Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Kawhi Leonard Feature In Most Important NBA Restart Games

Last week, the NBA revealed its 22-team format to continue and conclude the 2019-2020 regular season, with the 8th and 9th place teams in each conference having a chance at a play-in series to secure the final playoff spots.

Each team will play eight regular season games, with the schedule continuing from when the season was suspended on March 11. Obviously, those schedules will skip over the eight teams not going to Orlando for the July 31 restart, Charlotte, Chicago, New York, Detroit, Atlanta and Cleveland in the East and Minnesota and Golden State out West.

A play-in tournament is triggered if the 9th place team in each conference is within four games of the 8th seed at the conclusion of the eight-game seeding/regular season schedule. Tiebreakers will likely be settled by winning percentage. In the event of a play-in tournament, the 9th place team would have to beat the 8th seed twice. The 8th seed only has to win once to clinch a postseason berth.

Here’s a spreadsheet look at how the schedule will likely work, with a couple of caveats:

As Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press pointed out last week, some teams will have finished their eight-game schedule before other teams can play them, leaving a bit of a shortfall in the system.

Assuming Reynolds is correct, Portland will likely play the Lakers once and either Miami or Orlando to make up their two games. Same with Los Angeles.

Okay, now that the nuanced details are sorted through, here are the most important games, not necessarily the best games, that will decide the seeding and playoff races. Keep in mind that the Lakers, Bucks, Raptors and Celtics are pretty secure in their respective seedings, so they won’t be on this list. Nor will Washington, who’s pretty far back in the East, or San Antonio and Phoenix, who have to jump too many West teams to garner serious consideration:

Game 1, Utah Jazz vs Oklahoma City Thunder

Let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?

Utah and OKC were supposed to play for 4th place in the West on March 11 when Rudy Gobert’s positive coronavirus test suspended the game and the NBA season. We haven’t played since, but the Jazz have had to help mend the relationship between Gobert and All-Star teammate Donovan Mitchell, who also tested positive for COVID-19. Utah also has to return without second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic, who will miss the rest of the season following wrist surgery.

The Thunder were supposed to be rebuilding following the offseason trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook, but Chris Paul returned to All-Star form and a three-guard lineup featuring CP3, Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have pushed OKC to 40-24. Just one game separates these two, and the Thunder are tied with 6th place Houston and 1.5 games ahead of 7th place Dallas.

Game 1, Memphis Grizzlies vs Portland Trailblazers

The young Grizzlies weren’t supposed to be this good so soon, but Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and a cohesive group led by head coach Taylor Jenkins has a 3.5 game lead over Portland, New Orleans and Sacramento for 8th in the West.

Portland has dealt with long-term injuries to guys like Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins and Rodney Hood, but this 22-team field breathes new life into the Blazers’ season. Damian Lillard is rested, Nurkic and Collins will return and the Blazers have a win percentage advantage over the Pelicans and Kings, meaning they have to have a better record than PDX to get a shot at the play-in tourney. This game will go a long way toward setting that early tone.

Game 1, New Orleans Pelicans vs Sacramento Kings

Some skeptics will say that the only reason more teams were brought to Orlando so we can get more of Zion Williamson.

The electrifying Pels rookie sensation will lead a team that leads the Kings by a tiebreaker and trails the Blazers by a single percentage point. Can he, All-Star Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, J.J. Redick and co get off on the right foot?

Sacto has shown signs of light this season led by De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, a now healthy Marvin Bagley III and upcoming free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic. It’s the first of two games between these two teams in Orlando, and possibly a must-win if the Kings want to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2005-2006 season.

Game 1, Indiana Pacers vs Philadelphia 76ers

The two teams are tied for 5th in the East and two games behind Miami for 4th. There are numerous interesting dynamics at play here.

Indiana was starting to incorporate Victor Oladipo into its lineup after returning from a lengthy rehab following a torn ACL, and will need to fit him in with All-Star Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon and Myles Turner. The Pacers are damn good if they can get their chemistry right.

The same, of course, can be said for Philly, who will have a rested Joel Embiid. But how does he fit with Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris and can the Sixers get Al Horford on track or will he continue to be a $100 million free agency bust?

Another factor for Philadelphia? It was 29-2 at home and 10-24 on the road. How will the team play in Orlando without the home crowd? The pressure on the Sixers and head coach Brett Brown will be immense.

Also interesting is the race for 6th, and the chance to avoid top seed Milwaukee until the conference finals. Will there be tanking going on at Disney?

