Top NBA matchups to circle on your calendar this Winter
By Gage Smith, Contributor
There’s a reason NBA fans live for the playoffs. With blowouts plaguing final scores and coaches often sitting superstars, fans are tempted to sit out the big games themselves. The following games will crush the monotony of the long NBA season. Rivalries, history, head-to-head matchups, and other storylines can make it impossible to remember that the real games don’t start for a half year. No matter who you cheer for, these are some winter 2021 NBA matchups you won’t want to miss.
A few months ago, these teams treated us to one of the most entertaining first-round series of all time. Both were led by young superstar guards looking for a breakout playoff run, and they delivered in historic fashion. Jamal Murray of the Nuggets put on a scoring display that not many players in NBA history have been capable of: the 22-year-old Canadian averaged 31 points per game, including a 50-point outburst. He shot 55 per cent from the floor, 53 per cent from the three-point range, and 92 per cent from the free-throw line, and he wasn’t even the series’ highest scorer.
Twenty-three-year-old Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz averaged an unbelievable 36 points per game while shooting 53 per cent from the floor and 52 per cent from three, including two 50+ point explosions. His heroics weren’t enough to stop Murray and the Nuggets from coming back from a 3-1 series deficit to win in seven games.
Jan. 17 marks the first meeting between the teams since that bloodbath of a series, and neither has changed much since then. Expect Mitchell to hit the floor with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder.
Two titans of the Eastern Conference meet for the first time on Jan. 18. Two-time league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks were the favourites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA finals last season, only to be upset in the second round by the underdog Miami Heat in five games. Now, many are handing that crown to the new-look Nets. Led by all-time greats Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, the Nets are now a serious contender.
This matchup might be a 2021 Eastern Conference Finals preview, and there’s an interesting contrast in the superstars’ playstyles. Antetokounmpo has dominated the NBA with his unstoppable athleticism, while Durant and Irving lean much more on their ball-handling and outside shooting to find success. This game might not only reveal more about the Eastern Conference hierarchy, but also the most effective way to approach the game of basketball.
The Celtics and Sixers have one of the most iconic rivalries in professional sports, spanning back from the beginning of the NBA. But when the current young cores of Boston’s Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have met Philly’s Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in the playoffs, it hasn’t been so competitive. Boston has an 8-1 record against Philadelphia over their last two playoff meetings, including a 4-0 sweep in last year’s first round.
One coaching change and culture shift later, the Sixers hold the best record in the east as of Jan. 8. Simmons and Embiid will look to avenge their embarrassing playoff loss, and Boston will fight to keep their stranglehold over their longtime rivals. Expect a playoff atmosphere, a fight or two, and a close final score in Philadelphia on Jan. 22.
LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers sit on the basketball throne right now. After a dominant championship run in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, they somehow improved in the offseason by adding even more key role players. They look poised to repeat as champions, cement LeBron as a true contender for the unofficial title of the greatest player of all time, and surpass the Boston Celtics for most NBA championships in NBA history.
Two of LeBron’s greatest rivals stand in the way of all of that.
Kyrie Irving was a teammate of Lebron on the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers, the team that made history by coming back from down 3-1 against the 73-9 Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals to win the championship. It was probably the best thing LeBron has ever accomplished. He couldn’t have done it without Irving, who the very next season, forced his way out of Cleveland to lead his own team. This left LeBron on his own to face the Warriors dynasty the following year and get crushed in the Finals. That team was led by none other than Kevin Durant.
Durant has had the label of number two on him for almost his entire NBA career, largely seen as second only to LeBron as the world’s best player. In 2016, He left the team that drafted him, the OKC Thunder, to join the Warriors and crush James in the 2017 and 2018 Finals, but the label still largely sticks.
LeBron and his new running mate, elite big-man Anthony Davis, will face off against Irving, Durant, and the Nets for the first time in February. Two of the best teams in the league, some of the best individual rivalries in basketball, and a clash between New York and Los Angeles? No NBA fan will want to miss out on the action in LA on Feb. 18.
All stats courtesy of basketballreference.com.