Games we can’t wait to see in the NBA’s first half of 2020-21

The NBA schedule has been released for the first half of the 2020-21 season. The regular season tips off on Dec. 22, 72 days after the Los Angeles Lakers hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble. Since then, we’ve had the NBA draft, a flurry of coaching changes and a condensed free-agency season.

Here are the most important games for the NBA’s First Half, which will run from Dec. 22 to March 4, including star-studded matchups, reunions and rivalry showdowns.

Note: The NBA’s Second Half, which is scheduled to run from March 11 to May 16, will be announced at a later date. Our list of games to watch does not include the five Christmas Day games, which were revealed on Wednesday.

MORE: What we’re most excited to see on Christmas Day

First-week fireworks

Golden State Warriors at Brooklyn Nets
Dec. 22, 7 p.m. ET | TNT

Kevin Durant, fully recovered from the ruptured Achilles he suffered in the 2019 Finals, faces former teammates Stephen Curry and Draymond Green for the first time since leaving the Warriors. The matchup also features the NBA debut of No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman for Golden State and the head-coaching debut of Steve Nash for Brooklyn.

The Nets also travel to San Francisco on Feb. 13 for Durant’s first game inside the Chase Center (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC). — Nick Friedell

LA Clippers at Los Angeles Lakers
Dec. 22, 10 p.m. ET | TNT

We never got the Battle of L.A. in the postseason, as the Clippers fell woefully short with their 3-1 collapse to the Nuggets, but the Staples Center rivalry got hotter in the offseason with Montrezl Harrell switching sides and joining the defending champs. The Lakers bolstered their title defense by adding the Sixth Man of the Year, as well as Sixth Man runner-up Dennis Schroder.

Another wrinkle added to the Clippers-Lakers matchup is new coach Ty Lue facing his former star in LeBron James. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George watched James and Anthony Davis win it all. Now they will try to show the defending champs that they are still the Lakers’ biggest competition. — Ohm Youngmisuk

Washington Wizards at Philadelphia 76ers
Dec. 23, 7 p.m. ET

After four playoff appearances but no Eastern Conference finals trips together, the Bradley Beal-John Wall era is over in D.C. Now, the Wizards usher in the Beal-Westbrook era when Russell Westbrook makes his Wizards debut. Washington hopes that reuniting Westbrook with his former Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks will revive some of Westbrook’s MVP play. Westbrook will bring the kind of aggression and energy that D.C. will appreciate. Ninth overall pick Deni Avdija will also make his Washington debut. — Youngmisuk

Milwaukee Bucks at Boston Celtics
Dec. 23, 7:30 p.m. ET | TNT

Milwaukee believes that this is finally the year for Giannis Antetokounmpo. We’ll get our first look at Jrue Holiday and see whether he can take some pressure off the reigning back-to-back MVP on both ends of the floor. The organization gambled its future on acquiring Holiday in the hopes that the veteran guard can be the missing piece that Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton need in the playoffs. For the Celtics, this is the first chance to see just how much they’ll miss Kemba Walker — who will be out for a few months because of a left knee injury — and Gordon Hayward, who agreed to a four-year, $120 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets last week. — Friedell

Oklahoma City Thunder at Houston Rockets
Dec. 23, 8 p.m. ET

It’s been two years since John Wall last played in a game on Dec. 26, 2018. Now his long-awaited return will also be his Houston Rockets debut. Wall will have to adapt to playing alongside James Harden, but the two had been seen together in the same basketball runs in offseason workout videos. And Wall is very familiar with fellow Kentucky Wildcats alum DeMarcus Cousins. Before the trade, Washington GM Tommy Sheppard and coach Scott Brooks raved about Wall’s quickness and improved outside shooting. — Youngmisuk

