10 Must-See NBA Matchups Leading Up to 2012 All-Star Weekend in Orlando
The 2012 NBA All-Star festivities in Orlando promise to be wildly entertaining.
The same could be said about the final days of the season's first half, which feature at least 10 must-see matchups.
Each game counts more than ever in the condensed and abbreviated 2011-12 schedule.
On top of that, the pressure to perform increases as we advance closer to the spring. Everyone plays with more urgency, and that's fun to watch.
Get your popcorn ready for this terrific lineup.
10. Los Angeles Clippers vs. Golden State Warriors (Feb. 20)
The Los Angeles Clippers are legitimate contenders in the Western Conference. They hold a slim lead in the Pacific division over their Staples Center co-tenants, the Los Angeles Lakers.
"Lob City" has been as good as advertised in 2011-12. All-Star point guard Chris Paul is one of the league's best distributor, while Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are finding high-percentage shots.
Also keep your eye on Randy Foye, who's transitioning into the starting lineup to replace the injured Chauncey Billups, and Mo Williams, an NBA Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors get electrifying guard play from Stephen Curry, Monta Ellis and Nate Robinson.
All three are walking highlight reels with the ability to knock down perimeter shots and finish at the hoop through traffic.
9. Utah Jazz vs. Minnesota Timberwolves (Feb. 22)
Last place isn't always so bad, especially in the competitive Northwest where even the cellar-dweller is within reach of the No. 8 playoff seed.
Wednesday night will be the final first-half opportunity for these teams to rise in the standings.
The Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves seem headed in opposite directions. Both are hovering around .500 after 9-4 and 3-7 starts to the season, respectively.
Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio will be prominently featured in All-Star events in Orlando. Instead, use this game to get acquainted with 26-year-old Nikola Pekovic.
The second-year center has been a double-double machine throughout February after previously settling for sporadic playing time.
8. Philadelphia 76ers vs. Memphis Grizzlies (Feb. 21)
The Atlantic division-leading Philadelphia 76ers have had a successful campaign thus far.
But despite their suffocating defense and turnover-free attack, Western Conference opponents have given them trouble.
The Memphis Grizzlies sans Zach Randolph look to continue that trend.
Forward Marreese Speights has been especially hot from the field lately and Grizzlies' games tend to go down to the wire.
Expect another dramatic finish when these playoff hopefuls face off.
7. Boston Celtics vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (Feb. 22)
Every Oklahoma City Thunder game is appointment television.
At home, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and company are nearly unbeatable. In any venue, their athleticism is awe-inspiring.
OKC appears to be a bad matchup for the aging Boston Celtics, who have slumped on the road and against the West in 2011-12.
Their lone victory against an elite squad came on February 12 versus the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls. But even the New Jersey Nets recently got a win over the banged-up Bulls!
Rest assured, though, that Boston will be motivated. Nothing lights a fire under the butt of a perennial playoff team like being in the middle of the pack through 30-plus games.
6. Portland Trailblazers vs. Los Angeles Lakers (Feb. 20)
Make an effort to spend Monday night in a location with multiple televisions. Otherwise you'll be flipping back and forth between my No. 10 matchup and this game. Both tip off at 10:30 p.m. ET.
The Los Angeles Lakers (18-13) play host to the up-and-down Portland Trailblazers (17-15).
The man of interest, surprisingly, will be 'Blazers starting point guard Raymond Felton, who has struggled with his shot throughout the season.
However, he proved in 54 games with the New York Knicks in 2010-11 that he could be a difference-maker on offense.
Did I mention that the Lakers are interested in adding firepower to their backcourt?
Portland is likely in store for a first-round exit from the Western Conference playoffs—that is, if they make the postseason—and Felton is admittedly frustrated. He could be outfitted in purple and gold when these teams meet again on March 23...depending on how he fares in this "audition."
5. San Antonio Spurs vs. Denver Nuggets (Feb. 23)
Currently perfect on their "Rodeo Road Trip," the San Antonio Spurs are quietly the hottest team in the NBA.
Overall, they have won 10 in a row and point guard Tony Parker is having a beast of a season. Tim Duncan—possibly fueled from being an All-Star snub—has been dominant on the boards during the streak.
Unfortunately, Manu Ginobili and Tiago Splitter sustained injuries on February 18. Their statuses against the Denver Nuggets are uncertain.
Denver kept battling back from behind when these teams met on January 7, ultimately losing, 121-117.
The Nuggets are trudging through this week with several of their own wounded. Without Danilo Gallinari and Nene Hilario, their depth has been tested.
Sunday's overtime loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder was particularly deflating.
4. New Jersey Nets vs. New York Knicks (Feb. 20)
Both the New Jersey Nets (9-24) and New York Knicks (16-16) are getting reinforcements as the NBA All-Star break approaches.
NJ rookie MarShon Brooks is healthy and productive again and center Brook Lopez made his season debut on Sunday.
Veteran guard Baron Davis will debut for the Knicks after missing the team's first 32 games with a herniated disk in his back.
Free agent J.R. Smith was brought into the fold after the Chinese Basketball Association's season wrapped up. He scored 15 points on Sunday afternoon.
If those additions weren't "linsane" enough, rising star Jeremy Lin will share the court with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire. The trio has never played extended minutes together.
Will all these scorers be able to mesh?
Tune in to find out.
3. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Dallas Mavericks (Feb. 22)
The Dallas Mavericks shocked the world in the 2011 NBA playoffs. They not only defeated the two-time defending champions in the Western Conference semifinals, but they disposed of the Los Angeles Lakers via a four-game sweep!
Already, though, the 2011-12 season series is playing out differently.
The Lakers won the first meeting on January 16, 73-70, albeit in an ugly performance.
This will be more than just a rivalry game between two 21st-century powerhouses.
The Mavs and Lakers are seeking to disprove the naysayers that see them as too old to contend.
2. Los Angeles Lakers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder (Feb. 23)
The very next night, the Los Angeles Lakers will have the opportunity to gauge themselves against the Oklahoma City Thunder. OKC is a frightening opponent, both on paper and on tape.
Unlike in years past, the Lakers must make midseason adjustments just to secure some sort of home-court advantage for the playoffs.
Considering they have only five road wins this season, I doubt they even trust themselves to win away from the Staples Center.
Point totals from Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant on February 23 when they butt heads with one another will determine who gets introduced in Orlando as the NBA's leading scorer.
It seems fitting that this will be the last game played in the first half of the 2011-12 campaign.
Although, there is one matchup I'm even more excited for...
1. New York Knicks vs. Miami Heat (Feb. 23)
I've got a feeling that the New York Knicks/Miami Heat game on Thursday will be the highest-rated event for TNT in quite awhile.
It should bear little resemblance to the 99-89 Heat win from January 27.
The venue will again be American Airlines Arena, but Carmelo Anthony, Baron Davis, Jeremy Lin and J.R. Smith—all absent from the previous game—will take the floor for New York.
Expect Bill Walker to nail fewer than seven three-pointers and Chris Bosh to shoot better than 4-for-18 from the field.
Despite the endless "Lin" puns, much of the hype for Knicks-Heat is rooted in these teams, not their individuals. Both are playing their best basketball of the season.
Hopefully, we'll be treated to more of the same around the league after the All-Star break.