It's time to get back to healthy habits. Last year's lockout-compressed schedule offered a feast of matchups every night during the compacted 66-game season. Now, with labor peace at hand, the NBA released a standard 82-game slate for the 2012-13 season Thursday night. No more back-to-back-to-back games. No more speculation about how fatigue may be causing a cascade of injuries. Just good, healthy basketball from Oct. 30 until April 17. Let's take a peek at some of the best matchups of the season:
Nothing to see here, really. Just last season's Eastern Conference finalists meeting on Opening Night. With Ray Allen suiting up for the team in South Beach rather than the one visiting in Celtic green. Featuring an Allen-Rajon Rondo rift that reportedly factored into the shooting guard's decision to leave. And renewing the long-simmering rivalry between Paul Pierce and LeBron James. Nope, nothing to see here. Might as well flip the channel.
The battle for New York begins. Yes, the Knicks generally own New York, but the bad feelings surrounding Jeremy Lin's departure have opened the door for the Nets to gain some fans now that they also call New York home. A win in Brooklyn to start the season would be all the city's media needs to debate which team is better. Debate means buzz. Buzz means ticket sales. And ticket sales mean a chance to chip away at the Knicks' popularity.
By now, perhaps, the Spurs will have gotten the plates off the Mack truck that ran over them in last season's Western Conference finals. San Antonio has enough talent to cruise past a lot of teams while getting some rest for its aging core. The Thunder aren't one of those teams. This matchup should offer a hint of what new wrinkles Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has developed to counteract the quickness and length Kevin Durant and Co. flexed in their six-game series win.
No one will ever mistake Roy Hibbert for Tim Duncan, but the Pacers' center has quietly become just as important to Indiana as Duncan is to the Spurs. Hibbert shot 53.3 percent in Pacers wins last season, versus 43.3 percent in losses. That may be a big reason why Indy chose to match a four-year, $58 million offer Hibbert received from Portland in free agency. Also, like Duncan, Hibbert has a savvy coach, athletic wing players and a team with a defensive mindset -- qualities that could make this a June preview if the basketball fates are kind to their NBA brethren.
The two clubs have staged a cold war ever since Minnesota felt it was sold an injured bill of goods when Portland traded Martell Webster to the Timberwolves in 2010. The battle was renewed this summer when ex-Blazer Brandon Roy came out of retirement to sign with the Wolves and Minnesota GM David Kahn inked Portland forward Nicolas Batum to a four-year, $45 million deal that the Blazers eventually matched. Underneath all of the front-office gamesmanship sit two intriguing teams who may find themselves battling for a playoff berth by season's end.
Lin returns to play the team that made him a star only to let him walk away when the price got too high. At least, that's the Knicks' party line, and it's true that letting Lin walk will save the Knicks tens of millions in luxury tax. But the decision also cost them the faith of their fans, many of whom are sure to cheer Lin's arrival. But when a team has a chance to jettison a promising 23-year-old point guard for a 39-year-old Jason Kidd who shot 36.3 percent last season and a 28-year-old Raymond Felton who admitted he wasn't in shape last year despite getting paid $7.6 million, that's an easy trade-off, right?
O.J. Mayo's defection to Dallas offers a minor storyline but the real draw are the teams involved. Neither is flashy, nor anyone's pick to win the trophy. But both value defense and playmaking. Both have aging stars (Dirk Nowitzki, Zach Randolph) who can carry their teams on most nights. And both may be more in the Western Conference title mix than many believe.
No, this Christmas Day rematch won't reverse the results of June, but Oklahoma City might need it as reminder that the Heat can be beaten. The good news is that Shane Battier and Mike Miller aren't likely to imitate Ray Allen from the three-point line again; the bad news is that James Harden will now have to stop the real Allen.
Kyrie Irving may have been in a playful mood when he agreed at a Team USA workout to play Kobe Bryant one-on-one for $50,000, but Bryant likely won't be so playful when Irving comes calling. The Cavs' point guard has a healthy competitiveness about him, but few have the compulsion Bryant does to stare down the young generation tugging at his cape. That should make for an entertaining sideshow even if the Cavs-Lakers main event is over after three quarters.
It's doppelgänger night in Beantown. No. 1 pick Anthony Davis comes face-to-face with the player he has been so often compared to, Kevin Garnett, while rookie teammate Austin Rivers plays against his father. Garnett figures to have an easier time getting into his matchup than Doc Rivers does trying to game-plan against his son.
