Top 15 Must-See Games from Full 2021-22 NBA Schedule Release

Andy Bailey@@AndrewDBaileyFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2021

Top 15 Must-See Games from Full 2021-22 NBA Schedule Release

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    The NBA revealed the 2021-22 schedule in its entirety Friday, and there are plenty of doozies for the fans to watch over the course of the season.

    Opening week is packed with good matchups. The Christmas and Martin Luther King Jr. Day slates should draw attention. And a handful of other must-see games between stars or title contenders should be on your radar, too.

    The 15 best are below, in order from earliest to latest on the calendar. But before you dive in, note that you may notice the slideshow sort of hammers the early portion of the season.

    Since availability and trades are tough to predict, it's hard to know who'll actually be playing in some of those later-season matchups. And it's during the first couple of months that we really learn how this offseason's moves affect their teams.

Oct. 19: Nets at Bucks

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    It may have happened in the Eastern Conference's second round, but the best series of the 2021 postseason may well have been between the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets.

    Despite injuries to both Kyrie Irving and James Harden, the Nets pushed the eventual champions to seven games. And if Kevin Durant's toes had been just an inch or two farther back on a late jumper in the clincher, Brooklyn likely would've advanced.

    Over those seven games, KD carried the Nets with averages of 35.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks. He went on to dominate the Tokyo Olympics for a gold medal. And if he, Harden and Irving have decent health in 2021-22, Brooklyn will be a title contender and Durant will be an MVP candidate.

    In the very first game of the season, the Nets have a chance to make a statement. We were the best team in the NBA. We were just unlucky with injuries.

    At the same time, the Bucks have likely heard a lot of that chatter. This is an early opportunity to back up what they did in the 2021 playoffs. If Giannis Antetokounmpo can dominate a healthy Brooklyn squad at the outset, Milwaukee can put some of the doubt to rest.

Oct. 19: Warriors at Lakers

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    Later on opening night, the new-look Los Angeles Lakers will make their regular-season debut against Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and hopefully Klay Thompson (though his return may come a bit later in the season).

    There are a ton of questions about these Lakers. How will Russell Westbrook, LeBron James and Anthony Davis fit together? None are defense-bending floor-spacers. Did L.A. find enough shooting to offset that? And are the shooters it found spry enough to survive the entire season?

    Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, Malik Monk, Kent Bazemore, Carmelo Anthony and Trevor Ariza combined to shoot 39.8 percent from three last season, but the average age of those newcomers is over 30.

    Of course, the Lakers can't answer all of that during their first game, but we'll at least get a taste of how they plan to play, who engineers the bulk of the possessions and how often the star trio might play together.

    As for the Warriors, if Thompson is still out, they might look pretty similar to the 2020-21 team, though Otto Porter Jr. is an interesting addition as a small-ball 4. It'll also be good to get an early look at James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody. Will any of those three be ready to help this season?

    Mostly, though, wanting to watch the Warriors is about wanting to watch Curry. Even without Thompson, he's always a threat to go on a heater and completely take over a game.

Oct. 22: Suns at Lakers

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    Later in the league's opening week, the Phoenix Suns will take on the Lakers. Of course, the former dispatched the latter in 2021's first round, but doubt swirled around that result (as it did with Milwaukee and Brooklyn).

    LeBron was fairly fresh off an extended injury absence in the regular season, and after going up 2-1, Anthony Davis managed just 25 minutes over the three straight losses that ended L.A.'s season.

    Without that groin injury to AD, do the Suns escape the first round? Injuries are part of every postseason, but you can't ignore the defending champion's loss of its second-best player.

    So, on Oct. 22, Phoenix will get a chance to prove its run to the Finals wasn't a fluke. Sure, it's against a radically different Lakers team, but the top two players are the same and the Suns are mostly running it back.

    If they want to prove their legitimacy, an early win over L.A. sure wouldn't hurt.

Oct. 26: Nuggets at Jazz

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    The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz have had a fun, competitive division rivalry for a few years now, but this season's Northwest Division matchups will have the added wrinkle of featuring the reigning MVP and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.

    And it just so happens they both play center.

    For his career, Nikola Jokic (league MVP) has averaged 19.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 6.8 assists in head-to-head matchups with Rudy Gobert (DPOY), but the Jazz are 10-7 in those games. And without Jamal Murray, who will still be recovering from a torn ACL at this early point of the season, it'll be tough for Denver to avoid another loss.

    Utah is coming off a season in which it had the best record in the league, and it shored up its bench this offseason with the additions of Rudy Gay, Hassan Whiteside and Eric Paschall.

    Few players elevate teammates quite like Jokic, though. And it'll be fun to see if he and Michael Porter Jr. have the kind of two-man game Jokic and Murray had.   

Oct. 27: Hawks at Pelicans

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    After the Atlanta Hawks' somewhat surprising push to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021, fans should be excited for whatever encore Trae Young and Co. can provide.

