2021-22 NBA schedule release: 16 must-watch matchups, starring Nets and Lakers
The NBA released its regular-season schedule for the 2021-22 season, which will begin Oct. 19 and end April 10. Teams will play between 12 and 15 back-to-backs and between six and 14 stretches of three games in four nights. You can find complete listings for all 82 games from each of the 30 teams here.
The league's play-in tournament, featuring the seventh through 10th-place teams in each conference vying for the seventh and eighth seeds, returns April 12-15, and the playoffs are scheduled to being on April 16.
The following highlights the 16 must-watch matchups of the upcoming season.
Los Angeles Lakers vs. Brooklyn Nets
Dec. 25: Nets at Lakers, 8 p.m. ET (ABC and ESPN)
Jan. 25: Lakers at Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Lakers vs. Nets, featuring LeBron James and Kevin Durant, is the NBA's dream Finals matchup, boasting the game's two biggest names in its two biggest media markets. The Lakers' addition of Russell Westbrook adds further intrigue, given his history as both teammate and rival to Nets stars Durant and James Harden.
Those four former MVPs are only the start of a growing list of Hall of Famers on these two teams. Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving are bona fide superstars in their prime, the latter of whom has a longstanding rivalry with James. Carmelo Anthony, Dwight Howard, Marc Gasol and Blake Griffin are merely supporting actors.
The Lakers and Nets also stacked their rosters with some of the best bargain signings in free agency this summer. Patty Mills, Bruce Brown, Malik Monk and Kendrick Nunn all took below-market value for a shot to win a championship. Come to think of it, if they do not meet in the Finals, something has gone very wrong.
Indiana Pacers at Dallas Mavericks
Jan. 29: Pacers at Mavericks, 7 p.m. ET
Rick Carlisle returns to Dallas to face a Mavericks team he coached for the previous 13 seasons. He left Indiana in 2007, accepted the Dallas job in 2008 and led the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA championship.
After 10 seasons without a playoff series win, Carlisle left Dallas and returned to Indiana amid dissension in the Mavericks' front office. That reportedly included some tension between Carlisle and rising Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic. Expect Carlisle to receive a warm welcome. He publicly endorsed his successor, former Mavericks point guard Jason Kidd, who also had his share of disagreements with the prickly coach.
"He and Luka have so many things in common as players," Carlisle, 61, told ESPN this past June. "I just think that it would be a great situation for Luka, and I think it would be an amazing situation for Jason. I'm the only person on the planet that's coached both of those guys and that knows about all of their special qualities as basketball players. To me, that just would be a great marriage, but that's just an opinion."
Atlanta Hawks at New York Knicks
Dec. 25: Hawks at Knicks, 12 p.m. ET (ESPN)
March 22: Hawks at Knicks, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
As the Knicks welcomed playoff basketball back to Madison Square Garden for the first time in eight years, Young spoiled the fun, drilling the game-winner and shushing a raucous crowd. Young returned four games later to eliminate the Knicks with 36 points in a more decisive Game 5 victory. In between, Knicks fans repeatedly chanted "f*** Trae Young," and one even spit on the budding superstar. It was a level of vitriol for an opposing player that the Garden had not seen since Reggie Miller, so prepare for more histrionics ahead.
Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors
Feb. 3: Heat at Raptors, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Kyle Lowry returns to Toronto as an opponent for the first time since he joined the Raptors in 2012. In his nine seasons up north, Lowry made six All-Star appearances and won the franchise's first-ever title in 2019. He is arguably the greatest Raptor of all time and has vowed to retire in Toronto. The city's mayor, John Tory, expects a statue to be built in Lowry's honor, and the Raptors already have plans to retire his number.
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Brooklyn Nets
Oct. 19: Nets at Bucks, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Jan. 7: Bucks at Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Feb. 26: Nets at Bucks, 8:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
March 31: Bucks at Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
A growing rivalry between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant spilled into a delightful seven-game Eastern Conference semifinals between the two ultra-skilled 7-footers. With both Harden and Irving injured, Durant averaged 35 points in the series. His 49 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists in a series-tilting Game 5 victory reopened a debate about his claim to the title of best player in the league, but Antetokounmpo spoiled Durant's 48 points in a brilliant Game 7 performance of his own, and then rolled to his first ring.
