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The most important weekend in the NBA’s regular season is here

All of the NBA’s best teams are about to play important games to see how good they really are before the playoffs start.

Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo with big heads, from left to right.
Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, and Giannis Antetokounmpo will the NBA playoffs’ most important characters.

The 2019-20 NBA regular season doesn’t end until mid-April, but the four-day stretch between March 5 and March 8 is both a delicious preview of the upcoming postseason and an unofficial capper on the portion of the campaign with real high-level stakes. There are still interesting games on the schedule after this — Milwaukee-Houston on March 25, for example, has extra spice now — but none offer us the opportunity to learn about the playoff readiness of the league’s title favorites.

If you’ve been out on the NBA this year for whatever reason, these next four days offer the chance to binge on the league and feel like you can at least pretend to be caught up. (I would recommend watching every game possible because the NBA is a cool sport, but I know that’s not healthy for most of you. It’s probably not healthy for me either! Alas ...)

Here are the games you must watch and why they matter.

1. Clippers at Lakers, Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC

The two Los Angeles teams have been on a collision course all season, and this is the last real chance we get to see how they measure up before the postseason. (They play again on April 9 in a game rescheduled due to Kobe Bryant’s death, but the Lakers will be playing their third game in three nights).

It’s the last chance for the Lakers to shed the prevailing theory that the Clippers are actually the title favorites despite having a worse regular-season record. That view got a boost from the first two matchups, both Clippers victories despite no contribution from Paul George in the first (he was injured) and little in the second (he shot just 5-18). So far, the Clippers have presented more challenges for the Lakers than the reverse.

The timing for the Lakers to flip this narrative isn’t exactly ideal. Though the Clippers have often been up and down in non-Lakers matchups, they are rolling with a fully healthy roster, having won five in a row by an average margin of 17.4 points. Maybe health really was their only issue all along.

The Lakers’ best chance may be for Anthony Davis to dominate the game. LeBron James’ greatness is clear, but the Clippers’ collection of tough wing defenders present many problems for the King. James was passive in the first matchup and inefficient in the second, and both games came before the Clippers added Marcus Morris to help Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Davis, on the other hand, has a size advantage against the Clippers’ power forwards and a major quickness advantage against their motley crew of centers. He needs to be the best player on the floor on Sunday. (Luckily, he’s been just that recently).

But the Lakers and Clippers both have stern tests before Sunday that are delicious appetizers for the main event.

2. Clippers at Rockets, Thursday, 8 p.m. ET, TNT

Houston’s bold decision to trade away its only center in Clint Capela and double down on small ball has worked out brilliantly. (Told y’all). They’re 7-3 since dealing Capela for Robert Covington, and one of those losses came without Russell Westbrook. They beat the Lakers in LA, took down Boston twice, and avenged a freak loss to Utah with a dominant road victory.

The extra space on offense has accelerated Russell Westbrook’s surge and made the Westbrook-James Harden pairing more seamless. As The Dream Shake wrote:

But as Russ got healthier (he had offseason hand surgery, which he re-injured, along with an arthroscopic knee scope this past summer) and more acclimated, and the Rockets traded Clint Capela to open the floor more for Russ’s preternatural athleticism, Houston may finally have the second superstar to complement Harden that they’ve been searching for since The Beard arrived eight seasons ago.

They also haven’t suffered defensively despite downsizing. In fact, they’re even better at doing the things big players are supposed to do now, all thanks to Covington and P.J. Tucker. As I wrote:

Turns out P.J. Tuckington is an intimidating presence at the hoop. Houston allows teams to shoot just 59.1 percent at the basket with that combination in the game, according to Cleaning the Glass. That’s on par with the Lakers’ mark when Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee share the floor, two percentage points lower than LA allows with Davis on the court with whoever else, 2.5 percentage points better than the 76ers surrender with Joel Embiid on the court, nearly three percentage points better than Jazz opponents shoot with Gobert on the floor, close to five percentage points better than the Rockets allow from that zone with Clint Capela and Tucker sharing the court, and 5.3 percent more than they did with just Capela out there.

Think about that for a second. Lineups anchored by a 6’5 pancake-loving thicc dude and a 6’7 wing player on his third team in 14 months aren’t just better at altering shots at the rim than lineups anchored by the only tall guy the Rockets previously had. They’re also better at altering shots at the basket than lineups built around three of the NBA’s best rim protectors.

