Last year’s opening-night slate ended up being a microcosm of the NBA season as a whole: The Celtics looked like underdogs who could still hang with the East’s best, the Warriors’ armor had lost some of its shine, the Rockets had a chance to upset the champs, the Cavs … started three dudes who weren’t on the team by the trade deadline. But while opening-day schedules can set the tone, Christmas Day gives us a look at who the league thinks will still be interesting two months in. (A hint: It’s LeBron. It’s always LeBron.)
The NBA gave us a first glimpse of the 2018-19 season on Wednesday by dropping its national TV schedule for opening week, Christmas Day, and Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This season’s opening night, which will take place on October 16, will again feature two marquee matchups on TNT: Sixers vs. Celtics, and Warriors vs. Thunder. (Rockets vs. Pelicans and Suns vs. Mavericks will be featured the next night on ESPN.) And the five-game slate on Christmas Day will be Bucks vs. Knicks, Thunder vs. Rockets, Sixers vs. Celtics, Lakers vs. Warriors, and Blazers vs. Jazz. MLK Day will have Pelicans vs. Grizzlies, Rockets vs. 76ers, and Warriors vs. Lakers. Here are three takeaways from the matchups:
The Christmas Gift LeBron Never Asks For
The Lakers will be in Oakland for Christmas, continuing the now four-year tradition of LeBron James facing the Warriors on a day when he’d probably much rather be at home with his kids. Golden State holds the advantage in the holiday series, 2-1, and will almost certainly match its postseason record vs. LeBron (3-1—kind of an unfortunate reminder for the Warriors) this go-round. Surprisingly, the Lakers won’t play on the first or second nights of the season, but will kick off the LeBron era on October 18 in Portland. James hasn’t been knocked off the opening-night schedule since his return to Cleveland in 2014. Facing the Blazers, whose first-round performance against the Pelicans was as solid as cereal that’s been sitting in milk for two hours, in an away game three days in is a very non-Hollywood start for Bron’s start in Hollywood.
Throwing a Liter of Gas on a Former Flame
Scheduling Philadelphia vs. Boston for two of the most anticipated regular-season game nights is the league hooking an IV into one of its best former rivalries. (It was hard to keep that intensity going through five straight under-.500 finishes for Philly prior to 2017-18.) Opening night won’t be an exact rematch of last season’s second-round playoff series, though. Love Terry Rozier and [enter long wing here], but Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward should be fully recovered from their season-ending injuries, making it a more difficult matchup for Philadelphia—which was smothered in five games even with Irving and Hayward in street clothes.
Much like last year, opening night will be a litmus test for the top of the Eastern Conference. Both the Celtics and Sixers should challenge for pole position, but each enters the season with big questions. Boston will be tasked with reincorporating stars into the team that fell one game shy of the NBA Finals without them on the court. That could be a more difficult process than last year for Brad Stevens given Jaylen Brown’s unignorable growth, and with Jayson Tatum on the brink of a capital-b Breakout. Philly, meanwhile, will have to show progress on what handcuffed its offense in the playoffs—being limited in transition, and not finding, or taking, quality 3s—against the very Celtics defense that stymied it.
Taking the Thunder Seriously
Something feels off about suggesting this is the season Oklahoma City “makes the jump”—maybe because Russell Westbrook was crowned MVP two seasons ago, maybe because the team was supposed to have a “Big Three” last year. But with Paul George back, Carmelo Anthony gone, and Dennis Schröder in as Westbrook’s new backup, the Thunder may finally have the right mix to threaten the Western Conference hierarchy.
The reshuffled lineup’s potential likely won’t be realized by opening night against the Warriors. A potentially elite defense depends on Andre Roberson, who ruptured the patellar tendon in his left knee in January, being healthy (he is currently expected to participate in training camp); and the fiery personalities of Schröder and Westbrook might take some time to sync up. But the matchup against Houston on Christmas is far enough into the season that it may just give us a more accurate look at whether or not OKC can snatch the first-runner-up crown away from the Rockets, who lost enough valuable pieces to possibly lose their spot in line. (And Rockets, should you lose, there’s no re-gifting Carmelo.)