Durant literally came within an inch of knocking the Bucks off by himself, and there can be little doubt the Nets would have stormed to a championship with a healthy Harden and Irving. (Maybe even with just one of them.) Milwaukee now carries the confidence of a champion, so it will be fascinating to see how the clear-cut top two teams in the Eastern Conference fare against each other in a race for home-court advantage.
Denver Nuggets vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Nov. 18: 76ers at Nuggets, 9 p.m. ET (NBATV)
March 14: Nuggets at 76ers, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Had Nuggets star Nikola Jokic not become the first center since Shaquille O'Neal in 2000 to win MVP, Sixers counterpart Joel Embiid would have. They were the only two players to receive more than 50% of the first- or second-place MVP votes. Jokic placed first on 91 of 100 ballots, largely because Embiid missed three weeks to injury during a dominant campaign. Embiid did not play in either game against Jokic last season, so we are due for an old-fashioned rumble on the block between the league's two best bigs.
Chicago Bulls vs. Charlotte Hornets
Nov. 29: Hornets at Bulls, 8 p.m. ET
Feb. 9: Bulls at Hornets, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
April 8: Hornets at Bulls, 8 p.m. ET
The Ball Bowl! LaMelo Ball has a shiny new Rookie of the Year trophy to hold over his brother's head, but Lonzo Ball just joined a Chicago team that should be significantly improved. The Hornets beat out the Bulls for the final play-in tournament spot last season, but Chicago expects to be firmly in the playoffs this season, potentially knocking Charlotte from the hunt. Neither of the Ball brothers has appeared in a playoff game, but the stakes do not get much closer than two siblings battling for seeding in the same conference.
Dallas Mavericks vs. Atlanta Hawks
Oct. 21: Mavericks at Hawks, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Feb. 6: Hawks at Mavericks, 6 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Doncic and Young are forever linked by the former's 2018 trade for the latter and another draft pick that became Hawks wing Cam Reddish. In the past 25 years, only two players have logged multiple games with 30 points and 15 assists: Doncic (6) and Young (5). Doncic placed fifth in MVP voting last season, but Young led Atlanta on a surprise Eastern Conference finals run, closing the gap on hindsight judgments that still slightly favor Doncic. They have embraced a respectful rivalry, and it is always a show when they meet.
New Orleans Pelicans vs. Memphis Grizzlies
Nov. 13: Grizzlies at Pelicans, 7 p.m. ET
Feb. 15: Grizzlies at Pelicans, 8 p.m. ET (TKT)
March 8: Pelicans at Grizzlies, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
April 9: Pelicans at Grizzlies, TBD
Pelicans forward Zion Williamson and Grizzlies guard Ja Morant were far and away the two best prospects in the 2019 draft class, and they have done nothing but prove prognosticators right. Williamson has yet to lose to Memphis in four NBA meetings, and he logged 60 points on 77% shooting over two victories this past season, but Morant has twice helped the Grizzlies edge the Pelicans for a play-in tournament berth.
When last we saw Morant, he averaged 30 points in a five-game first-round series loss to the top-seeded Utah Jazz. What he and Williamson have achieved so early in their careers is the stuff of growing legends.
Houston Rockets vs. Detroit Pistons
Nov. 10: Pistons at Rockets, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Dec. 18: Rockets at Pistons, 12 p.m. ET
In another battle of 1-2 picks, Detroit's top overall selection, Cade Cunningham, will face fellow 19-year-old Jalen Green, who fell to Houston at No. 2. Ahead of their summer league matchup, Green told reporters, "Yeah, obviously I feel some type of way that I went No. 2 and I feel I should have been No. 1. But it’s all good. We’ll show." Green proceeded to out-duel Cunningham during a decisive Pistons win in Las Vegas.
The Rockets and Pistons feature plenty of intriguing young prospects beyond Green and Cunningham. Detroit put two players — Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart — on last season's All-Rookie squads, and neither was Killian Hayes, who missed most of last season to injury after the Pistons picked him seventh in the 2020 draft. Houston brings promising Turkish prospect Alperen Sengün, 2021 All-Rookie selection Jae'Sean Tate, 21-year-old scoring dynamo Kevin Porter Jr. and 25-year-old stretch big Christian Wood.
