2021-22 NBA Schedule: Breaking Down Top 10 Games of the Season

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2021

2021-22 NBA Schedule: Breaking Down Top 10 Games of the Season

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    The 2021 NBA Finals don't feel that long ago and already the 2021-22 regular season is right around the corner.

    The league has rolled out its full schedule for the year ahead. The full 82-game slate is back for the first time since 2018-19 after the COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted the NBA calendar over the past two seasons.

    Coming off their championship triumph, the Milwaukee Bucks will have the biggest bullseye on their back, and they'll have plenty of strong contenders standing in their way.

    Here are some of the most enticing matchups in the months ahead.

Oct. 19: Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers

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    The 2020-21 season was a reminder of how the context isn't totally relevant when it comes to a meeting between LeBron James and Stephen Curry. The Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors were only fighting for a playoff berth on May 19, but the encounter felt much bigger than that.

    Neither team figures to be near the bottom of the Western Conference playoff standings in 2021-22.

    The Lakers made perhaps the single most buzzworthy move of the offseason when they traded for Russell Westbrook. On paper, it doesn't seem like a great fit because he has occupied such a big on-ball role for whatever teams he's played on.

    Still, Los Angeles should be on pace for a top-four finish as long as James and Anthony Davis stay healthy.

    In the absence of a big trade, the Warriors are hedging their bets on a returning Klay Thompson to be something close to the player he was before suffering a torn ACL and Achilles tendon. Golden State is also looking for James Wiseman to continue improving following a bumpy rookie campaign.

Oct. 19: Brooklyn Nets at Milwaukee Bucks

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    The last time the Bucks and Brooklyn Nets played one another, Kevin Durant dropped 48 points, nine rebounds and six assists in a losing effort. Giannis Antetokounmpo countered with 40 points, 13 rebounds and five assists.

    Durant's turnaround jumper in the final seconds of regulation is a sliding-doors moment.

    If his feet are only an inch or two further back, the Bucks are likely eliminated and there's no championship celebration in Milwaukee. Then, the second-guessing would've started about whether Antetokounmpo can win a title with the Bucks, Khris Middleton as the No. 2 guy, and leveraging the franchise's future to acquire Jrue Holiday.

    Antetokounmpo would still be signed to a five-year, $228.2 million extension, but his long-term future in Milwaukee would look a little more murky.

    However, Durant's foot was on the three-point line, and Milwaukee prevailed in overtime en route to beating the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals.

    With Kyrie Irving and James Harden healthy, the Nets are the obvious favorites to dethrone the Bucks, and this might be a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals.

Dec. 7: Dallas Mavericks at Brooklyn Nets

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    Kevin Durant might have surpassed LeBron James as the NBA's best player, and he's coming off a Summer Olympics in which he was clearly the top star on Team USA.

    Winning a second MVP in 2021-22 might prove difficult, though, as long as Durant is sharing the court with James Harden and Kyrie Irving.

    Because of that, the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic and Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid might be the early favorites to lift the MVP in 2022.

    Doncic averaged 27.7 points, 8.6 assists and 8.0 rebounds while shooting 47.9 percent from the floor in 2020-21. Embiid might've been the MVP if he hadn't missed 21 games after having put up 28.5 points and 10.6 rebounds per night. He also set career highs in field-goal percentage (51.3) and three-point percentage (37.7).

    Should one or both of Doncic and Embiid wind up as an MVP finalist, this game could be a resume-builder.

Dec. 15: Miami Heat at Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Process isn't dead for the Philadelphia 76ers, but it does appear to be in its last throes.

    As long as Joel Embiid is on the roster, some will reasonably argue the vision Sam Hinkie outlined long ago remains in place for the organization. Trading away Ben Simmons would put that idea to the test because he and Embiid were supposed to be the cornerstones for a championship-winning team.

    That the Sixers are in their current position it itself an indictment of The Process. 

    The Miami Heat are not only a measuring stick for Philadelphia but also a reminder of what might have been—and not just in terms of Jimmy Butler.

    Kyle Lowry checked all of the boxes for what the Sixers needed. He was a key player on an NBA champion, a dynamic playmaker, and a good enough threat from beyond the arc to keep defenses honest. The 35-year-old is also a Philadelphia native who starred at Villanova.

    Instead of returning home, Lowry opted for Miami.

    Should he have a big game against the Sixers, fans may further lament a free-agency period in which Philly did little to address its biggest concerns.

Dec. 18: Houston Rockets at Detroit Pistons

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    As soon as the Detroit Pistons won the 2021 NBA draft lottery, it felt like a foregone conclusion they'd select Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham. A similar consensus soon formed around the Houston Rockets and Jalen Green.

    There's always intrigue when the top two picks in the draft face off against one another for the first time, and Cunningham and Green's reputations will only enhance this matchup.

