While it is easy to skip ahead and focus on the potential NBA playoff matchups when the season resumes in Orlando, there are sure to be some thrilling moments in the final games of the regular season (eight for each of the 22 teams heading into the bubble) before we get to the postseason.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks appear locks to finish with the number one seeds in their respective conferences, but almost everything else is up for grabs during what the NBA has dubbed “seeding games”. Though home court advantage is a non-factor in what will be neutral site series, there is a cluster of teams in the Western Conference surely eager to avoid the LA Clippers (currently second) in the first round. Likewise, there will be some fascinating jockeying for position in the middle of the Eastern Conference standings.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. LA Clippers (Thursday July 30)
The NBA wisely put this blockbuster matchup on July 30 to headline the league’s return to action. With the Lakers and Clippers expected to face off in the Western Conference Finals, this is another chance to evaluate how the LeBron James-Anthony Davis duo matches up with the Kawhi Leonard-Paul George one-two punch – and if the Clippers still have an edge in bench depth. Much may depend on whether Lou Williams decides to opt out of the rest of the season.
Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans (Friday July 31)
The race for the number eight seed in the West is one of the biggest reasons for excitement about the structure of the NBA restart, with these two teams heading for a potential play-in series. The Pelicans have the friendlier schedule in Orlando, but a win here would certainly help their cause. Plus, we get to see rookie phenoms Zion Williamson and Ja Morant go toe-to-toe. Either team could give the Lakers a scare in the first round.
Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks (Friday July 31)
The Rockets are all-in on small ball after the Clint Capela-Robert Covington trade, but that had mixed results prior to the NBA hiatus. That said, they have two of the most devastating one-on-one players in the league in James Harden and Russell Westbrook – and that surely has a little extra value in this unprecedented format where preparation time will be limited. A win here will be critical for the Mavericks in their bid to climb up from the seventh seed, and it will be our first chance to check in on Luka Doncic’s conditioning after the long layoff.
Indiana Pacers vs. Philadelphia 76ers (Saturday August 1)
As up-and-down as the 76ers have been this year, the talent is still there for a deep postseason run. In addition to this being a possible first round playoff showdown, it will tell us a lot about the health of the teams’ key men. For Indiana, there are still some question marks over Victor Oladipo’s fitness while Malcolm Brogdon has battled through a string of different knocks. On the Philadelphia side, their dark horse title chances receive a major boost with Ben Simmons expected to return from his back injury. An in-shape Joel Embiid would make the 76ers a serious threat in the East.
Toronto Raptors vs. Boston Celtics (Friday August 7)
Unless one of these teams slumps in Orlando, the Raptors and Celtics are on a collision course for the second round of the playoffs. The clash may give us a few hints about how that series might play out, and whether Pascal Siakam and Jayson Tatum – two rising superstars – can click back into top gear. Keep an eye, too, on how Kemba Walker looks after some nagging knee pain earlier in the season. For Toronto, who dealt with wretched injury luck this year, the rotation decisions will be interesting with the full roster available to head coach Nick Nurse.