Milwaukee Bucks vs. Miami Heat
Oct. 21: Bucks at Heat, 8 p.m. ET
Dec. 4: Heat at Bucks, 8 p.m. ET
Dec. 8: Bucks at Heat, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
March 2: Heat at Bucks, 8 p.m. ET
The Heat landed a five-game, second-round knockout blow on the Bucks en route to the 2020 Finals, leading many to wonder if Antetokounmpo was built to win in the postseason. So, Milwaukee moved heaven and earth to acquire Jrue Holiday, and the Bucks returned the favor in a five-game first-round defeat of Miami this past season. Antetokounmpo, of course, went on to win the championship. Now, it is the Heat who have retooled, acquiring Lowry and poaching veteran wing P.J. Tucker from Milwaukee.
Golden State Warriors vs. Los Angeles Lakers
Oct. 19: Warriors at Lakers, 10 p.m. ET (TNT)
Feb. 12: Lakers at Warriors, 8:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
March 5: Warriors at Lakers, 8:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
April 7: Lakers at Warriors, 10 p.m. ET (TNT)
Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James. What else do you need? The two superstars met in four straight Finals from 2015-18, with Golden State winning three rings. As James left the Cleveland Cavaliers and built a champion in L.A., the Warriors saw Durant leave in free agency and Klay Thompson suffer back-to-back season-ending injuries. Still, Curry's 37 points in a play-in meeting between the two rivals nearly sent the Lakers to the brink of elimination. Both former MVPs return this season with plenty of reinforcements.
Phoenix Suns vs Utah Jazz
Jan. 24: Jazz at Suns, 9 p.m. ET (NBATV)
Jan. 26: Suns at Jazz, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Feb. 27: Jazz at Suns, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
April 8: Suns at Jazz, 9:30 p.m. ET (NBATV)
Nobody had the Jazz and Suns finishing first and second in the Western Conference last season, respectively. They are two of the better constructed rosters in the league, balanced with stars and role players who play an egalitarian and entertaining brand of basketball. Utah captured the No. 1 seed, but lost all three head-to-head meetings with Phoenix last season and blew a prime chance to face the Suns in the Western Conference finals. So, Phoenix enjoyed the Cinderella Finals run that Utah has long been chasing.
Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics
Dec. 1: 76ers at Celtics, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBATV)
Dec. 20: 76ers at Celtics, 7:30 p.m. ET (NBATV)
Jan. 14: Celtics at 76ers, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Feb. 15: Celtics at 76ers, 7:30 p.m. ET (TNT)
Following a frustrating 2018-19 Celtics season that ended well short of expectations, Al Horford left Boston's young core of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to join Embiid and Ben Simmons in Philadelphia. The Sixers proceeded to submit a wildly disappointing 2019-20 campaign, and then spent a first-round pick to dump Horford's contract on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Last season left a bitter taste in the mouth of both franchises, and the Celtics have since spent a first-round pick to reacquire Horford's contract.
New Celtics coach Ime Udoka and veteran wing Josh Richardson also spent that one miserable season with Horford in Philadelphia, and one way or another they will dictate bragging rights in this rivalry again.
Chicago Bulls vs. Brooklyn Nets
Nov. 8: Nets at Bulls, 8 p.m. ET (NBATV)
Dec. 4: Bulls at Nets, 7:30 p.m. ET
Jan. 12: Nets at Bulls, 10 p.m. ET (ESPN)
In addition to Lonzo Ball, the Bulls added four-time All-Star DeMar DeRozan to a roster that already featured 2021 All-Stars Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. With them come considerable expectations for a once-great franchise, and who better for Second City to test its mettle against than Durant, Harden and Irving in Brooklyn. All that money and those draft picks the Bulls spent on second- and third-tier stars should get them back to the playoffs, but games against the Nets will let them know if they can contend.
Dallas Mavericks vs. Milwaukee Bucks
Dec. 23: Bucks at Mavericks, 8:30 p.m. ET (NBATV)
April 3: Mavericks at Bucks, 1 p.m. ET (ABC)
The two players at the front of the line to replace LeBron as the face of the NBA in the coming years are Antetokounmpo and Doncic. The former is the league's reigning Finals MVP, and the latter is the odds-on favorite to win 2022 MVP honors, according to BetMGM. The two international superstars heaped praise on one another last year, and speculation mounted that they could potentially join forces in Dallas this summer.
Except, Antetokounmpo signed his extension last offseason, and Doncic signed his last week, so regular-season games between them should now be previews for of one or more Finals showdowns in the future.
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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @brohrbach
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