HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We all survived the NBA’s lost summer, made it through a frantic free-agent scramble to a fireworks-filled season-opening slate on Christmas Day to this, the most sacred of days on the league calendar.
Few days on the schedule present teams with an opportunity to pause and take heed of a message spread decades ago, a sentiment that resonates in every corner of every locker room in the league, while also looking ahead to the wide expanse of this particular season. But that’s what the Martin Luther King Day spectacular provides on an annual basis, and no lockout-induced, abbreviated season or compressed schedule will ever change that.
With 11 games on a loaded schedule, including blockbuster matchups from early afternoon until the wee hours and a five-game national TV menu, there should be something for everyone as always.
The extended holiday weekend has always been a favorite of mine, dating back to 2004 when I got my first glimpse of a young and dominant Dwight Howard playing for Southwest Atlanta Christian on back-to-back nights. A visiting writer in town to cover the Hawks-Pacers MLK Day matchup, I decided to drop in on Howard’s games that same weekend to see what all the fuss was about. It didn’t take long for me to see.
Howard is one of the headliners today and helps kick things off when his Magic square off against the Knicks in New York at 1 p.m. ET (League Pass).
A few things we’ll be watching for on this special day:
— Rudy Gay & Co. Seek Redemption Against Bulls! … Bulls at Grizzlies, 1 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Grizzlies lost Zach Randolph to a knee injury and got smoked by the Bulls (104-64) the last time these two met, on New Year’s Day in Chicago. The Bulls held Gay to a season-low five points in that game. He’s been on a tear ever since. He’s averaging 20.2 points on 48 percent shooting from the floor in his last five games and has assumed an even greater leadership role on and off the floor for the Grizzlies with Randolph out indefinitely with torn ligaments in his knee. With the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose, and the best record in the Eastern Conference in tow, the Bulls don’t need an invitation to play big on the biggest stage.
— HT’s Early Leader For Coach of the Year at work! … Bucks at 76ers, 2 p.m. ET (League Pass)
His team is 8-2 in their last 10 games and playing like the cohesive unit you’d expect them to be after a season of Doug Collins installing his program in Philadelphia. Collins is HT’s early frontrunner for Coach of the Year, whether he likes it or not. Plus, we never get tired of a good point guard matchup. And the highly underrated Jrue Holiday should have fun matching crossovers and wits with fellow Los Angeles area native Brandon Jennings, no stranger to a challenge himself.
— Rockets at Wizards … 2 p.m. ET (League Pass)
— Kyrie Against Kemba! … Cavaliers at Bobcats, 2 p.m. ET (League Pass)
The MLK Day point guard extravaganza continues with the first meeting between Cavaliers rookie Kyrie Irving , the No. 1 overall draft pick who is quietly putting together an outstanding first year, and Bobcats rookie flash Kemba Walker, who has also made a reasonably smooth transition from college star to NBA rookie. This is our first glimpse of what could prove to be a long and fruitful rivalry between the two of them for years to come.
–– Trail Blazers at Hornets … 3 p.m. ET (League Pass)
— Nets at LA Clippers … 3:30 p.m. ET (League Pass)
— Ivan Johnson Watch! … Raptors at Hawks, 4 p.m. ET (NBA TV)
The Hawks’ 27-year-old rookie big man is perhaps the most entertaining player the average fan has never heard of. But watch him go for just a few minutes and you’ll see why the Hawks’ fans have instantly taken to the bearded Johnson, whose nicknames range from “Ivan The Terrible” to “Black Beard” (in honor of his furry, facial cover). Johnson was a force late in the Hawks’ comeback win over the Timberwolves Saturday, scoring collecting his first NBA double doubles (11 rebounds and 10 points) and sinking the free throws to win the game with 4.6 seconds to play.
— Ricky Rubio Meet Tyreke Evans! … Kings at Timberwolves, 8 p.m. ET (League Pass)
Having seen the Timberwolves’ rookie sensation with my own eyes now (in Saturday night’s 93-91 loss to the Hawks), I feel good reaching into my pocket and buying a ticket on the Rubio bandwagon. He’s already proved that he’s more than just hype. The uncanny court vision and dazzling passing ability is every bit as wicked in person as it looks on League Pass (for those of us unable to see Rubio, Kevin Love and the Timberwolves in person all the time). Since the ouster of Paul Westphal, the Kings seemed to have energized themselves. Evans, ever the competitor, has to relish the opportunity to go head-to-head with Rubio. We certainly can’t wait to see how they match up.
— Welcome Back Kendrick Perkins! … Thunder at Celtics, 8 p.m. ET (TNT)
Kendrick Perkins is saying all the right things as he makes his return trip to Boston, and the team that traded him away last season. His teammates and former coach, Doc Rivers, are doing the same (“I don’t give a crap what uniform he has on,” Rivers said. “He’s a Celtics for life. He knows that.”) Someone mind telling that to his former mentor, Kevin Garnett? It should prove to be a pretty emotional scene for all involved, considering how rough things were when Perkins was traded away in the Jeff Green deal. Perkins and the Thunder come into town with the best record in the Western Conference, adding yet another layer of spice to what should already be an interesting night.
— Don’t We Owe You One? … Mavericks at Lakers, 10:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
The Lakers don’t need to be reminded of what happened to them the last time they saw the Mavericks. The wicked playoff sweep of the defending champs on their way to a title of their own is still fresh on the minds of the Lakers. Their entire offseason was colored by what happened in that series and the way the Mavericks took them apart, so don’t be surprised if Kobe Bryant‘s 40-point game streak stretches at least another day. This game also marks the first trip back to Staples Center for Lamar Odom, who was traded to the Mavericks at the start of training camp. Does he get a standing ovation from the (former) home crowd or does he get booed?