NBA

The Top 8 Must-See Bubble Games

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The NBA is back! Regular season games are set to resume today. With 22 teams each playing eight games, it can be difficult to determine which matchups are must-see TV. Despite each team being in or having a shot at the playoffs, some games will be a step above the normal action.

In the bubble, there are many different storylines and narratives that have emerged. The West’s eighth seed is hotly contested. There’s a chance teams can move up (or down) in both conferences. Some teams have rejuvenated rosters. Others have been depleted. While season awards won’t be up for grabs, there’s still a title on the line.

There are some huge matchups on the schedule, as well. Ja vs. Zion. LeBron vs. Kawhi. Luka vs. Harden. With so many factors, how can you determine which games to watch? Here’s our top eight must-see bubble games.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers

Thursday, July 30, 9pm EST

The battle for LA kicks off night one of the NBA’s resumption. The Lakers have the West’s top seed wrapped up, but the Clippers haven’t let them run off with the title of LA’s best team. This game could serve as a preview to the Western Conference Finals series. Each team features their own star duo, and they have produced some excellent matchups this season. The Clippers lead the series 2-1, but will have an uphill battle in this particular chapter. They will be missing three key players: Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, and Montrezl Harrell.

The Lakers will be missing some of their regular season players (Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley), but have signed replacements to fill those gaps. Anthony Davis may see limited action due to an eye injury, as well, meaning bench depth could be the deciding factor in this game.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. Portland Trail Blazers

Friday, July 31, 4pm EST

The Blazers are one of five teams vying for the Grizzlies’ eighth seed. They’re 3.5 games behind, but will be closer to full health with Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins returning. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are a young team looking to make their first playoff appearance with their new core. They have a chance to duplicate their success from last decade after a quick rebuild. Led by rookie star Ja Morant, the Grizzlies are confident and eager to prove the world wrong.

On the other side, Damian Lillard is a proven superstar who has carried the Blazers multiple times during his career. He averaged 45 points and 10 assists over a six-game stretch earlier this year, and it’s safe to expect similar performances as he tries to lead Portland back to the postseason.

Houston Rockets vs. Dallas Mavericks

Friday, July 31, 9pm EST

Another matchup of dynamic duos, Houston and Dallas are two offensive-minded teams led by elite facilitators. Second-year “Wonderboy” Luka Doncic will go head-to-head against former MVP James Harden. This game might come down to which team hits 120 first. These two teams are separated by a game and a half and have split the season series so far. Dallas could potentially set themselves up to move up a spot with a win. Doncic and co-star Kristaps Porzingis are out to prove they belong with the elite pairs in the league.

For Houston, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are looking to show they can win together. The Rockets will also be testing their small-ball approach as they prep for the playoffs. They currently have only one player above 6’9″ on the roster. Porzingis should cause problems for Houston, but their players are stout defenders.

Utah Jazz vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

August 1, 3:30pm EST

Behind Utah by one game, OKC could look to jump into the top four with a strong push over their final eight games. Even though home-court advantage isn’t a factor, having the higher seed could be an upper hand in the playoffs. This game won’t have a lot of high-flying, fast-paced action. Rather, it will be a slow, methodical game between two fundamental teams looking to prove themselves. The Jazz are looking to re-establish their rhythm and silence rumors of a rift between their stars. They’ll be without 20-point scorer Bojan Bogdanovic, but still have one of the deeper teams in the bubble. Mike Conley showed promise in the scrimmages.

Led by Chris Paul, OKC is looking to continue their surprising season. They’re one of the few teams that can match Utah’s depth. They have a multitude of offensive threats, and thrive in isolation.

Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans

August 3, 6:30pm EST

Possibly the most anticipated matchup in the eighth seed race, New Orleans and Memphis are establishing roots for a decade-long rivalry. Led by superstar rookies, the two teams have had opposite seasons. Ja Morant came into Memphis and accelerated their rebuild. He settled in quickly, becoming their leader almost immediately. He helped the team surge to the eighth seed, and is the Rookie of the Year frontrunner. His ferocity and athleticism are unprecedented in Memphis.

Meanwhile, the Pelicans underperformed. Zion Williamson was lost to injury for most of the season, and they struggled to find their rhythm. Williamson’s return helped them find their identity, but they couldn’t make up ground before the season was postponed. The Pelicans beat the Grizzlies in both of their previous matchups, but will still have their hands full. This game will be high-octane, and should feature plenty of highlights.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Miami Heat

August 6, 4pm EST

Despite not having any seeding impact, this game may have more implications than any other between East teams. The Bucks have had a historic season. Led by MVP front-runner Giannis Antetokounmpo, they were the only team to win 50+ games before the hiatus. They’re incredibly skilled from top to bottom, and overwhelmed teams with their depth, length and skill.

The only team that has been able to figure Milwaukee out has been Miami. The Heat have defeated the Bucks in both games they’ve played so far. They’re able to match Milwaukee’s depth, length and skill. They have effectively neutralized Antetokounmpo, while keeping the Bucks’ second options in check. If Miami is able to win this game, other teams could mimic their strategies, making Milwaukee’s championship pursuit more difficult. Even worse for the Bucks, they could see Miami in the second round of the playoffs. This game could have a big effect on that series.

Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat

August 10, 8pm EST

This game has more off-court flare than any other. Heat leader Jimmy Butler will have some extra motivation in this one. Things got chippy in an earlier matchup between these teams, prompting Butler to claim dominance over TJ Warren. Butler’s intensity is well-documented, and will be on full display against Indiana. What makes this game even better is that it is the first of two guaranteed between the teams. Fans could be in for a show if things get heated again. There’s also a strong chance the two face off in the first round of the playoffs, further increasing the chances of sparks flying.

Basketball-wise, it could be ugly. The Heat defense will make things hard for Indiana’s offense. The Pacers are a throwback-style team, starting two traditional bigs. Their offense easily stalls out. Victor Oladipo’s return will bolster their chances, as long as he stays healthy and returns to form. On the other hand, Domantas Sabonis left the bubble with a “serious foot injury” and is seeking special treatment.

Philadelphia 76ers vs. Toronto Raptors

August 12, 6:30pm EST

After last year’s epic conference finals meeting, Toronto and Philadelphia were expected to go opposite directions this season. While they did exactly that, their roles were reversed. After Kawhi Leonard left in free agency, most expected the Raptors to fall a few spots. They exceeded expectations, however, and are currently the two seed. Nick Nurse’s team has a budding superstar in Pascal Siakam and a perfect mix of youth and experience around him. Toronto is poised to make another deep playoff run.

As for Philadelphia, they struggled to find their footing most of the season. Their road woes neutralized their historic home season, and many issues from last season lingered. They come into the bubble ready to put it all behind them. They’ve made a major lineup change that could give opponents headaches. This game will serve as a barometer for both teams as they prepare for another Eastern Conference Finals push.

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About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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