By Kobe's hints, he has about two more seasons to get the sixth ring that will place him safely in the conversation with Michael Jordan as the modern NBA's best player. One of the teams standing in his way is Miami. On paper, the Lakers match up well: big where the Heat are not, a capable counter to Dwyane Wade, a coach who knows LeBron better than most and perhaps the craftiest point guard in the league in Steve Nash. Still, Miami has the confidence borne of slaying the title demon. Even fans who don't like these two polarizing operations might have to tune in.
Blake Griffin and Kevin Love renew their duel for bragging rights as the game's best power forward. Last season, Love averaged 22 points, 12.7 rebounds and 40.7 percent shooting in three games against the Clippers, while Griffin averaged 24 points, 10.5 rebounds and 51.4 percent in four games vs. the Wolves. In a sense, the matchup really is an apples-to-oranges debate with Griffin's game predicated on power and athleticism while Love brings a more earthbound but space-creating approach with his outside shooting. With any luck, the game will also feature Chris Paul and Ricky Rubio on the undercard. Now that we think about it, maybe this game would best be played as a series of one-on-one showdowns instead of involving all of those supporting players.
With apologies to Opening Night, the biggest Heat-Celtics clash falls in January when Allen returns to Boston with the archrival Heat. Think the Beantown faithful will let Allen hear it for bolting to South Beach? You're right.
After being traded to L.A. on July 4, Nash returns to Phoenix wearing the jersey of a team that has caused Suns fans no small amount of heartburn. After the two-time MVP's eight years of service and a heartfelt tweet thanking the Suns fans for their support, this game might be the first in this rivalry to feature a standing ovation for a Laker.
Two of the league's most athletic teams both play among the slowest paces in the league. Part of that is by necessity, as Paul's knee issues demand a slower gear; part is by design, as coach Doug Collins likes to micromanage the Sixers' offense. Still, with Griffin, Andre Iguodala, Paul and his Sixers counterpart, Jrue Holiday, this game should produce plenty of highlights.
Derrick Rose may be out until March. Luol Deng may be out while recovering from wrist surgery. Omer Asik isn't coming back at all. And the only significant new addition was Kirk Hinrich, who averaged 6.6 points, 2.8 assists and shot 41 percent last season off the bench in Atlanta. Few expect the Bulls to supplant Miami in the East with Rose at less than 100 percent, but this game will give Chicago a hint if it has a fighting chance once its MVP does return.
A League Pass special for East Coast night owls featuring two teams with an abundance of talent that hasn't quite meshed. The game makes for some fascinating storylines: Has DeMarcus Cousins matured into a leader or will he remain another of the Kings' talented headaches? Can Andrew Bogut stay healthy enough to make for a promising inside-outside game with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and rookie Harrison Barnes? Are these teams destined to eventually play elsewhere? That's worth losing a little sleep over, isn't it?
Unlike Cleveland, which has gotten multiple chances to "welcome" LeBron back after he left, Denver has been denied the opportunity with Carmelo Anthony, thanks in part to last season's schedule that cut a few teams from each club's calendar. That changes this season, although GM Masai Ujiri has quickly rebuilt the Nuggets into the anti-Knicks -- short on stars, long on effort and chemistry. That and the time that has passed promises to soften whatever angry reaction Anthony may receive. Still, the game is sure to be a measuring stick for how the two franchises have progressed since swapping their DNA in 2011.
Now that James and Chris Bosh have won their rings, Anthony is the sole player among the top-six picks of the 2003 draft without a championship. Having Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler around was supposed to help, and it has made the Knicks a playoff contender. But to become a title contender, they are going to have to win in places like Miami. The Knicks don't have much wiggle room on their roster for the next few years, so this season may be about as good as they're going to get, and if they can't at least make Miami sweat in a regular-season game, well, we all saw how Bulls-Knicks turned out in the 1990s.
Old coaching lions they may be, but Popovich and Denver's George Karl oversaw the two highest-scoring teams in the league last season. Perhaps that's because the Spurs and Nuggets ranked first and third, respectively, in pace. Perhaps it's because Tony Parker played at an MVP-level and Ty Lawson proved to be a tough, explosive successor to Andre Miller in Denver. Or perhaps these are two well-drilled teams that understand how to space the floor, play defense and take good shots. All of that can be said for any of the four duels these teams will stage, but at this late date, the game could be a playoff preview, as well.
Howard has held the Magic, and much of the NBA, hostage with his demand that he be traded to the Nets. That task would have been a lot easier had Howard become a free agent this summer and not opted in for the last year of his deal with Orlando. While the Nets have moved on, filling their payroll with Deron Williams and Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, Howard is still looking for a new home. Depending on what team gambles for his services, Howard's visit to Brooklyn will be as brief as it takes the Lakers or Rockets to play a road game and jet out to the next city. Still, the game could make for some wistful glances and hushed regrets about how these two lovers crossed their own stars.