Game 2, Miami Heat vs Indiana Pacers

Continuing with this Eastern Conference theme, Miami leads Indiana and Philadelphia by two games. The Heat can also avoid Milwaukee’s side of the bracket by catching Boston, who they trail by 2.5 games and play towards the end of the seeding schedule (honorable mention on the important games list).

Miami’s had an impressive season behind Jimmy Butler, first time All-Star Bam Adebayo and a young core led by Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn. But the Heat also suffer from an interesting home/road split, with 27 of their 41 wins coming in South Florida.

But I assume the league will give some sort of advantage to go with being a higher seed, so the matchup will be interesting to see who gets that edge.

Game 2/5, Brooklyn Nets vs Orlando Magic

The Nets lead the Magic by just a half game for 7th in the East and will play each other twice during this eight-game seeding sprint. Based on Orlando skipping a lot of bad teams on its original schedule, it’ll be playing Brooklyn in its second and fourth games, while it’ll be the fifth and seventh games for the Nets. It’s complicated.

Regardless, Brooklyn won’t have Kyrie Irving or Kevin Durant back this season under interim head coach Jacque Vaughn, who used to coach Orlando. But they’ll still have a cohesive unit led by Spencer Dinwiddie, Caris LeVert, Joe Harris and DeAndre Jordan to face off against a team playing in its home city but not its home arena.

Orlando has a nice group under Steve Clifford, with All-Star Nikola Vucevic joining upcoming free agent Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Jonathan Isaac and the resurgent Markelle Fultz.

Washington is six games behind Brooklyn and 5.5 games behind Orlando, but the Wizards only need to get to four games behind to trigger the play-in tournament. Neither the Nets nor Magic want to be in the position where they have to play those games, so these two matchups will be critical.

Game 3/4, Los Angeles Clippers vs Denver Nuggets

The Clips lead the Nuggets by 1.5 games for the West’s 2nd seed, and it’ll be interesting to see how long it’ll take for Kawhi Leonard and Los Angeles to gel after a long layoff.

They have the league’s deepest team alongside Leonard and Paul George, with Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Marcus Morris and Patrick Beverley leading the charge. That could be huge as teams acclimate back to a condensed regular and postseason.

But this game is much more important for Denver, with L.A. likely getting second and not jumping the rival Lakers, who the Clips trail by 5.5 games. The Nuggets are 3rd in the West but are just four games ahead of 7th place Dallas, and need to get a fit and active Nikola Jokic to go alongside an improving Jamal Murray if they want to stay out of 4th or 5th, which would likely mean a second round date with the Lakers.

Game 4, Denver Nuggets vs Oklahoma City Thunder

This will be the first of two matchups between two teams that could easily be first round opponents as well. The teams split their two regular season encounters to date, with an interesting similarity in styles.

Both teams are close to the top 10 in defensive efficiency and are in the bottom third in pace and 3-pointers made per game. How will Jokic deal with Steven Adams in the middle, and who will win the Murray-Paul matchup. Denver has superior depth, but both are long rangy teams who thrive in the halfcourt. These two games will go a long way toward how the middle of the West playoff pack stacks up, as does the following matchup.

Game 4/6, Houston Rockets vs Dallas Mavericks

The other part of our wacky middle of the West playoff teams, Houston is tied with OKC for 5th, a game behind Utah in 4th and 2.5 behind Denver for 3rd. The Rockets will continue its small ball, 6-foot-7 or less experiment led by a well rested James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Eric Gordon, Robert Covington and P.J. Tucker.

It’ll be interesting to see where Houston lands, because it’ll have to likely play a team with a dominant big man in the first round, either against Jokic and Denver, Adams and OKC or Gobert and Utah. With Mike D’Antoni on the last year of his contract, the pressure is on the Rockets to make a deep postseason run, and even that may not save his job.

In North Texas, the Mavs are ahead of schedule and playing with house money since they can’t drop beyond 7th. Luka Doncic has made an incredible leap in year two and Kristaps Porzingis is growing into his game following a long rehab period following an ACL tear suffered with the Knicks. Worst case they’ll play either the Clippers or Nuggets and see how far they can go.

Games 5/6/7, Memphis Grizzlies vs New Orleans Pelicans

For Memphis, games six and seven are both against New Orleans. For the Pelicans, it’s games five and seven with a Kings matchup sandwiched in between.

Regardless of the order, these battles between the league’s top two rookies will be enormous in determining who makes the play-in miniseries in the West. It could end up being the miniseries itself. Either way, both teams are top 10 in pace and are going to run, making these games a Summer League style showdown in August where the games actually matter. What could be better?

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