Must-see NBA games of 2011-12
The NBA released its 66-game schedule; season begins on Christmas Day
There are 42 back-to-back-to-backs, compared to 64 in 1998-99 season
Among top games: Thunder-Grizzlies rematch, Deron Williams' return to Utah
The NBA is back. On Tuesday, the league released its compacted 66-game schedule, filled with enough back-to-back-to-backs (42 overall, compared to 64 in the 50-game 1998-99 season) to make players groan and coach-class-flying beat writers groan even louder. Here's a look at a 10 interesting dates:
Fans won't have to wait long for a continuation of the Thunder's epic seven-game Western Conference semifinals win over the Grizzlies. However, both teams will look a little different this time around. The Grizzlies will try to re-incorporate Rudy Gay into a lineup that went 15-10 without him down the stretch last season because of a shoulder injury. The Thunder, meanwhile, will have a slimmed-down Kendrick Perkins anchoring a defense that should improve after finishing 15th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions (107.2).
Get a good look, Otis Smith. With the Nets expected to be among the leading candidates to land Dwight Howard should the Magic decide to trade him, New Jersey's first trip to Orlando will give the Magic brass an up-close look at Brook Lopez, the likely centerpiece of any Nets offer. A spectacular game from Deron Williams wouldn't hurt the Nets' chances of enticing Howard to stay long-term, either.
It won't mean much in the standings -- neither the Jazz nor the Nets are expected to contend this season -- but Williams' return to the city where he spent the first 5 _ years of his career is sure to be an emotionally charged event. Despite a rocky ending in which some blamed Williams for the exit of long-time coach Jerry Sloan, expect a warm reception for the All-Star guard.
Former Celtics center Kendrick Perkins might get the loudest ovation for a visitor since Robert Parish returned to the Garden wearing his familiar "00" on a teal Hornets uniform in 1994. More importantly for the Thunder, the trip to Boston will be their first test against an Eastern Conference power.
Jimmer-mania returns to Utah. As one of the most popular college basketball players in the state's history, Jimmer Fredette will make his first appearance as a pro, with the Kings. If the chemistry between him and Tyreke Evans comes together in training camp, it could change the face of the struggling franchise. For Jazz rookie Alec Burks, it's a chance to prove Utah was smart not to trade up for the hometown hero.
John Wall vs. Derrick Rose, possibly in front of President Barack Obama. The Wizards' chances of beating one of the conference's expected elite could hinge on the development of rookie Jan Vesely, Washington's lanky 21-year-old forward who could be thrown into the fire right away.
Lakers-Celtics. Celtics-Lakers The mere mention of the matchup evokes and emotional response. The two long-time rivals will meet twice this season, first in Boston, where Rajon Rondo (9.7 points, 9.8 assists per game all-time against the Lakers) will look to exploit L.A.'s aging backcourt.
The second of two meetings between the NBA's glamour teams could look a lot different than the first. Why? Because the Lakers, who are in hot pursuit of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, may revamp the roster after the late February trade deadline if the two are with their respective teams that long. Miami will try to address its issues before the season when it scours the market for any and all point guards and centers.
LeBron James loves to play at Madison Square Garden. Well, as a visitor anyway. James is always a threat to score 50 at MSG, and the Heat's lone visit to New York could have serious playoff implications. The Knicks' new weapon against James and the Heat is assistant coach Mike Woodson, the new de facto defensive coordinator who was the architect of Detroit's 2004 title-winning D.
The Sixers, possible dark horses in the East, finish a five-game season-ending road trip in Detroit. The Pistons game caps an especially brutal four-games-in-six-nights stretch for the 76ers. In what is expected to be a competitive conference playoff race, a strong finish could push them into a top-six seed.