Nice to see that the four-lettered media giant guessed right this week has the two most marquee games on Friday's schedule on tap to be broadcast nationally.
The slow-starting Bulls have won three of four (albeit against poor teams), and they beat the Pistons at the United Center early in the year. Tonight's matchup at the Palace will be big, as the Pistons look to continue their scorching hot streak and the Bulls hope to provide reason to believe that they can reestablish themselves in the Central Division. Out west, last year's two finalists in the Western Conference duke it out as Tim Duncan returns for the first Spurs-Jazz rematch.
However, I'm finding myself equally compelled by two less hyped matchups tonight.
Indiana at Orlando: The Magic have established themselves as one of the East's premier teams far earlier than most expected them to, and my love for Dwight Howard has been only slightly mitigated by my fear regarding the C's having to get past his teams in order to make the Finals over the next decade and a half. However, they return home tonight from a long West Coast trip to play an Indiana team that has been feistier than anybody imagined. With former C's coach Jim O'Brien at the helm, the Pacers have bought into the team concept and at times played much better than their 9-10 record would indicate, with wins over Washington, Utah, New Orleans, Denver and Dallas as well as hotly contested four-point loss to Phoenix already behind them this season. As I wrote recently, Obie simply has a tendency to get the best out of his players. Jamaal Tinsley has largely played out of his mind throughout the season, and Mike Dunleavy in particular has surpassed expectations. As we learned when he was with Boston, there is a whole lot more to Obie's style than lots of threes and some extra effort defensively. With the Magic possibly coming out sluggish in their return home, another well-fought game by the Pacers wouldn't be much of a shock at all.
Phoenix at Washington: This Wizards team continues to be intriguing, most recently because of how hard they have continued to fight since the loss of Gil Arenas. This group was absolutely zapped by his season-ending injury late last season, and while it may ultimately succumb to the challenges of playing without its top player on a nightly basis for an extended period of time, the boys from D.C. have refused to simply roll over and die thus far. Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler especially have elevated their efforts as players and leaders, and there is a clear desire on this team to prove that the rest of the Wizards are not reduced simply to being the wingmen of the NBA's goofiest character. While Phoenix provides a very tough matchup for anyone in the league, the Wiz aren't backing down from anybody in a shootout. The Wiz have already broken 110 points in six of their first 18 games this seaosn, and they won't shy away from getting up and down the floor and filling it up against the run-and-gun Suns. While the most ardent basketball purist may find the lack of defense to be played in this game reprehensible, it should be an exciting affair, and the Wiz are more likely than one might think to go toe-to-toe with the Suns and at the very least hang in for a while.