Merry Christmas, NBA fans!
The lockout is over and it seems as though Commissioner David Stern and the NBA are feeling quite generous to fans. The 66-game season is set to open Dec. 25 with two more games than the original tripleheader that was planned. The Orlando Magic will visit the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers will visit the Golden State Warriors in a first-ever Christmas quintuple-header.
A lot of storylines pervade each game, so let's run them all down and deliver some predictions presents on who will emerge victorious.
1. Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks, 12 p.m. ET (TNT)
There's nothing better than starting the NBA season with a good, old-fashioned Boston-New York matchup. The Celtics' Big Three are getting older by the second-Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, 34, 35 and 36, respectively, won't be playing for much longer. So, until there time comes, the Celtics have to win fast and win now. Rajon Rondo trade talks have died down a bit, but it seems as though he will stay put.
As for the Knicks, their own Big Three-Anthony, Stoudemire and Billups-will be looking to jell some more after last season. The lockout didn't help that cause, but they should at least feel more comfortable this time around. Being eliminated by the Celtics in the first round of last season's playoffs should have left a sour taste in their mouth that they're looking to get rid of. There's a good chance the Knicks can return to the playoffs, but may not go far. They might just need one more piece to their puzzle? CP3? Superman? Hmmm.
2. Miami Heat vs. Dallas Mavericks, 2:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
This game is more a revenge game than the one above. The Heat lost to the Mavs in last year's NBA Finals in devastating fashion thanks to the lack of full-team defensive presence and intensity. LeBron and D-Wade are the NBA's premier perimeter defenders but they won't be able to shoulder the load without a big man down low who can block shots and rebound a la the Mavs' Tyson Chandler last year. The sooner they can upgrade from Joel Anthony, the better the chances the Heat with King James have on winning not five, not six, not seven, but ONE championship.
As for the Mavericks, it will be hard to repeat, but at least the path to the Finals doesn't seem as rigorous since many superstars pack the Eastern Conference. But if the Mavs truly do want to repeat, they're going to have to maintain the defensive identity that helped them shock the world last year-that means either re-signing Chandler or going after someone just as good, if not better than him. With the Mavs' salary, the newly structured CBA and the shallow pool of free-agent big men, however, it seems the only way the defense can go is down.
3. Chicago Bulls at Los Angeles Lakers, 5 p.m. ET (ABC)
The Bulls have the all the necessary ingredients to win a title. They have an MVP in Derrick Rose, a versatile big man in Joakim Noah, the swingman in Luol Deng, the shooter in Kyle Korver-the list goes on. However, just one more game-changer, especially someone who can help keep Rose from doing all the offensive work, can propel the Bulls to the next level. That man might just be the Mavs' Caron Butler whom Chicago has interest in. You can practically guarantee that the Bulls will be just fine defensively, as was evident last season and the primary reason they had the NBA's best record at 62-20. But, will D-Rose be more of a facilitator than a scorer?
As for the Lakers, Kobe Bryant might be seeing his time in the NBA dwindling and the Lakers almost ready to rebuild. The team couldn't three-peat last season, showing signs of aging and a complacent attitude. Because of those signs, the Mavs swept them out of the Western Conference semifinals and used the sweep as grounds for momentum on their way to the title. This season, former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Mike Brown replaced Phil Jackson. Brown got off to slow start in Cleveland with LeBron. Will it be the same in L.A. or will he hit the ground running? Oh, let's not forget there's still the possibility of Dwight Howard getting traded to the Lakers. If that happens, maybe then they'll hit the ground running?
4. Orlando Magic vs. Oklahoma City Thunder, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Magic had 52 wins last season, but were disastrous in the playoffs when the lost to the rising Atlanta Hawks in the first round. That's the Dwight Howard rumor mill took off and reports said he questioned whether or not Orlando was the right fit for him. It is, but only in the sense that he is the team's staple defensive force. It's not, though, in the sense that he doesn't have much defensive help. With that said, it could be time for Howard to land elsewhere, and, as a free agent, teams like the Nets, Clippers and Lakers are interested in his services. Ironically, if he were to land with the Lakers, he'd be helping both the Lakers AND Magic rebuild.
As for the Thunder, dismiss all trade talk of Russell Westbrook for Rondo or Chris Paul. The Thunder knows that he and Kevin Durant have a good rapport and provide intense scoring. Oklahoma City is the team that many envision will make the Western Conference Finals this year after making the semifinals last year. With a passionate home crowd, that could happen.
5. Los Angeles Clippers vs. Golden State Warriors, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Clippers are on the rise just as much as the Thunder, so don't be surprised if those two teams meet in the Western Conference Finals this year. Blake Griffin is the Clippers' foundation, and the pieces around him are beneficial to the extent that the team doesn't have to go out and hunt for pieces to mold around Griffin. Mo Williams, Eric Gordon and Chris Kaman are more than capable pieces. Nevertheless, with the cap room to make a big free-agent signing, this year and/or next year, they can really become a force.
As for the Warriors, former Pacers and Knicks great Mark Jackson will be making his coaching debut. He will provide some discipline and strategy to a team that hasn't found a true identity yet. It's going to take a while to do that, though, as only Monta Ellis and David Lee seem to be the only identifiable players on the roster. The good thing is that an obscure player on the roster could surprise everyone down the road and catch us off-guard.