    As something of a hybrid between Steve Nash and Stephen Curry, Young is one of the most dynamic offensive players in the league. And Atlanta is returning a versatile frontcourt for him that includes John Collins' floor-spacing and high-flying dunks, as well as Clint Capela's expert rim-running.

    Last season, the Hawks were plus-9.0 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) when those three were all on the floor.

    And though their opponent on this night will probably have a hard time slowing down that attack, the mere presence of Zion Williamson makes almost any New Orleans Pelicans game watchable.

    And after a curious couple of offseasons that included the departures of Lonzo Ball and Jrue Holiday, New Orleans better be hoping Point Zion is ready to fill that role for an entire season. Otherwise, the Pelicans could be in for a tough 2021-22.   

Oct. 29: Hornets at Heat

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    One season was all we needed to realize LaMelo Ball is one of the most entertaining players in the NBA. His passing highlights from 2020-21 were ridiculous. On May 1, he went full "Pistol" Pete Maravich with a full-court underhand dime to Miles Bridges. And his outside shot was way ahead of schedule.

    He now has a plus-passing big in Mason Plumlee, who was acquired from the Detroit Pistons. Gordon Hayward can provide some playmaking from the wing. Terry Rozier is seemingly always on the verge of a heat-check moment. And Bridges may be the game's most exciting power dunker since Dominique Wilkins.

    With decent health, the Charlotte Hornets could be primed for a breakout season.

    One of their Southeast Division foes, the Miami Heat, will be a tough matchup, though.

    Few teams went through as dramatic an offseason as Miami, which brought back several key contributors but also added Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris to Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Duncan Robinson.

    If Lowry, 35, can hold off the basketball god of aging for another season or two and Bam and Tyler Herro continue to develop, the Heat could find themselves back in contention.      

Nov. 16: Warriors at Nets

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    Kevin Durant is a few years removed from his time with the Golden State Warriors, but these matchups should still draw interest, especially after KD's explosive interview with Draymond Green.

    "In my opinion, they f--ked it up," Green said on Bleacher Report's Chips in reference to head coach Steve Kerr and general manager Bob Myers' reaction to the infamous argument between the two stars in 2018-19.

    Durant seemed to agree with the assessment, and the air appeared to be clear between the two players. Maybe that'll reduce the drama for subsequent Warriors-Nets games, or maybe it'll put a chip on Kerr's shoulders.

    By November, those comments could be water under the bridge, or they could be a touch of extra fuel on this fire.

    If all is well, this is still a great matchup strictly in terms of basketball. The Nets look like a potential juggernaut in the East, and if the Warriors want to return to the tier of legitimate contenders, a win here would say a lot.    

Nov. 17: Mavericks at Suns

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    The teams that passed on or traded Luka Doncic on draft night in 2018 will likely never live that decision down, but the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks are better able to justify it every year.

    Of course, Deandre Ayton and Trae Young aren't likely to have individual resumes as strong as Luka's when it's all said and done, but those two have become All-Star or fringe All-Stars on good teams. Young's Hawks made it to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021. And Ayton's Suns were two wins from a title.

    Both have been deeper in the playoffs than Doncic, but that shouldn't be all that surprising when you look at the rosters.

    In 2021-22, Doncic has a chance to push his Mavs closer to that level of contention, but that's no small task in a conference that includes the Suns.

    If Dallas gets a healthy and locked-in Kristaps Porzingis, though, it should be able to hang with teams such as Phoenix.

    There are intriguing players all over this matchup, from Chris Paul and Doncic to Ayton and Porzingis to Devin Booker and Tim Hardaway Jr.

Nov. 30: Knicks at Nets

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    The Nets are loaded with talent. KD, James Harden and Kyrie Irving may make up the most talented trio in the league, and Brooklyn will likely be favored in every matchup against the New York Knicks.

    But the Knicks did enough over the last season and change to suggest they're ready to compete in this rivalry.

    After having the worst record in the league during a 20-year stretch from 2000-01 to 2019-20, New York broke out with a playoff appearance and an All-NBA selection for Julius Randle last season. Then, it supplemented the team with Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier this summer.

    With most of their positive contributors, including Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, back, and Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin presumably better, the Knicks should remain feisty.

Dec. 7: Celtics at Lakers

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    The Boston Celtics and Lakers have been on either side of the NBA's greatest rivalry for most of the league's history. From Bill Russell and Jerry West prior to the three-point era to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in the 1980s to Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce, this matchup has produced tons of high-tension basketball.

    And though the Lakers appear closer to title contention in 2021-22, Boston has an intriguing roster headlined by two up-and-coming talents who are likely hungry to get back to the conference finals.

