The NBA followed up its release of the Christmas Day and opening week games with the reveal of the full schedule on Friday. With the offseason now inching toward training camp and the free-agent frenzy almost entirely put to rest (sorry, Lauri Markannen), the story lines that will be most exciting to follow next season are coming into focus. With that being said, let’s run through some of the matchups I am most excited to see in the 2021–22 season.
The Return: Heat at Raptors, Feb. 3
Every Raptors home game should be incredibly special next season, with the team expected to actually play in Toronto after a yearlong exodus to Tampa because of the pandemic. With all due respect to Tampa, it is not a special mosaic like the city of Toronto. But perhaps no Raptors home game will be as noteworthy as the return of Kyle Lowry, who will play his first game in the city since February 2020—this time as a member of the Heat. Lowry is obviously a franchise legend for Toronto, and he never got a proper farewell from the fans who witnessed the thrilling arc of his prime—which started with numerous playoff disappointments before culminating in the 2019 championship run. Add to the mix the Raptors’ fantastic game operations, and there probably will be very few dry eyes in the building when Lowry is finally back in Canada.
The New Friends vs. the Old Ones: Nets at Warriors, Jan. 29
Last year’s Warriors-Nets matchups were cooled by the fact Golden State didn’t have a very good roster. Once Klay Thompson returns after a two-season absence, however, the first game between these two teams at full strength should be one of the most intriguing all year. Hopefully Thompson is ready to go and the Nets actually have all three of their stars healthy, two massive qualifiers. I have to imagine Kevin Durant will have something to prove against the Warriors’ OG core of Steph, Dray, Klay and Iguodala, and vice versa. (Though if anyone has no interest in narratives, it’s Durant.) Then there’s also Golden State’s playoff history against both James Harden and Kyrie Irving. In fact, while everyone is dreaming of a Lakers-Nets Finals, I think a Warriors-Nets one could be even more thrilling.
The Rematch: Nets at Bucks, Oct. 19
Speaking of the Nets, we won’t have to wait long to see Brooklyn go up against the defending champion Bucks, as the two teams will square off in the first game of the season in a rematch of their thrilling seven-game series from the second round of the playoffs. And here is an early prediction for you: The Nets win big on opening night. If any team feels cheated by the postseason, it’s probably Brooklyn, which pushed Milwaukee to seven games despite having only one healthy star for the series, and was a big toe away from making it to the conference finals.
The Rookies: Pistons vs. Rockets, Nov. 10
The Pistons and Rockets won’t be particularly interesting this season. That doesn’t mean the showdown between Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green won’t be. The top two picks from the 2021 draft already have a little beef simmering on the stove. Cunningham went No. 1. Green said he wanted to go first except he didn’t want to play in Detroit. The Pistons host the Rockets on December 18th as well. The pair already went head to head in Summer League and lived up to the expectations by at least taking the matchup personally. Though it may be a long time before Cunningham and Green play an NBA game with some actual stakes, their first go-around should be an appetizer for special careers.
O.K., we’re going to cheat a little bit here because a few teams are just so offense-heavy it doesn’t really matter who they play. All that’s important is that the only way for these teams to win is to hit a succession of increasingly difficult shots as opposed to getting stops defensively. The Blazers, Nuggets and Mavericks all finished with top-10 offenses in 2021, but with defenses outside of the top 10. They also each feature a generational talent on the offensive end of the floor: Damian Lillard, reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, and Luka Dončić. Whenever any combination of these two teams are going head to head next season, especially with none of them making any significant roster overhauls, expect fireworks.
The Tanker’s Special: Rockets vs. Thunder, Oct. 22
Neither the Rockets nor the Thunder will have an interest in winning many basketball games next season. Both are in the midst of significant rebuilds, and both teams have a pretty eccentric collection of players. If there’s a late-season tip between these two clubs, it will be hilarious the gymnastics each will go through not to win. I wouldn’t be surprised if both GMs suited up while their young stars sat out with some unidentifiable soreness.
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The Diet All-Star Game: Nets at Lakers, Christmas Day
Let’s not beat around the bush any longer. When these two teams are fully healthy, the rosters in a Lakers-Nets game feel like the basketball equivalent to a Steven Soderbergh cast. Just look at these names! LeBron James. Kevin Durant. James Harden. Anthony Davis. Kyrie Irving. Russell Westbrook. Carmelo Anthony. Blake Griffin. Dwight Howard. With Patty Mills. And Trevor Ariza as Trevor Ariza. My Open Floor partner Michael Pina outlined why it would be a dream matchup to see these two squads in a Finals. Not only is the collection of talent—while not all at its peak, to be fair—simply overwhelming, the personal drama shared by so many of the participants adds several juicy layers to this matchup. Christmas can’t come soon enough.
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