Back in his playing days, Magic Johnson used to say the first thing he did was search for the dates when his Lakers would face Larry Bird and the Celtics and then he’d circle them on his calendar.
Every fan does it — scours the schedule, finds those special games with the extra story line or pop and starts to make up those early excuses to duck out on minor social commitments like weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals in order to be in front of the big screen TV.
Here’s a fast-breaking head start on 15 games you don’t want to miss:
Tues., Oct. 30 — Celtics at Heat (TNT) — You’ve got The Heatles of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh singing, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” as they’re presented with their championship rings before the season opener. Maybe it’s the first of “not one, not two, not three, not four, not five…” And you’ve got the image of the traitorous Ray Allen suiting up for the first time against his ex-Celtics teammates. There is not a more intense rivalry in the NBA today than Miami-Boston. The enmity is visceral.
Thur., Nov. 1 — Knicks at Brooklyn Nets (TNT) — Welcome to the first regular-season home game by a major league professional sports team in Brooklyn since the Dodgers last played at Ebbets Field on Sept. 24, 1957. The sparkling Barclays Center hosts the Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and friends against the new home team led by the high-powered backcourt of Deron Williams and Joe Johnson in the new Battle of New York. The Knicks never quite took the Nets seriously while they were across the river in New Jersey. But now the resurgent Nets could own the five boroughs.
Thur., Nov. 1 — Thunder at Spurs (TNT) — It’s the season opener for Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and the rest of the young guns, coming off their loss to the Heat in The Finals. They return to the site of their most singular victory to date, the Game 5 breakthrough at the AT&T Center that propelled OKC to their stunning 4-2 reversal against the Spurs in the Western Conference finals in June. Tim Duncan is signed up for three more years, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are at his side and the Spurs believe the door is still open for them.
Fri., Nov. 2 — Clippers at Lakers (ESPN) — Remember all of the hard fouls, the technicals, the takedowns, the trash talk? Well, that was just a warm-up for Year 2 of the L.A. Battle Royale. Now the Lakers have Steve Nash, but the Clippers have Grant Hill. The Lakers are telling themselves they are not past their prime to win another championship with an aging Kobe Bryant and the Clippers are telling themselves they are no longer a joke with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin leading the way. This no longer a laughing matter.
Sun., Nov. 11 — Magic at Nets (League Pass) –– If we assume that the Magic open the season with the NBA’s tallest malcontent still on their roster, this will be flip-flopping Dwight Howard’s chance to see the brand new palace that he could have been calling his home court if he hadn’t signed away his right to become a free agent last March. Oh, Dwight, Brooklyn hardly knew ye.
Mon., Dec. 17 — Rockets at Knicks (NBA TV) –– How do you go from Jeremy Linsanity to Jeremy Linvisible in the space of just 10 months? Well, after his 15 minutes of fame made him a worldwide celebrity, Jeremy Lin signed a three-year, $25.1 million free agent contract with Houston and the Knicks turned him out like he was Fredo Corleone. Now Lin makes his first trip back to Madison Square Garden in a visiting uniform and it will be interesting to see whether the old fans give him a roaring welcome to Manhattan or a Bronx cheer.
Fri., Nov. 23 — Timberwolves at Trail Blazers (League Pass) — It wouldn’t normally leap off the page of the calendar and scream “Watch me!” But it will be former favorite son Brandon Roy making his first trip back to the Rose Garden after retiring, cashing that big amnesty check from the Blazers and then deciding, um, he’s not done yet.
Tues., Dec. 25 — Thunder at Heat (ABC) — Ho! Ho! Ho! It’s Duranta Claus coming down the chimney of the defending champs in the first meeting since LeBron’s crowning moment when the Heat closed out OKC 4-1 in The Finals. The Heat now have Allen and Rashard Lewis under their Christmas tree, but that Thunder package now comes wrapped in another year’s worth of experience.
Wed., Jan. 30 — Lakers at Suns (ESPN) — What if Batman showed up on the streets of Gotham City wearing the green hair and purple suit of the Joker? Well, Nash might not pull on a fright wig, but that purple uniform of the arch-villain Lakers will be scary enough for the former adoring masses in Phoenix. Will they salute the past battles of the two-time MVP when he was a desert rat fighting the Laker empire or give him the disdain of any friend of Kobe’s?
Thur., Jan. 17 — Heat at L.A. Lakers (TNT) — They’ve been two teams going in vastly different directions for the past two seasons. But now that Kobe Bryant has Nash to run the pick-and-roll for Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and take some of the offensive burden off his back, the Lakers believe they’ll have enough scoring pop to squeeze their way back into the contender conversation with the reigning kings.
Sun., Feb. 10 — Lakers at Heat (ABC) –– Sure, it’s the last stop on a grueling seven-game road trip for the Lakers. But don’t think for a minute that Kobe won’t be packing that SPF-24 and plenty of attitude for the rematch against the red-hot boys from Miami. It’s also a chance for LeBron and D-Wade to remind Nash that he made the wrong decision in not bringing his talents to South Beach.
Thur., Feb. 7 — Lakers at Celtics (TNT) –– Forget that Magic and Bird are long gone, that neither team has won a championship in the past two seasons. This is still the seminal rivalry in the NBA. Kobe vs. Kevin Garnett on the parquet floor, listening to the crowd chant: “Beat L.A.! Beat L.A.” It doesn’t get better than this.
Thur., Feb. 14 — Heat at Thunder (TNT) — Never mind the roses and the box of chocolates. Here’s a big, juicy one right on the kisser, compliments of the league’s power couple. Are these two teams sailing along with the best records in their respective conferences? Are LeBron and Durant battling it out for the MVP Award? One thing is certain: there will be no love lost when the Thunder get last season’s conquerors back in their embrace in Loud City.
Wed., Feb. 20 — Celtics at L.A. Lakers (ESPN) — It’s been a couple of years since Doc Rivers left that wad of cash stuffed up in the ceiling tiles of the visitors’ locker room at the Staples Center. But it’s still special when the Celtics come to town. Even the jaded Laker fans pay more attention to the game on the floor than the Hollywood celebs on “Kiss Cam.”
Sun., Apr. 7 — Lakers at Clippers (ABC) –– One last time for the brothers to wrestle on the furniture in the family room, likely with playoff seeding (and possibly with the Pacific Division title) up for grabs. You sit back and relish the pushing, shoving, scratching and clawing and hope they can do it for best-of-seven in a few more weeks.