    If Jayson Tatum, 23, and Jaylen Brown, 24, are both still on upward trajectories, the Celtics should bounce back from a disappointing .500 campaign in 2020-21. They're surrounded by defense and playmaking from Marcus Smart, Josh Richardson and Al Horford. Robert Williams III looks like he could be the game's next great rim-runner. And oh yeah, the Celtics will have the Lakers' 2020-21 starting point guard, Dennis Schroder, coming off their bench.

    The timelines for each team's stars don't really line up, but for the next couple of years, there is another shot for this classic rivalry to heat up.

Dec. 25: Celtics at Bucks

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    As a rookie in 2018, Jayson Tatum helped eliminate Giannis' Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. He averaged 15.4 points in his first postseason series (and 20.3 over the rest of that run through the Eastern Conference Finals).

    Three-and-a-half years later, Tatum is now a star. And if he wants to lift his Boston Celtics to the next tier of contenders, prove-it matchups like this one against Antetokounmpo are important.

    The Bucks are the reigning champions and figure to be in that picture again. Boston has tweaked its roster to be more tailored to Tatum and Jaylen Brown. This is the premier Eastern Conference matchup on Christmas Day, and Tatum can make a statement with a big performance here.

    For Milwaukee, winning high-profile games like those on Christmas helps solidify its standing among the league's elite. Like the Warriors after the 2014-15 campaign, Milwaukee may have its doubters. This will be a chance to prove them wrong on a big stage.

Dec. 25: Nets at Lakers

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    This one sells itself. If both teams are healthy, there's a decent chance the Lakers and Nets will meet in the NBA Finals. At the moment, FanDuel's sportsbook sees them as the two safest picks to win it all. And it's not hard to see why.

    Questions regarding fit aside, the pure talent of L.A.'s trio of LeBron, AD and Westbrook is pretty ridiculous. And the amount of shooting with which it's now surrounded should help open up the paint.

    But an apples-to-apples comparison of rosters almost certainly favors Brooklyn. Its Big Three of Durant, Harden and Irving is younger and more efficient on offense. Its supporting cast is deeper and likely more versatile.

    Joe Harris is one of the league's best floor-spacers. Blake Griffin had a borderline renaissance as a playmaking 5 for the Nets last season. Patty Mills can get hot in a hurry. Bruce Brown's effectiveness as a rim runner was a pleasant surprise in 2020-21. James Johnson can be sort of a Swiss Army-knife 5. And there may still be some untapped potential in Nicolas Claxton.

    Christmas Day may give us an idea of whether the Lakers can keep pace with the current odds-on favorite to win the 2021-22 championship.

Dec. 25: Mavericks at Jazz

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    The Utah Jazz led the NBA in wins last season, and they're third in winning percentage over the last five years (first among Western Conference teams). With plenty of continuity between the 2020-21 squad and this one, the Jazz figure to be at or near the top of the West again.

    The old standbys will have plenty of competition to hold off, though. And few stars are rising as fast as the Dallas Mavericks' Luka Doncic.

    He's the current betting favorite to win MVP and is coming off an Olympics in which he led a Slovenian team with no other NBA players to the bronze-medal game with averages of 23.8 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.5 assists. At that tournament, he went for 48 points in one game and 18 assists in another.

    His supporting cast for the 2021-22 campaign isn't dramatically different, but the 22-year-old Doncic may still be improving (as scary as that would be). He's already the kind of talent who can almost single-handedly beat any competitor in a single game.

    This season, we may see whether he can almost single-handedly push his team to legitimate title contention.

Jan. 17: Bulls at Grizzlies

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    The NBA generally owns the sports world's attention on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and 2022 should be no exception.

    The Memphis Grizzlies, who share their home city with the National Civil Rights Museum, host a game on this holiday every year. And this season's features a great matchup between the up-and-coming Grizzlies and the overhauled Chicago Bulls.

    This offseason Memphis added a pick-and-roll center in Steven Adams, who should open up driving lanes for Ja Morant. As he attacks the paint, shooters Jaren Jackson Jr., Desmond Bane and Dillon Brooks should get plenty of open looks.

    They'll need to be on against Chicago, too. The Bulls acquired one of the best transition passers in the game in Lonzo Ball as well as DeMar DeRozan, whose passing ability blossomed with the San Antonio Spurs. Add those two to Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic, and Chicago should have one of the most dynamic offenses in the league.

March 14: Nuggets at 76ers

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    This late in the season, it's difficult to project who will be available, but a national TV showcase for Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid, the top two finishers in last season's MVP race, is worth bookmarking.

    In their five head-to-head matchups, Jokic has superior numbers, but Embiid's 76ers are 4-1. If Jamal Murray is back by this time, Denver should have a decent chance to draw a little closer.

    Beyond those top two, there are plenty of other players to get excited about, including MPJ and whomever the Sixers get back in the Ben Simmons trade (assuming, of course, that happens).

    All has been relatively quiet on that front lately, but longtime NBA reporter Marc Stein wrote Friday that the Spurs are trying "to barge their way into the Ben Simmons trade sweepstakes."