Cleveland Cavaliers @ Chicago Bulls, October 31
The Cavaliers and Bulls should be the two best teams in the Eastern Conference this season, and if Chicago can avoid the injury bug (something that seems to strike them annually) then they’ll be a sure bet to meet Cleveland in the Conference Finals.
Both teams play the New York Knicks in their opening games, but they meet in Chicago just three days into the season for what should be the start of an intense rivalry. The Bulls were no fans of LeBron James during his time in Miami, so don’t expect the likes of Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson to go easy on the league’s best player now that he’s returned home.
While many will be watching the Cavs to see how LeBron, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving mesh together in the early going, equally compelling will be how effective Derrick Rose can be in his second comeback from an injury. The United Center will be rocking on opening night if Rose can rediscover his old magic.
Los Angeles Clippers @ Golden State Warriors, November 5
The Clippers and Warriors will battle it out for a high playoff seeding in the loaded West this year, and both are legitimate candidates to make it to the NBA Finals. First-time head coach Steve Kerr, who replaced Mark Jackson in the off-season, takes charge of a team absolutely loaded with talent, while Doc Rivers and the Clippers might just be the second best team in the NBA now that they have finally put the Donald Sterling mess behind them.
But aside from the fact that this matchup represents two great teams going head-to-head, Clippers-Warriors has another angle that makes it must-see television: the two teams can’t stand each other. Over the past two seasons the animosity has grown thanks to accusations of showboating (when the Clippers were up big in one game last year), hard fouls and shoving a-plenty. Even the fans aren’t safe—Blake Griffin infamously dumped water over a Warriors fan after fouling-out during a game last season.
It also helps that the recent games between the two sides have been absolute barnstormers. The Clippers narrowly edged out the Warriors in a compelling seven game series in the first round of the playoffs last season
Charlotte Hornets @ Indiana Pacers, November 19
The Hornets and Pacers meet for the first time in mid-November and the matchup is compelling for no other reason than Lance Stephenson’s return to the Hoosier State. The Pacers will be bad without Stephenson and Paul George, who they lost to a devastating injury sustained in a Team USA scrimmage. It’s not inconceivable that Frank Vogel’s team ends up in the lottery this season. By contrast, the Hornets should be fighting it out for one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference, with a team built around Stephenson, Kemba Walker and low-post behemoth Al Jefferson.
Stephenson had a breakout year in the 2013-14 season, but his performances were marred by his characteristically immature behavior on and off the court. Those extra-curriculars convinced the Pacers’ front office that they didn’t want to invest too heavily in Stephenson this summer and the shooting guard rejected their offer before signing with Charlotte. Stephenson will be eager to show Larry Bird, in his own building, that Indiana made a mistake in not fully committing to “Born Ready.”
Dallas Mavericks @ Houston Rockets, November 22
The Rockets had a disastrous off-season by general manager Daryl Morey’s high standards. They dumped valuable players to make a run at Chris Bosh, who eventually decided to stay in Miami. While the team was tied up cap-wise, Mark Cuban and the Mavericks swooped in to make a huge offer for talented small forward Chandler Parsons—an offer the Rockets declined to match.
The Mavericks meet their Texan rivals for the first time this season at the end of November, and for Parsons this match-up will surely hold some added significance. Responding to the criticism regarding the Rockets’ poor off-season, Parsons’ old running mate James Harden told the press that all the Rockets had lost was “role players,” and that he and Dwight Howard were the “cornerstones of the Rockets.” Parsons didn’t take that jab lightly, calling Harden’s statement “pretty ridiculous.”
Parsons will soon get a chance to make Harden eat his words.
Cleveland Cavaliers @ Miami Heat, December 25
The Christmas day schedule is always one of the most heavily-anticipated events on the NBA schedule, and this year is no exception. The holidays are about eating, opening presents and spending quality time with family, but if you can steal a couple hours in front of the television make sure you tune in to watch the Cavaliers play the Heat at 5 p.m. EST, uh, witness Mike Miller play his old team, or something. But seriously, if you don’t know why this game is significant, then you’ve been living in a cave for the past three months.
In a recent interview with Bleacher Report, Dwyane Wade confessed that because of all the pressure to three-peat last season, playing basketball just wasn’t all that fun. But this year, Wade claims that there’s a “renewed focus and energy” around the team. Wade doesn’t mention it, but it’s easy to infer that the speculation about LeBron’s future last season also added to all the pressure.
LeBron James will return to South Beach to play the team that he won two NBA championships with and led to four straight NBA Finals. His departure from the Heat this summer didn’t come with the same kind of animosity that his exit from Cleveland in 2010 did, but Pat Riley was clearly disappointed that James decided to jump ship. The Heat without LeBron won’t be a championship contender, but with Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and newly added Luol Deng, they’ll still be a competitive team in the East. And they’ll want to win this game very badly.
Oklahoma City Thunder @ San Antonio Spurs, December 25
The San Antonio Spurs cruised to their fifth NBA title in July, playing a brand of basketball that left us all in awe. The Miami Heat, the team who had dealt the Spurs that devastating Finals loss in the previous season, were blown away by the Spurs’ shooting, ball movement and relentless energy. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs will be mentioned historically in the same breath as the ’73 Knicks, ’77 Trail Blazers, ’86 Celtics, ’87 Lakers and ’96 Bulls as one of the greatest teams of all time.
In the Western Conference Finals, however, the Spurs came up against the Oklahoma City Thunder, scraping past Kevin Durant and company after a Game 6 win in overtime. The Thunder, with athleticism to burn, are one of the few teams that can live with San Antonio’s thrilling ball movement—they have the speed to recover, plus two superstars who can hurt the Spurs at the other end in Durant and Westbrook. And remember, Serge Ibaka, the Thunder’s best defender, was injured in Games 1 and 2 of that series. If he’d been healthy, the outcome of the series could have been very different.
Expect the Thunder and Spurs to once again be the top-two team in the West this season.
Cleveland Cavaliers @ Minnesota Timberwolves, January 31
Once LeBron gets his Miami return out of the way, it’ll be Kevin Love’s turn to revisit his old stomping grounds. The Cavaliers will play their first and only game in Minnesota at the end of January and Love, despite leading the Timberwolves franchise in most statistical categories for the past four seasons, might get a hostile reception from the hometown faithful.
The Timberwolves got an excellent haul—as good as can be expected—from trading their star player. Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett should lead the team for the foreseeable future and the Wolves have a very exciting young core in place. But fans in Minnesota may still be bitter about Love’s departure. Love, despite his talents, failed to lead the team to playoff berth during his time in the league, and many have questioned his leadership abilities and qualities as a teammate.
And just to add some fuel to the fire, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor recently took some parting shots at his former franchise player on ESPN’s Mike & Mike. Taylor questioned whether Love was wise to move to Cleveland, adding “I think where maybe [Love] got away with some stuff not playing defence on our team. I’m not sure that’s how it’s going to work in Cleveland. I would guess they’re going to ask him to play more defence, and he’s foul prone.” Ouch. Love reluctantly responded to Taylor’s comments, essentially saying that his former owner should concentrate on his own team.
January 31 should be interesting.