Who says March Madness pertains solely to college hoops?
With the hectic 2011-12 campaign picking up full speed this month, professional basketball fans will have plenty of star-studded games to enjoy. This is the time for contenders to assert their legitimacy, for the juggernauts of the league to commence their title runs and for fading teams to deal away their most recognizable faces.
A slate of prime-time March matchups will be highlighted by a few pressing questions: Will Dwight Howard or Steve Nash see the deadline deals that so many are expecting? Will Jeremy Lin and the Knicks continue their improbable success? Can the Lakers and Mavericks, two perennial division champions with painfully-pedestrian records thus far, salvage the remainder of their seasons? And who exactly is the best team in the Western conference?
Much will be answered this March. With a few finals re-matches, Chris Paul's return to the Big Easy and countless clashes between division leaders, let's take a look at the 10 most intriguing NBA games this month.
It's hard to believe that two teams who are a combined six games over .500 can garner so much buzz, yet that's exactly what the Knicks and Mavs will do on March 6.
Tyson Chandler will make his return to Big D, Amar'e Stoudemire and Dirk Nowitzki will go head-to-head in the interior and the sensational Lin will look to reprise his 28-point, 14-assist effort against the defending champs back in February.
The Knicks seem to be in a perpetual proving ground—every game against a formidable opponent seems to be deemed the "true test" for Lin and company. But if they can knock off the title-bearing Mavericks in consecutive tries, all that talk will be silenced.
A few eyes still pop at the sight of the Clippers in the NBA limelight. But come March 9, division-leading Los Angeles will try to dispel their notions of ephemerality and continue their franchise resurgence against the dominant Spurs.
Duncan vs. Griffin. Parker vs. Paul. This game sells itself.
Despite what their record and standing says, San Antonio has been surprisingly absent from the national media spotlight this season. But with upcoming games against these Clips, plus Oklahoma City, Dallas, New York and Orlando, the Spurs are ready to propel themselves to the league's center stage.
The veterans in San Antonio and the young-gun Clippers should leave it all on the floor come next Friday night.
Although both the Lakers and the Celtics are fading to tragic levels of mediocrity, this game still holds the allure and hype of a title match.
The storied history between these two rivals hints at a full-fledged war come March 11, and the fading "Big Three" will have their work cut out for them against Kobe and the Lakers.
Like the previous contests on this list, this game boasts countless All-Star counterparts: Kobe vs. Pierce; Gasol vs. Garnett; Fisher vs. Rondo. But more saliently, this game boasts the league's two most successful franchises.
And most importantly, this game is crucial for both L.A.'s and Boston's seasons. Fighting to remain alive in their respective division races, both teams will view this prime-time showdown, a re-match of the 2009 and 2010 Finals, as a must-win.
March continues to churn out new chapters in basketball's most famous rivalries.
The Knicks and the Bulls dominated the Eastern Conference in the 90s, with Michael Jordan subsequently becoming public enemy No. 1 in the Big Apple. And with both teams primed for a deep run in this year's postseason, March 12's meet-up in the Windy City should be a thriller.
The Bulls just barely edged the Knicks by three points last month, but with Jeremy Lin's emergence giving New York a smoother offense, we just may see a different result this time around. Lin vs. Rose reflects the future of 1-guards in the NBA, while Stoudemire, Chandler, Boozer and Noah will duke it out on the boards.
With the Bulls shooting for a top seed in the Eastern playoff bracket, and with the Knicks fighting for one of the last available spots, could this also act as a preview of what's to come this spring?
A re-match of last year's Eastern Conference Finals, and perhaps a preview of this year's, needs no further introduction. This is the NBA at its finest: Miami's impermeable perimeter defense against reigning MVP Derrick Rose.
A nationally-televised brawl between these division leaders will generate plenty of press and a sizable contingent of viewers. And with both squads vying for the conference's No. 1 seed, March 14's game allows both the Bulls and the Heat to make a statement to the rest of the nation.
Will Miami's transition offense be too much for the Bulls to handle? Or will the South Beach superstars struggle to find open lanes with Boozer and Noah down low?
Pending a relocation of Dwight Howard, March 16, the day after the league's trade deadline, could feature two immensely appealing games.
If Howard does in fact confirm speculation and join forces with Deron Williams in Jersey, then this Friday contest becomes his homecoming in Orlando. Will Superman's return elicit boos or cheers? How will he mesh with a dominant ball-handler? These remain to be seen.
But if Howard does stay put with the Magic, then this game loses all its luster.
Instead, we can turn our focus to the Spurs and the Thunder, the Western Conference's two front-runners for home-court advantage come playoff time. The NBA's past, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, match up with the NBA's present, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, respectively.
Will the Spurs retain dominance over the West, or will the Thunder emerge in the conference's driver's seat? This, too, remains to be seen.
Last spring, the Lakers saw a bitter postseason exit at the hands of the Mavericks.
Much to Hollywood's chagrin, the then-defending champions were swept right out of three-peat contention, inspiring some infamously racy play on behalf of center Andrew Bynum and the departure of illustrious coach Phil Jackson.
So when the Lakers and Mavs clash on ESPN March 21, tensions will be undoubtedly high. Both teams have had relatively disappointing seasons, and the loser of this game likely faces looming questions about their talent and durability for the remainder of the year.
Whoever emerges with the W, however, may re-write their 2012 story and begin a push for the postseason.
Between Kobe, Dirk, Fisher, Gasol, Jason Kidd, Vince Carter and a myriad of others, this game's national audience will enjoy no shortage of star power. And with Lamar Odom once again playing against his former teammates, things get all the more interesting.
The Lakers have already bested the Mavs twice this year, both in hard-pressed, defensive-minded games that could truly have gone either way. And with two more games against Dallas remaining, the Lakers just may exert their vengeance with an ironic four-game sweep.
Record-wise, this game is practically meaningless. Few fans are looking forward to watching the lowly 8-27 Hornets. But this contest comes with one of the most interesting side-stories of the year: the return of star point guard Chris Paul to New Orleans.
Shooting a career-best .443 from behind the arc and averaging over eight dishes and 19 points per night, Paul has continued to rise through the NBA as a bona-fide stud at the 1-guard position.
His departure from Nawleans, while perhaps not as ostentatious as LeBron's Cleveland exit, is still sore for the Hornets and their fans.
How will Paul be received in the Big Easy? Will the Clippers continue their surprise success in 2012? March 22's game should be a good one.
ESPN's initial predictions for the NBA Finals will square off on March 25, in a game that will be as colossal for league marketing as it will be for both teams' standings in the basketball world.
The Heat have torn through their competition this year, en route to the Association's second-best win percentage. The team above them? Oklahoma City.
Could this in fact be a preview of the finals? It's hard to refute right now.
With no dominant post-up presence, Kevin Durant should have a monstrous night against Miami. These are two young teams that exemplify star power, speed and physicality. They should certainly put on a show.
March closes with one of the most exciting games on the NBA calendar: a finals re-match between the Heat and Mavericks.
With both teams already dominating this list, and likely dominating headlines this month, not much more needs to be said about this vengeance-fueled Round 2. Will Dallas' perimeter prowess come through again like last year? Or will Wade and James be too much to handle for the aging Mavs?
Miami has been nothing short of spectacular when hosting foes in American Airlines Arena this year, and with James and the rest of the team truly hitting their stride, all signs point to the scorching-hot Heat to continue their success and run through the month of March.