Dallas Mavericks at LA Clippers
Dec. 27, 3:30 p.m. ET | NBATV

The last time these teams matched up, we got a rare “double bang” from ESPN’s Mike Breen as Luka Doncic hit a vicious step-back game winner in Game 4 of the first round of the playoffs. The Clippers eventually prevailed, but Doncic firmly cemented himself as one of the game’s elites, standing eye-to-eye with Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Doncic’s near perfectly rounded offensive game against the length and prowess of the Clippers’ wings is what basketball goods are all about. — Royce Young

Must-see games of the first half

Milwaukee Bucks at Miami Heat
Dec. 29, 7:30 p.m. ET | TNT
Dec. 30, 7:30 p.m. ET | NBATV

Giannis Antetokounmpo will be looking for revenge after Jimmy Butler and the Heat knocked the Bucks from the second round of the bubble playoffs. The Heat believe they can pick up where they left off and return to the NBA Finals, but to do so, they’ll have to go through a Bucks team that hopes new addition Jrue Holiday will be the postseason difference-maker the organization has been missing. For the Heat, they try to prove they can play at the same high level outside of the Orlando bubble. — Friedell

Portland Trail Blazers at LA Clippers
Dec. 30, 10 p.m. ET | NBATV

Fans, no fans; bubble, no bubble — NBA beef is NBA beef. And the Blazers and Clippers have some beef. The dustup last summer in the bubble with Patrick Beverley and Damian Lillard spilled into ruthless Instagram clapbacks, with Lillard dunking on Paul George. Then, as the Clippers melted down in seven games to the Nuggets, both Lillard and CJ McCollum let the tweets fly. Now, it’s back to letting your game do the talking, something Lillard and McCollum are pretty good at, too. — Young

Boston Celtics at Miami Heat
Jan. 6, 7:30 p.m. ET | ESPN

The Celtics get an opportunity to avenge their Eastern Conference finals loss to the Heat — but this matchup will be uneven, with the news that Kemba Walker will be out for several months after a stem cell injection in his left knee. It will be up to Jayson Tatum to shoulder even more of the offensive load in Walker’s absence, and it will be interesting to see him square off against Bam Adebayo again.

Adebayo stuffed Tatum at the rim to close out Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, creating one of the most memorable defensive plays in recent playoff history. — Friedell

Utah Jazz at Denver Nuggets
Jan. 17, 8 p.m. ET

The last time these two teams met, Jamal Murray and Donovan Mitchell provided historic fireworks inside the bubble in a seven-game first-round duel. The two budding stars each scored 50 twice against each other during their battle, with Murray and the Nuggets completing a 3-1 comeback.

Mitchell and Murray will renew their duel this season, each looking to take another step forward, with Murray coming off his Western Conference finals run and Mitchell having just signed a five-year, $195 million extension. — Youngmisuk

Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets
Jan. 18, 7:30 p.m. ET | TNT

Giannis vs. KD. It doesn’t get much better. Both MVPs are responsible for changing the game in their own way. Durant, in his first healthy season as a Net — gets to measure his rehabbed game against the Greek big man who could be on the verge of staying in Milwaukee long term. Storylines are abound in this matchup between two of the game’s brightest stars. — Friedell

Golden State Warriors at Los Angeles Lakers
Jan. 18, 10 p.m. ET | TNT

One of the most star-studded rivalries in the game renews this season as Stephen Curry — who missed almost all of last season because of a broken left hand — squares off with LeBron James and the Lakers. It’s the showcase game for two of the league’s most popular players. It’s also going to be a role reversal for Curry.

After years of dominating James in the postseason, it’s he who sits atop the NBA world and Curry who is leading a team full of untested pieces that have to come together and pick up the slack for injured All-Star Klay Thompson, who will miss another season after tearing his right Achilles tendon last month. — Friedell

Boston Celtics at Philadelphia 76ers
Jan. 20, 7 p.m. ET | ESPN
Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m. ET | ESPN

The classic Eastern Conference rivalry element always adds flavor, but recent history adds fuel to the fire. They’ve found each other in the postseason the past couple of seasons, with the Celtics most recently sweeping the Sixers in the bubble. Philly’s early exit ended up forcing a reset, with Brett Brown being replaced by Doc Rivers at head coach and a front office shake-up with new president of basketball operations Daryl Morey arriving soon after.

