Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is a showcase event for the NBA, a chance for the league to show off as football winds down and set the stage for the final months of the regular season. It's the rare full weekday of basketball for those in a position to enjoy it, or a diversion for those tasked to work the holiday. Every game on the slate has its charms, and below are reasons to tune in (or at least check in) on each of tomorrow's 12 games.
Philadelphia vs. Washington (2 PM ET): The jokes at the Sixers’ expense come easily, which is understandable when a franchise blatantly prioritizes the future over the present. Yet Philly has been competent defensively this season, which is astounding given its youthful roster. Younger players usually aren't sharp defenders. Defending at the professional level must be learned and reinforced through instruction and experience; even the best prospects don’t usually hit their defensive stride for a few years.
The 76ers should only get better on that end as their principals mature, but Philadelphia is already hovering around the league average in points allowed per possession at this early stage in its development. How? By angling for turnovers as aggressively as any team in the league. Of these two, Washington is clearly the team that’s going places this season. But Philadelphia deserves its moment at the top of the holiday slate for showing more improvement than most anticipated.
Minnesota vs. Charlotte (2 PM ET): This game hinges on the presence or absence of Kemba Walker, the Hornets point guard who ranks third in scoring among all players this calendar year. Walker’s sudden (and relatively unexpected) rush of high-volume scoring has offered relief from an otherwise difficult season. The fourth-year guard appears to have a freedom to fire at will, and it's yielded enough offense for the Hornets to win five of their last seven games with Walker in the lineup. With him sidelined in Saturday’s game against the Pacers, Charlotte scored just 68 points in regulation before gutting out a hideous win in overtime. The Hornets shots 30.7 percent from the field and not a single player in their lineup made half their shots.
This is what Charlotte is reduced to without Walker in the mix. Monday’s game offers some hope for better scoring in a matchup with the absolute worst defensive team in the league, though overall we can still expect these 48 minutes to express just how much Walker -- especially without Al Jefferson -- has come to mean to these Hornets.
Detroit vs. Atlanta (2:30 PM ET): Not only does this make for an unlikely gem of the early schedule, but the Hawks are worth the price of admission for Al Horford’s progress alone. When fully operational, Horford is one of the NBA’s very best bigs. His dynamism is a boon to any team creative enough to use his many strengths, and Atlanta is just that. After working his way into a rhythm after years of injury trouble, Horford is finally starting to produce like his old self. Too often Atlanta, due to its unselfish style of play, is described as a team lacking a traditional star. Horford’s track record may prove otherwise, as does Paul Millsap’s standard excellence and Jeff Teague’s rising credentials. The Hawks maximize the talent they have to create an umatched synergy. That doesn't mean that Horford isn't a star. Just watch and admire.
Boston vs. L.A. Clippers (3:30 PM ET): This hasn’t been a show-stopping year for Blake Griffin, who seemed poised only for greater things after steadying the Clippers last season with his do-it-all play. That said, let this past week and this particular showcase serve as a reminder of what Griffin can do. In his past two games (one a win over Sacramento, the other a close loss to Cleveland), Griffin averaged 32 points on 64 percent shooting from the field. Only a certain subset of power forwards can realistically stop him from getting where he wants to go, and Boston’s Jared Sullinger and Brandon Bass probably don't qualify. Griffin showed signs of nagging injury earlier in the year, and weeks like these could further signify a return to form.
Denver vs. Golden State (4 PM ET): One can guess the result in the matchup of a mediocre Nuggets team against the league's best squad, but even a lopsided outcome shouldn’t undermine the game's entertainment value. Denver and Golden State run to unlock the talents of their best players, and in doing so should put on a hell of a show. Enjoy the mid-day fireworks.
