With the All-Star Game and trade deadline squarely in the rear-view mirror, division leaders and contenders alike are zeroing in on the playoff race. Well, everyone except for the Knicks, who are apparently laser-focused on winning the draft lottery for next season.
But the schedule gods have graced us with some marquee matchups coming right out of the gate after the All-Star break. Here are some of the biggest games of the week (with playoff implications) to start out the second half of the season:
San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors – Friday, February 22, 7pm ET (ESPN)
Forget for a second that the Raptors are in a dogfight for the top seed in the East with Milwaukee. Forget for a second that the Spurs currently hold down the seventh spot in a convoluted Western Conference, where a win in this game could propel them as high as fifth, and a loss could drop them out of a playoff spot altogether. Forget for a second that this might be one of your last chances to see Gregg Popovich – one of the most legendary figures to roam an NBA sideline – on a national stage.
We’re conveniently forgetting all of these things because this game is about the return of DeMar DeRozan. This game marks Heir Canada’s first trip north of the border since being dealt for current Raptors star Kawhi Leonard last July. Leonard had previously worn out his welcome in San Antonio and wanted out, but DeRozan was shocked and disappointed when he learned of the trade.
DeRozan took out some of his frustrations in the team’s first meeting this season at San Antonio back in January. In that game he bagged his first career triple-double on the way to thumping the Raptors 125-107. Leonard was heartily booed each time he touched the ball.
We have to imagine that DeRozan’s reception will be slightly warmer in Toronto, but Raptors fans would much rather catch a W to keep pace with the Bucks than catch feelings about their former star.
Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors – Saturday, February 23, 8:30pm ET (ESPN3)
It took longer than everyone expected, but the Warriors are finally back in familiar territory – first place. They’ll look to create some distance between themselves and a feisty Denver Nuggets squad who currently sit two games back.
Standing in their way is The Beard (aka James Harden) and his sweet, sweet step-back jumper. The Rockets are getting big man Clint Capela back in time for this game after missing the previous 15 with a hand injury. Having a top-ten rebounder back in the lineup should help generate plenty of second chances against the Warriors, who allow the fourth-most three-point attempts per game in the league. Harden currently leads the league in 3-point field goals made and attempted (274/733).
Between Harden and Golden State’s sharpshooting duo of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, we could see the two teams break the record Houston shares with Brooklyn of the most three-point attempts during a game, when they fired a combined 106 shots from behind the arc in an overtime game back in January.
Oklahoma City Thunder at Denver Nuggets – Tuesday, February 26, 10:30pm ET (TNT)
After being eliminated from playoff contention in the final game of 2017-2018, the Nuggets are out to prove they belong this year. They’ve been at or near the top of the Western Conference standings all year. Led by the Bizarro-Stockton-to-Malone combo of guard Jamal Murray and big-man-turned-triple-double-machine Nikola Jokic, Denver seems to have finally put together a squad poised to make a deep playoff run.
Speaking of triple-doubles, no conversation about the statistical exploit is complete without Russell Westbrook. OKC’s do-everything point guard is currently averaging one for the season. Having a true leader like Westbrook on the court to take control of certain aspects likely influenced Paul George’s decision to stick around, as “PG-13” – when he’s not asking Nike about Zion Williamson’s shoes – is averaging a career-high in points per game (28.7) and leads the league in steals at 2.3 per game.
Denver and OKC currently hold down the second and third spots, respectively, in the Western Conference, but Denver owns the conference’s best record against opponents with a better than .500 record as well as the best home record in the league. A little home cooking down the stretch could do wonders for a team’s playoff hopes.