10 games to watch on the just-released NBA schedule

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Eric Freeman
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At 7 ET on Tuesday night, the NBA released the complete 66-game schedule for the 2011-12 season. It's not quite what fans wanted this summer, but we'll all take it now that we're only a few weeks away from tipoff.

Apart from the championship rematch between the Heat and Mavericks and various other Christmas games that have already been publicized, there are a number of notable matchups in this season's slate. Here are just 10, listed and covered in random order. If that's not enough, check out the full list.

1. Ricky Rubio arrives. We've waited for the Spanish wunderkind to come to the NBA ever since he was drafted in 2009. The Timberwolves' opener against the Thunder on Dec. 26 will be notable if only for his arrival (plus a serious challenge from Russell Westbrook). The next day, though, presents perhaps a more intriguing matchup, one against the Bucks and their point guard Brandon Jennings, who called Rubio overhyped during predraft workouts two years ago. There may not be considerable bad blood between the two young guards, but this game nevertheless presents Rubio with a significant measurement of his progress as a player. If he can't beat the slight Jennings off the dribble or hold a poor shooter to an average offensive game, people could start to question his readiness for the NBA. (Also check out March 1, when Rubio faces Steve Nash for the first time in Phoenix.)

2. The Grizzlies and Thunder renew their budding rivalry. In terms of pure watchability, the seven-game Western Conference semifinals series between the Grizzlies and Thunder was the best matchup of the playoffs. There were athletic plays, great comebacks, overtime thrillers and players coming into their own right before our eyes. These teams play four times this season -- Dec. 28, Jan. 10, Feb. 3 and April 2 -- and each promises to have its own special brand of intrigue.

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3. Jimmer Fredette returns to Utah. Kings rookie Jimmer Fredette may prove to be a good NBA scorer, or a terrible one, or more likely a promising player with enough holes in his game to keep him from true stardom. What's certain is that, for at least two dates on this schedule, he'll be the most cheered opposing player in an NBA arena. On Jan. 28 and March 30, the former BYU star travels to Salt Like City, the Mormon capital of the world, to face the Jazz. Those may be the only two games of the season in which a visiting player gets more love from the crowd than anyone on the home team.

4. Deron Williams heads back to Utah, too. This SLC homecoming probably won't be quite as pleasant. Williams left the Jazz last season under poor circumstances, and his perceived role in Jerry Sloan's resignation is sure to make him an unpopular figure when he returns to Energy Solutions Arena as a member of the New Jersey Nets. To add to the intrigue, Deron has already said he'll opt out of his deal (although he also claims he wants to return). It's possible this Jan. 14 game will be uncomfortable for Williams in every way possible.

5. Blake Griffin and the Hawks have an alley-oop party. Every game the Clippers' Blake Griffin plays is fun to watch, but a matchup with the high-flying Hawks promises a special sort of excitement. Atlanta doesn't always run a coherent offense, or even use its athleticism in the best way possible. But when Josh Smith has a great game, the Hawks are as exciting as all but a few other teams in the league. The prospect of Griffin and Smith trading dunks should be enough to set every League Pass subscriber's DVR well in advance. They face off on March 14 (in L.A.) and April 24 (in Atlanta).

6. Chris Paul visits New York (or welcomes his former team to Madison Square Garden). For all we know, Chris Paul may already be a member of the Knicks by the time the Hornets go to New York City on Feb. 17 (although it's not likely, given the Knicks' weak trade assets). If he's not, the MSG crowd may welcome him with a level of excitement we haven't seen since LeBron James' last year with the Cavs (that one didn't work out too well for New Yorkers, of course). Oh, and if CP3 is in blue and orange, he can give everyone with the Hornets a nice tour of the city's landmarks. Everyone will just have to make sure Chauncey Billups doesn't vandalize the locker room out of spite.

[ Related: Heat's "Big 3" has room to grow ]

7. LeBron visits Cleveland once again, hopefully with no uproar. Last year, LeBron's return to Cleveland was one of the biggest events of the season. The second matchup at Quicken Loans arena was considerably more laid back, but still more tense than the usual game between one of the best teams in the league and one of the worst. The Heat will visit the Cavs once in 2012, on Feb. 17, and with any luck it will be a pretty standard affair. Cavs fans will boo their former savior, as they have every right to do. But if rookies Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson show as much in the season's first few weeks as Cleveland hopes, then their fans will be more interested in looking toward the future than in focusing on the disappointments of the past. If we're lucky, this one won't look too much more important than what should be an exciting one-on-one battle between Irving and the Wizards' John Wall on March 3.

8. The Spurs get a chance for revenge on the Grizzlies. Last spring's playoffs were so consistently entertaining that the biggest shock -- the eighth-seeded Grizzlies' defeat of the top-seeded Spurs in the first round -- was overlooked by many. These teams will play each other four times -- Dec. 26, Jan. 30, Feb. 6 and April 12 -- and while none will have the importance of a playoff series, each game could go a long way toward convincing people that the upset was an outlier and not the new reality for an aging San Antonio squad.

9. The Mavericks test Mike Brown's Lakers. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers entered the postseason as the West favorite -- they left after a second-round sweep by the Mavs ashamed and without legendary coach Phil Jackson. Mike Brown's team will look different, with a new defensive strategy and no triangle offense, but those changes might not necessarily be for the better. Their games against Dallas will serve as a measure of pride, if not final verdicts on their readiness for the postseason. They play four times -- Jan. 16, Feb. 22, March 21, April 15.

10. Two Tom Thibodeau defenses get gritty. Last year's postseason had virtually every series matchup an NBA fan could want, except for a war of toughness between Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau's Bulls and the defense he built for the Celtics. It would have been a great story, not to mention the sort of defensive fight that certain basketball purists soak up. The good news is that they play four times this season -- Jan. 13, Feb. 12, Feb. 16 and April 5 -- which gives us plenty of opportunities to see the two most tactically sound defenses in the league at work. No matter who ends up with the higher score, Thibodeau will win.

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