Dallas vs. Memphis (5 PM ET): Last week, the Grizzlies took part in a three-team trade for the purpose of acquiring Jeff Green, a versatile forward who could improve an already formidable rotation. This will be Green’s fourth game in Memphis blue and a good test against a quality opponent. Can Green control his matchup, negating the impact of Chandler Parsons and other Dallas wings? Will Green knock down enough shots from range (or sufficiently leverage his talents as a cutter) to keep the Mavericks' defense honest? These early trials make for fascinating, experimental basketball. Green hasn’t completely figured out his new teammates, just as the Grizzlies haven’t yet pinned down how to work off of him. As a result we see both parties learning each other in real time in games of consequence.
Indiana vs. Houston (5:30 PM ET): The single most compelling force in this game is James Harden, who in the span of a year has evolved from defensive punchline to legitimate MVP candidate. It's reasonable to argue that Harden has made a greater impact than any other player in the league this year. Few can match his output as a scorer. Of those who could, fewer are so efficient; Harden earns over half his points on free throws and three-pointers, with another healthy dose coming from within the restricted area. Pacers coach Frank Vogel will throw whatever he can at Harden, perhaps starting with the lanky Solomon Hill supported by Roy Hibbert and David West. It might not be enough, but no defense has solved Harden this year.
New Orleans vs. New York (5:30 PM ET): For their next trick, the Knicks will lose to a solid Western Conference team likely missing its two best players. If you have a taste for big-market schadenfreude, bon appetit!.
Chicago vs. Cleveland (7:30 PM ET): A headliner, to be sure. These are two contenders lacking in their own way. Between the two, Cleveland’s issues are clearly more substantial. There’s no easy remedy for a porous team defense, though the recent acquisition of center Timofey Mozgov at least allows the Cavs a different, longer look inside. In Chicago, the Bulls’ defense hasn’t had quite the same bite this season. Part of that is because Joakim Noah -- who will miss Monday's game -- isn’t healthy enough to sustain his typically crazed energy level. Neither of these teams are as good as they could be, nor as good as they likely will be come April. Yet it’s these mid-season tune-ups that tend to push great teams forward. Both could use the boost.
Toronto vs. Milwaukee (8 PM ET): It wasn’t long ago that the Raptors were toasted as the best team in the East. Kyle Lowry led a ravenous, unwavering offense. The defense, while suspect at times, was strong enough for the Raptors to overwhelm those unlucky enough to come across its schedule. That team wasn’t recognizable in the Raptors outfit that slumped through a loss to the short-handed Pelicans on Sunday for its seventh loss in nine games.
Milwaukee, all things considered, might be just the kind of opponent Toronto needs right now. The Bucks are good, but beatable, competent, but not overwhelming. They boast the third-ranked defense in the league to date but a lacking offense. This leaves an opportunity for the Raptors to challenge a quality defense while facing a lackluster offense. There shouldn’t be any sense of real peril in the Raptors’ current skid, but a solid win against another Eastern Conference outfit would make for a fine confidence boost all the same.
Sacramento vs. Portland (10 PM ET): A run of three straight games against Western Conference playoff teams yielded three straight losses for the Blazers, two of which were lost by a combined 10 points. A Sacramento team without DeMarcus Cousins is a much easier draw by comparison, which should cede the stage to one of the most balanced and fluid offenses in the NBA. If things get out of hand, the Blazers will keep the game fun with their passing. If the margin stays close, Damian Lillard -- perhaps the best clutch performer in the league this season -- will walk through the fire.
L.A. Lakers vs. Phoenix (10 PM ET): It speaks volumes about the Lakers that the Suns are a far more interesting team to watch. Look for Phoenix’s three-point threats to scorch L.A.’s perimeter defense, the ongoing introduction of Suns newcomer Brandan Wright, and the game-changing influence of second-year center Alex Len. That the Lakers are more competitive now than they were at the start of the season makes this a far more watchable game, though at this point we can dismiss that particular for its irrelevance on a league-wide level. Follow the Lakers if you will, though at this point the casual NBA fan doesn’t have much compelling reason to.