It’s a tone-setting conference showdown, the kind that engineers all sorts of early reactions and takeaways. In other words, the best kind of regular-season game. — Young

Washington Wizards at Houston Rockets
Jan. 26, 8 p.m. ET | NBATV

Well, this game suddenly became interesting. The swap of Russell Westbrook and John Wall is fascinating on a number of levels in terms of fit, but it’s also largely about whom they’ll now be facing. It’s not a bad-blood kind of thing, with James Harden vs. Westbrook or Bradley Beal vs. Wall, but there obviously wasn’t a connection anymore in the duos. Now Rockets fans can get back to some sense of normalcy and dislike Westbrook again. Oh, and the last time these two teams played, this happened. — Young

Los Angeles Lakers at Philadelphia 76ers
Jan. 27, 7:30 p.m. ET | ESPN

The tears will likely be flowing on this night given it’s just one day after the one-year anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s death. Bryant always seemed to enjoy the challenge of putting on a show in his hometown of Philadelphia, and now LeBron James and Anthony Davis will surely try to do the same in his honor. New Sixers coach Doc Rivers also shared a strong bond with Bryant and will look to have his young team ready to play on what figures to be an emotional night. A month into the season, it will be interesting to see how Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons rise to the challenge against LeBron and the champs. — Friedell

Milwaukee Bucks at New Orleans Pelicans
Jan. 29, 7:30 p.m. ET | ESPN

This matchup features Zion Williamson vs. back-to-back MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, a battle of Marvel characters dressed as basketball players. It’s also a reunion game for Jrue Holiday, who was a beloved figure in the Pelicans’ locker room and New Orleans community during his seven seasons with the franchise. There’s no question he’ll be getting the full video-tribute treatment before tipoff. — Young

Los Angeles Lakers at Boston Celtics
Jan. 30, 8:30 p.m. ET | ABC

On paper, the Lakers look even better than they did a year ago. They’re deeper than they’ve been with the additions of Montrezl Harrell, Wes Matthews and Marc Gasol, and they have the confidence that comes only after winning a title. In a season chock full of condensed games and uncertainty, expect LeBron & Co. to get up for this one against their longtime rival. The Celtics may not have Kemba Walker back for this one, but they still have Jayson Tatum, who will be looking to put on a show after signing his max extension before the season. Same goes for Anthony Davis, who signed his own max extension and has become the most dominant big man in the game. The star power and lingering tension in this rivalry should make it interesting. — Friedell

Denver Nuggets at Los Angeles Lakers
Feb. 4, 10 p.m. ET | TNT

The Nuggets’ Western Conference finals experience was shorter than they would have liked, but the five games they had against the Lakers were priceless. LeBron James and Anthony Davis showed Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic firsthand what it took to play at a championship level. Both teams have made changes going into this rematch, with the Lakers upgrading their title defense with Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder. Jerami Grant, Mason Plumlee and Torrey Craig left Denver, but former Clipper JaMychal Green brings toughness. — Youngmisuk

Brooklyn Nets at Los Angeles Lakers
Feb. 18, 10 p.m. ET | TNT

Starpower, storylines, past teammates, individual rivalries — exactly everything you want in a regular season game. Kyrie vs. LeBron, LeBron vs. KD. For the Nets, though, it represents a measurement opportunity against the defending champs. The Lakers are the standard, with their superduo setting the bar. The Nets hope their star combo can replicate it. — Young

Dallas Mavericks at Houston Rockets
Feb. 19, 9:30 p.m. ET | ESPN

The back-and-forth offensive lightshow between Luka and Harden is must-see for hoops lovers. Step-backs, side-steps, Euro-steps — all the steps. Sure, there might be a free throw or two, but if it’s close in the final minutes, one will be lining up against the other on a switch, and delicious iso crunchtime possessions will be on tap. — Young

