January 16, 2017

There are days the NBA holds dear, days the league sets even more emphasis on putting its best foot forward.

Opening night, Christmas Day, All-Star weekend. They are all important dates for the league to engage its fans, grab ratings and put on a show. Ranking right up near the top of that list is Monday, Martin Luther King Day.

On a day when the nation pays tribute to the civil rights icon, the most progressive sports league in America throws everything it has at making sure the day is treated with the respect it deserves. The league produced an ad featuring Pau Gasol, Mike Conley and Paul George that promotes togetherness and unity, and the headliner of the day's slate of games is the highly anticipated rematch between Golden State and Cleveland.

The teams that met in the last two NBA Finals series play twice during the regular season. The first was on Christmas Day and the second comes on Martin Luther King Day.

''The thing we get out of these type of games is to see where are, see what type of team we are, continue to just find out what we do and our identity,'' Warriors forward Kevin Durant said. ''That's what both teams get out of regular season games, just keep building and figure out what type of team we're going to be.''

Four games will be televised nationally, beginning with a matinee when Atlanta visits New York and also includes Orlando at Denver and Oklahoma City at the Los Angeles Clippers in the nightcap.

The NBA has earned a reputation as the most progressive sports league in the United States, the league that cast Donald Sterling out for racist comments, the league that moved its All-Star Game out of Charlotte in response to a law viewed as infringing on gay rights. The league has long taken pride in its diversity and inclusion, so it's no surprise that the Warriors and Cavs were scheduled to help the league make its MLK Day festivities as big as they could be.

''It's a group of players that are familiar with each other, this rivalry, I guess,'' Warriors forward Kevin Durant said. ''It's good for our game. It's good for competition. It should be fun.''

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Monday also marks the last day for votes to be cast for the All-Star starters for next month's game in New Orleans. The league has reformatted the voting this year to also include select members of the media and players in addition to fans.

Here is my ballot:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Backcourt: Kyle Lowry, PG, Toronto; Isaiah Thomas, PG, Boston.

Frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo, G/F, Milwaukee; Jimmy Butler, SF, Chicago; LeBron James, SF, Cleveland.

Comments: Leaving DeMar DeRozan out of the starting lineup was very difficult. Washington's John Wall and Cleveland's Kyrie Irving, among others, are deserving as well. But the All-Star Game has never been about defense, and Thomas' scoring and ingenuity should make for a fun combo with Lowry, the best guard in the East.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Backcourt: Russell Westbrook, PG, Oklahoma City; James Harden, PG, Houston.

Frontcourt: Kawhi Leonard, SF, San Antonio; Kevin Durant, SF, Golden State; Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans.

Comments: Really, really labored over Davis and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins, who I believe is the best big man in the game right now. In the end, the slight edge went to Davis for some of the jaw-dropping stat lines he has put up. But really it's a coin flip for me.

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STAT LINE OF THE WEEK: Devin Booker, Phoenix, 72 points, 26-42 FG, 9-12 3s. No, that wasn't in one game. He's not James Harden, after all. But one of the few things the Suns have going for them is the baby-faced Booker, who erupted for back-to-back 39-point games against Dallas and San Antonio this week, the last a surprising win over the Spurs.

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