    Cunningham averaged 20.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists in his lone season with the Cowboys. Rather than spending a year in college, Green made the jump to the NBA G League Ignite and put up 17.9 points per game in 15 appearances.

    In most cases, games between what project to be two of the NBA's worst teams don't tend to be entertaining. This is an exception because the Pistons and Rockets will probably give Cunningham and Green a lot of freedom to learn on the job with little concern for their overall record.

Dec. 25: Brooklyn Nets at Los Angeles Lakers

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    Purely in terms of star power, no one game is bigger than the Nets vs. Lakers on Christmas Day. This is also a potential NBA Finals preview since Brooklyn and Los Angeles are shaping up to be two of the strongest title contenders in their respective conference.

    The Nets ran roughshod over the Boston Celtics in the first round of the 2021 playoffs and nearly built a 3-0 series lead on the Milwaukee Bucks in the conference semifinals despite being without James Harden. At full strength, Brooklyn is scary.

    The outlook for the Lakers is a little more murky because it's difficult to forecast how Russell Westbrook fits into the squad. He doesn't space the floor and hasn't shown himself capable of assuming a more limited offensive role, which might be required in L.A.

    More so than for the Nets, this will be an opportunity for the Lakers to make a major statement.

    A group of NBA scouts and executives inadvertently provided more fodder after they split their votes equally between Durant and Antetokounmpo when asked to name the NBA's best player.

    James responded to his perceived slight on social media with "#SUPERWASHED" and made it clear he'll use the anonymous survey as a source of motivation. Now, the four-time MVP has his chance to prove the skeptics wrong.

Dec. 25: Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks

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    "I know where we are. I know it's a bunch of shows around this city. And I know what they do when the show is over."

    That's what Atlanta Hawks star Trae Young said after scoring 36 points and helping to eliminate the New York Knicks from the playoffs at Madison Square Garden. At one point during the game, he took a bow at midcourt.

    The series was a reminder of what the NBA missed without fans in the arena and how much more fun the league can be when players aren't afraid to be the pantomime bad guy. Young relished his villain role, which only antagonized Knicks fans more.

    Regardless of where the teams are in the standings, his return to the Garden should be appointment viewing.

Jan. 12: Miami Heat at Atlanta Hawks

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    Outside of the Bucks and Nets, the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat might be the stiffest competition for the conference crown.

    Atlanta is basically running it back from last year, retaining its biggest free-agent fish by giving John Collins a five-year, $125 million extension.

    The Hawks didn't really need to do too much because having De'Andre Hunter, Bogdan Bogdanovic, Cam Reddish and Danilo Gallinari healthy for all or at least most of the season will help them improve upon 41 wins.

    The Heat, on the other hand, obviously felt the need to make a big swing in the offseason and landed Kyle Lowry in a sign-and-trade with the Toronto Raptors.

    Miami isn't in the same position the Phoenix Suns were in last offseason. Chris Paul was intended to help lift a young roster that hadn't achieved much together. Lowry is supposed to widen the Heat's championship window so they can maximize Jimmy Butler's prime.

Jan. 17: Utah Jazz at Los Angeles Lakers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers are likely to be without Kawhi Leonard for most—if not all—of the 2021-22 season following his surgery for a partially torn ACL. Thompson remains a wild card after missing two full years, which has major implications for the Warriors. The Suns have to show they can still thrive after going from the hunter to the hunted.

    There's no reason the Utah Jazz can't once again have the best record in the Western Conference.

    In addition to the Suns, the Lakers figure to be a big obstacle for Utah in achieving that goal.

    Granted, Los Angeles has just as many questions surrounding its roster as any other title contender. General manager Rob Pelinka sacrificed what little depth the franchise had for Westbrook and filled out the squad with aging vets on short-term deals. 

    Until they deliver in the playoffs, there's little the Jazz can do in the regular season to silence the skeptics who wonder whether they have what it takes to win a title.

    Their results against the Lakers could at least go some way toward helping Utah once again secure home-court advantage through the conference finals.

March 6: Phoenix Suns at Milwaukee Bucks

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    Who doesn't love an NBA Finals rematch?

    After falling behind in the series 0-2, the Bucks blew out the Phoenix Suns by 20 points in Game 3. That victory aside, it was a tightly contested Finals. Milwaukee's last three wins came by a combined 17 points.

    Both teams are largely the same as they were in July.

    The Bucks lost P.J. Tucker but got fan favorite Bobby Portis back on a two-year, $8.9 million deal and added Rodney Hood in an effort improve their spacing a bit. Hood struggled this past year but is a career 36.7 percent three-point shooter.

    The Suns re-signed Chris Paul and Cameron Payne and strengthened their backcourt depth with the additions of Landry Shamet and Elfrid Payton. Keeping Paul was their primary objective, so his return made the offseason a success.

    The stakes won't be as high time time around, but Phoenix and Milwaukee should make for a nice spectacle on DATE.