Miami Heat at Los Angeles Lakers
Feb. 20, 8:30 p.m. ET | ABC

After playing until the end of the bubble, you wonder how much energy both teams are going to have early in the season. The good thing about this Finals rematch is that Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic are expected to be healthy after dealing with various injuries during the teams’ Finals showdown in October. Both teams will look a little different — the Lakers added Sixth Man stalwarts Harrell and Schroder, along with veterans Marc Gasol and Wes Matthews, while the Heat added Moe Harkless and former Laker Avery Bradley — but another showdown between LeBron James and Jimmy Butler is why you watch this one. — Friedell

Brooklyn Nets at LA Clippers
Feb. 21, 8 p.m. ET | ESPN

This game offers another glimpse into what could have been an intriguing matchup in the 2019 NBA Finals between Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Durant, who only played briefly in Game 5 of that series before tearing his Achilles, returns for his first matchup with Leonard since both switched conferences. Durant and the Nets are hoping to get out to a fast start behind Kyrie Irving, while Leonard and Paul George are banking on changing the narrative surrounding the Clippers’ meltdown in last season’s playoffs. Both Durant and Leonard come into this season — and this game — with much to prove. — Friedell

Brooklyn Nets at Houston Rockets
March 3, 7:30 p.m. ET | ESPN

If James Harden remains on the Rockets to this point, it’ll be a good game between two star-driven teams with lots of scoring and lots of skill. But it will also carry some juicy procedural context: The trade deadline could come a few days after it. And with the Nets and Harden apparently in some kind of open flirtation, all eyes will be on how he, Durant and Kyrie spend the game interacting. Or maybe something nuts happens and this is the game Harden plays against his old team. This is the NBA after all. — Young

Rookie debuts, and a sibling rivalry

Detroit Pistons at Minnesota Timberwolves
Dec. 23, 8 p.m. ET

By No. 1-pick standards, the hype is light around Anthony Edwards‘ debut, but he’s still the top overall pick, and this is still the kind of thing you want to see — especially when the Wolves will be pretty much an all-new squad anyway. After their trade acquiring D’Angelo Russell last season, they got only one game with him alongside Karl-Anthony Towns. Now they add the top pick in Edwards, and there’s intrigue in what these young Wolves will look like out of the gates. — Young

Charlotte Hornets at Cleveland Cavaliers
Dec. 23, 7 p.m. ET

While he doesn’t enter the NBA with the enormous expectations that Lonzo Ball did in 2017 as the No. 2 overall pick, LaMelo Ball will make his anticipated NBA debut against Cleveland. And perhaps it is a good thing that the No. 3 overall pick doesn’t have the pressure that Lonzo had as a rookie with the Lakers. LaMelo saw the intense microscope that Lonzo played under and will have the benefit of his older brother giving him tips on navigating the NBA for the first time. LaMelo will have room to grow with the Hornets, who can use all of his flashy highlight-reel plays this season. — Youngmisuk

Charlotte Hornets at New Orleans Pelicans
Jan. 8, 7:30 p.m. ET | ESPN

LaVar Ball has gotten plenty wrong. But LaVar can boast and beam all he wants when the Pelicans and Hornets meet for the first time because he did get one thing unquestionably right — he produced two NBA lottery picks. The Ball family will celebrate when Lonzo and LaMelo meet for the first time this season. While LaMelo is just starting out, Lonzo will be trying to lead the Pelicans to a playoff berth with Zion Williamson in his second season. — Youngmisuk

Every team’s schedule

Atlantic: BOS | BKN | NYK | PHI | TOR
Central: CHI | CLE | DET | IND | MIL
Southeast: ATL | CHA | MIA | ORL | WAS
Pacific: GS | LAC | LAL | PHX | SAC
Southwest: DAL | HOU | MEM | NO | SA
Northwest: DEN | MIN | OKC | POR | UTAH

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