The NBA officially announced the final schedule for the 2019-20 regular season on Friday, as all 22 teams will play eight games down the stretch to determine playoff seeding.
There are a handful of games that stick out, as the Western Conference has suddenly become a wide-open race for the eighth seed with the Memphis Grizzlies, Portland Trail Blazers, New Orleans Pelicans, San Antonio Spurs, and Sacramento Kings all within four games of each other.
The updated postseason format includes a preliminary “play-in” series of sorts for any teams within four games of the eighth seed when the season concludes, making this stretch of games immensely important for all five ball clubs.
Although the Grizzlies currently hold a 3.5-game lead over Portland, New Orleans, and Sacramento, things can certainly change, given the fact Memphis has the toughest schedule remaining of any team in Orlando.
Although this race will be the main storyline to monitor as the regular season winds down, it will still be important for teams who have clinched a playoff spot to find their stride during these final few games. Players will not have played with each other in over four months, so shaking off rust and building chemistry will be crucial as teams prepare for the postseason.
Four games, in particular, stood out when commissioner Adam Silver released the final regular-season schedule. I’ll break down the significance of these matchups while basketball fans begin to prepare for one of the most memorable postseasons in NBA history.
Lakers vs. Clippers (July 30)
The Lakers and Clippers will square off again on opening night, as LeBron James and company aim to even up the season series at two games apiece.
In what many see as a Western Conference finals preview, this matchup will help set the tone for the NBA’s long-awaited return, as these two teams have slowly become bitter rivals with one another.
It will be fascinating to watch how LeBron’s Lakers fare in their first game since mid-March, as Los Angeles was rolling through the regular season before the league’s indefinite postponement.
The buzz and excitement leading up to this game will be unlike any other in recent memory, as it will truly be surreal to enjoy basketball for the first time in a long time.
I’m sure both teams will be sloppy early on, and this will by no means be the end all be all for who will win the Western Conference, but it will surely be a huge moment for the NBA and its fans, as some of the biggest stars in the game will be back in action once again.
This will be the final matchup between these two teams, as the Clippers won two of the first three games earlier this season.
Although this game won’t mean much in terms of playoff seeding — with the Lakers having all but wrapped up the No. 1 seed in the West — it will still have plenty of implications moving forward, as these two franchises will likely see each other one last time in the postseason.
Grizzlies vs. Trail Blazers (July 31)
Unlike the Lakers and Clippers, this matchup will have plenty of postseason implications, as the Trail Blazers currently sit 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies for the eighth and final playoff spot.
In what will be the first game back for both teams, Memphis will look to sweep the season series against Portland in what figures to be a crucial contest for both teams.
As it stands today, the Grizzlies have the toughest remaining schedule of any team invited to Orlando. Although they remain in the cat-bird seat, Memphis’ world can be turned upside down very quickly if they start flat to begin this final stretch.
The Grizzlies boast one of the youngest rosters in the NBA, which may keep them from holding on to their slim lead in the Western Conference playoff picture.
A play-in series likely looms for Memphis, as both New Orleans and Portland are serious threats to make up ground given how much easier their remaining schedules are.
Grizzlies vs. Pelicans (Aug. 3)
Much like what I talked about above, this meeting between two promising young teams will play a huge factor in deciding who gets to face the No. 1 seed Lakers in the first round.
The Pelicans are headlined by prodigious rookie Zion Williamson, as his introduction into the starting lineup transformed this New Orleans team back in March. Williamson took the league by storm, averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in the 19 games he played.
Although Memphis sensation Ja Morant will in all likelihood end up winning Rookie of the Year honors, it was truly remarkable what Williamson was able to do in such limited time.
This matchup will help serve as a preview for the future of the league, as both franchises are in great hands with the young cores they have developed.
If New Orleans can beat Memphis in this one, there becomes an increasingly good chance they could surpass them in the conference standings, as, unlike the Grizzlies, the Pelicans have the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the NBA.
Bucks vs. Raptors (Aug. 10)
Last but not least, this meeting between the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors could spark rumblings of a potential playoff upset come September and October, as Toronto has had Milwaukee’s number in recent years.
The Raptors wound up beating the Bucks in last year’s conference finals (4-2), as their length on defense frustrated Giannis Antetokounmpo all series long.
Although Kawhi Leonard is no longer with the team, the Raptors were rolling this season, surprising many on their way to the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
Nick Nurse has received immense support as a potential Coach of the Year candidate, while emerging superstar Pascal Siakam has taken the league by storm this season, averaging a career-high 24 points.
This team is loaded with veterans with plenty of playoff experience and could make some noise once again this postseason.
This will be a huge prove-it game for both ball clubs, as the Bucks will have to re-assert themselves as the team to beat out East.
This could be another conference finals preview, so long as both teams can return to form and find their groove again.