Lakers vs. Clippers
Thursday, July 30 – 9PM ET
What a treat that by sheer coincidence the two heavy favorites in the West match up on (re-)opening night. Who could have anticipated this?
When we left off in March, the Lakers had just earned their first win over the Clippers in three tries. That came two nights after the Lakers took down Milwaukee and – deserving or not – began to emerge as the prohibitive Finals favorite. Oddsmakers still view LeBron and Co. as the best bet, but the margins are thin. This final meeting could go a long way toward influencing how each LA team is appraised as the playoffs draw nearer. - Nick Whalen
76ers vs. Pacers
Saturday, August 1 – 7PM ET
Matchup-wise, this maybe isn't the most appealing game, but this will be our first look at two teams with major injury questions to answer. When we last saw the Sixers, both Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons were banged-up, with the latter nursing a relatively severe back injury. By all accounts, both of Philly's stars should be good to go, but how will a nearly five-month layoff impact a team that never truly put together a consistent stretch of basketball?
Like the Sixers, there's a case to be made that the Pacers will be among the teams to benefit from the layoff. Since making his return from injury in January, Victor Oladpio never fully regained his previous form, though he'd begun to find his shooting stroke just before the shutdown. Even so, Oladipo's leg forced him to miss four of Indiana's final nine games, so the additional time off could play to his favor. - Nick Whalen
Bucks vs. Rockets
Sunday, August 2 8:30PM – ET
Sitting 6.5 games ahead of Toronto, the Bucks need only two wins to clinch the top seed in the East. If Milwaukee beats Boston on Friday night, this could be the Bucks' opportunity to officially wrap up the top spot. That also means it could be the last time we see Milwaukee at full strength until the playoffs. That's not to suggest that the Bucks would go as far as to hold Giannis Antetokounmpo out of six consecutive games, but they will almost certainly manage the MVP's workload, just as they did during the first five months of the regular season. The same goes for other key contributors like Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews and Eric Bledsoe.
For the Rockets, this could be their single biggest test before the postseason. Houston opens up against Dallas on July 31, and also faces off with the Lakers and 76ers, but containing Antetokounmpo without a true rim-protector will be a tall task. These two teams haven't faced each other since opening night back on Oct. 24. - Nick Whalen
Raptors vs. Heat
Monday, August 3 – 1:30PM ET
This should be a well-fought battle between a pair of Tier 2 Eastern Conference squads who will be looking to gain momentum heading into the postseason. It will feature interesting matchups between Pascal Siakam vs. Jimmy Butler and Marc Gasol vs. Bam Adebayo. We'll also get a better sample size for how Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder fit with Miami. The Heat have won both previous games against the Raptors by a combined 19 points. Toronto was sans Siakam in the latter game, however, which was a slugfest that ended up 84-76.
Neither team needs this win necessarily. Given the current seeding of the East, the Heat should probably try to position themselves to avoid the 76ers in Round 1, which could actually require losses if both Boston and Philadelphia play poorly. Regardless, any extra time spent playing a potential playoff opponent is well spent, and that's what we'll get to see here. - Alex Barutha
Grizzlies vs. Pelicans
Monday, August 3 – 6:30PM ET
This is probably the most important game for both teams in the race for the final playoff spot in the West. Memphis has enough of a cushion (3.5 games) that this won't be a must-win, but every game the Grizzlies and Pelicans play in Orlando will feel extra important.
For New Orleans, it's not just about keeping pace with the Grizzlies – the Pels will also need to hold off the Kings and Trail Blazers, who are both very much in contention for that final spot. With Zion Williamson in the lineup, the Pelicans fielded a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, but they finished just one game over .500 in his 19 starts. Working in New Orleans' favor is a relatively soft schedule that finishes with matchups against Sacramento, Washington, San Antonio, Sacramento again, and Orlando. - Nick Whalen
Mavericks vs. Kings
Tuesday, August 4 – 2:30PM ET
Oddsmakers don't have a lot of faith in the Kings, who are +850 to land eighth in the Western Conference Playoff picture. After facing the Spurs and the Magic – two very winnable games – the Kings face off against the Mavericks, which will be Sacramento's first real test in the bubble and an opportunity to make a statement while going 3-0.
De'Aaron Fox's availability is an important factor. He's played just the sixth-most minutes on the team while dealing with injury, and during his two times facing the Mavericks, he totaled 43 points on 33 shots, 16 assists to four turnovers, 10 rebounds, two steals and one block. When everyone is available, the Kings should be just as good as the Grizzlies.
If the Kings can pull off the upset against the Mavericks, they should have a good opportunity to make it into the postseason. After Dallas, Sacramento plays New Orleans, Brooklyn, Houston, New Orleans again and the Lakers. Those games against the Pelicans will be especially crucial. - Alex Barutha
Rockets vs. Trail Blazers
Tuesday, August 4 – 9PM ET
If the Trail Blazers want to sneak into the eighth seed, they'll need every win they can get. Playing the Rockets won't just be a difficult matchup, but it will be a very drastic clash in styles – one that could inform us about the weaknesses of each squad.
The Rockets are the definition of small-ball. Six-foot-five PJ Tucker plays most of Houston's center minutes. The Trail Blazers, on the other hand, have the best center duo in the NBA with the return of Jusuf Nurkic. However, both Nurkic and Hassan Whiteside are traditional – some would say lumbering – centers. Can the Rockets be dominated by that kind of inside presence? Can the Blazers be torn apart by a five-out offense? - Alex Barutha
Bucks vs. Heat
Thursday, August 6 – 4PM ET
What the Heat lack in talent compared to the Bucks, they make up for in advantageous matchups. Two of the Bucks' 12 losses have come at the hands of the Heat. As much as any team in the league, Miami makes Giannis Antetokounmpo uncomfortable.
Against the Heat this season, Giannis is shooting just 46.2 percent from the field and only has one more assist than turnovers. Bam Adebayo has been hounding him. Against Adebayo, specifically, it's taken Giannis 23 shots to get 17 points, and he has only three assists to two turnovers. Over the past three seasons, Giannis has 52 points on 47 shots and eight assists to six turnovers against Adebayo, which is far below his usual play. We can also expect a swarm of wing defenders – Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Andre Iguodala – to try to get under Khris Middleton's skin. He's shooting just 34.4 percent against the Heat and has an even assist-to-turnover ratio.
I won't go as far to say we should be picking Miami over Milwaukee in a playoff series. But this is a matchup worth watching if you're interested in seeing how the Bucks adjust to a team that clearly bothers them. - Alex Barutha