when that ball goes in the air. We can’t wait.
Chicago Bulls at Los Angeles Lakers, 5 p.m. ET, ABC
Keep An Eye On: In this era of superstars collaborating to win titles, it will be refreshing to watch the two guys who refuse to recruit their peers to come play with them square off at Staples Center. Kobe Bryant‘s Lakers, still smarting from being smashed by the Mavericks in the playoffs last season, will show us what they’ll look like in the Mike Brown era. Meanwhile, Derrick Rose still seems a bit salty with himself for his playoff performance against the Heat, struggles that no doubt influenced and inspired his offseason workouts.
Speaking of Brown, there isn’t another coach in any sport at any level under more scrutiny than the man who has to replace Phil Jackson on the Lakers’ bench. Brown’s task will be toughened by the fact that the Lakers have to figure out how to reinvent themselves without the security of the triangle offense they used to fuel their rise. Brown will have his hands full with Metta World Peace (the former Ron Artest) while also trying to rebuild Pau Gasol‘s confidence after his playoff struggles last season.
(Remember, the Lakers will play the first five games of this season without Andrew Bynum, who will serve his suspension for that elbow shot to the ribs of Barea during the playoffs last year.)
The Bulls offer their own set of intriguing subplots, having to show that Tom Thibodeau‘s first season (in which he was named Coach of the Year) was no fluke. The Bulls had plenty of skeptics last season as they went about the business of recording the best record in the league. They won’t have that luxury this season. Playing with a target on their chests every night will test their mettle.
Orlando Magic at Oklahoma City Thunder, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN
Keep An Eye On: On paper the Magic and Thunder would appear to be teams headed in opposite directions. Kevin Durant spent his summer cementing his position as, arguably, basketball’s most beloved young star and the leader of a Thunder team that ground its way to the Western Conference finals last season. The Magic, on the other hand, were bounced from the conference semifinals by the Hawks, sparking more rumors that Dwight Howard is ready to bolt.
Howard joins both Chris Paul and Deron Williams as the players most coveted by others, the ones most likely to join a superfriends group resembling what we’ve seen in Boston and Miami in recent seasons. The Knicks and Nets battled for Carmelo Anthony last season and could do the same again for the attention of Howard, who has given no indication as to what he plans to do beyond starting training camp with the Magic.
Strangely, the one story we figured to be most prominent regarding the Thunder seemed to fade during the lockout. All-Star and All-NBA point guard Russell Westbrook was under heavy fire from outsiders for his roller coaster performance during the playoffs, sparking debates about whether the Thunder should seek to replace him with someone else. It was a suggestion that sounds as preposterous to us now as it did during the Western Conference finals. We’re expecting big things from Westbrook this season. Opening night is as good a time as any to get started.
Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Keep An Eye On: Like so many of our nights last season, Christmas will end with a heavy dose of Blake Griffin doing what he does best, making monster highlights. Unfortunately, new Warriors coach Mark Jackson will be on the wrong side of some of those calls he used to make as an ESPN analyst. Because we’re pretty sure Griffin will do a few things to make someone say, “Mama there goes that man” on Christmas night.
The Clippers sit atop the preseason HT rankings for the surprise team in the league this year. With Griffin and Eric Gordon coming into their own last season and the franchise finally showing some true signs of progress on the floor, much is expected of Vinny Del Negro‘s crew this season. How the Clippers handle these heightened expectations makes for must-see-viewing.
We’re also intrigued to see what Jackson will do as a coach. After hearing him analyze for so long, it’s going to be interesting to see what he brings on the bench. Will he make Monta Ellis and Steph Curry even more dangerous as a backcourt duo? Warriors fans have to be banking on it, as that is their only hope to climb up the food chain in the Western Conference. A lot is riding on the Jackson-Ellis-Curry dynamic to help reignite the franchise in Oakland. This will be our first taste.