Beating opponents by making them play your game is one thing, but what happens against a team that may play your game, but better? We’re about to find out. The Clippers have elite wing defenders, giving them the capacity to go small and do it even better than Houston does. Covington and Tucker are good, but Kawhi Leonard is even better. Will that negate Houston’s strategy, or will the Rockets prevail anyway? I can’t wait to find out.

3. Bucks at Lakers, Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN

The Bucks remain the NBA’s most dominant regular-season team, but Monday’s double-digit loss in Miami was a concerning wobble. The Heat swarmed the paint, shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo, and knocked down the three-point shots the Bucks’ defense is designed to give up. The Bucks rebounded to smash Indiana on Wednesday, but a high-profile loss in LA may create more lingering doubts about their ability to perform against top opponents.

The Lakers and Bucks last played back in December, a game in which the Bucks surged ahead early before holding off a late LA run. The Lakers would suggest tossing that game out because they were at the end of a grueling five-game East Coast swing. But there’s no tossing out this one.

4. Raptors at Warriors, Thursday, 10:30 p.m. ET, TNT

Steph Curry back! Steph Curry back! However you feel about this regular season, it’s undeniable that Curry’s 58-game injury absence left a gaping hole in our hearts. That all ends Thursday night against the team that ended the Warriors’ run last June.

These Warriors, of course, have the NBA’s worst record and will be nowhere near the playoffs. So why bring Curry back at all? Matt Ellentuck laid out a few reasons when it looked like Curry would return last Sunday. One that stands out to me: Curry getting court time with Andrew Wiggins, acquired in February in a blockbuster deal for D’Angelo Russell. As Ellentuck wrote, now’s the time to build on-court familiarity, not next year.

5. Kings at Blazers, Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass

My advice: skip Saturday’s ABC showcase (Curry’s Warriors against the 76ers’ skeleton crew) and watch this de-facto playoff elimination game instead. Both teams are 3.5 games out of the playoffs, but both are surging and both have much easier schedules down the stretch than the current No. 8 seed Grizzlies. The winner still has a chance. The loser has an uphill climb.

Portland’s here despite having a season from hell. Three projected starters — Jusuf Nurkic, Zach Collins, and Rodney Hood — have barely featured this season, and only Nurkic has any real hope of returning. They rescued Carmelo Anthony from the free-agent scrap heap because they legitimately had nobody else to play power forward. Damian Lillard went on a scoring binge for the ages in late January, then got hurt as well. But he’s back now, and Portland has just two road games left against .500 or better teams on the schedule.

The Kings have quietly put together a nice run since moving Buddy Hield to the bench in favor of Bogdan Bogdanovic. They’re 6-1 in their last seven games, and they too have some easy games down the stretch. Remember De’Aaron Fox? He’s really damn good again. As Sactown Royalty noted:

If you watch game to game, you know this. De’Aaron Fox is incredible. He’s so much fun to watch, and makes a handful of “holy shit” plays every game. Sometimes it’s a timely steal, sometimes it’s threading the needle for a gorgeous pass, sometimes it’s a dagger or a dunk at just the right moment. The kid is good.

Since Jan. 1, about two weeks after Fox returned from his ankle injury, he has averaged 22.0 points, 6.9 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game. That’s a huge leap in production from last season when he finished third in MIP voting. He’s doing this despite his three-point shot regressing significantly. He’s shooting just 31.4 percent from deep this year, down from 37.1 percent last year, and yet defenses still can’t stop him.

This game’s also crucial for tiebreaking purposes. A Blazers’ win gives them a 3-1 head-to-head advantage, so they’d lock that tiebreaker up. A Kings’ win, on the other hand, knots the series, 2-2, and Sacramento is four games better than Portland in conference (19-20 vs. 15-24). The Kings already have the tiebreaker against Memphis locked up, so a victory over Portland would cement their status as a real playoff threat.

Expect this game to be super intense, which is all you can ask for this time of year.

Other notable games, in case you need more

Jazz-Celtics, Friday, 8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass: The rise of Jayson Tatum continues.

Heat-Pelicans, Friday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN: A must-win for New Orleans after consecutive losses to Minnesota and Dallas. They’re already five games behind Memphis with only 20 to play.

Grizzlies-Mavericks, Friday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass: Luka Doncic vs. Ja Morant! And a biggie for Memphis’ playoff dreams.

76ers-Warriors, Saturday, 8:30 p.m. ET, ABC: In case you just wanna watch Curry.

Hawks-Grizzlies, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, NBA League Pass: A rematch of the most hilariously hideous game of the year, which took place on Tuesday.