NBA's Opening Day

The NBA's Christmas gift to fans this year is a full slate of marquee matchups. The lockout-delayed season officially opens Sunday with five highly anticipated games. NPR's Mike Pesca joins host Audie Cornish for a look at what to expect.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's Christmas Day and time for basketball? That's right. After five months of labor struggles, NBA players are tipping off a new shorter season. NPR's Mike Pesca joins us for some of the highlights. Hi there, Mike.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: I'm ready.

CORNISH: So, I assume the league lost a ton of money, right? They missed out on 16 games. Will a blockbuster day of games like this one really make a difference?

PESCA: Not one day but it will provide for a lot of excitement. And in the run-up to this day and in the abbreviated off-season with tons of trades and player deals and signings, I have sensed nothing but excitement. Now, I did see some tape of a preseason game between the Hawks and the Bobcats that was sparsely attended. So, it might not be everywhere in the NBA but I think the fans are rearing to go.

CORNISH: So, we're going to take a look at these games now. First, Knicks versus the Celtics. I'm supposed to say the Knicks are actually the favorite, but since I'm from Boston, I will not be saying that. Tell me what is going on with New York.

PESCA: Well, New York had a great offseason in that they signed a big man - Tyson Chandler. He won a championship with the Mavericks. Put him next to the other frontline players - Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony - that is a great front court. Problem: front court is three players; you got to play five. In fact, including the bench, you got to play more. And that's where the Knicks run into some trouble. The Celtics on the other hand are old. They're still good but they're not getting younger and they're not getting better. So, despite whatever happens in this one game, I think if we look at this whole season, the Knicks are the team on the rise in the East and the Celtics decidedly are not.

CORNISH: And, of course, the next game, two more storied teams: Chicago Bulls versus the L.A. Lakers. And I guess Kobe Bryant's going to be playing.

PESCA: Yeah, I think so - he thinks so. We speak, of course, of his lunotriquetral ligament. The lunotriquetral ligament is in the wrist. You can play through it. He's a little bit injured. I think what's hampering Kobe is the fact that he's lost one of his best teammates. Lamar Odom was traded away. They really need to get better. They really need to make some trades in-season for the Lakers to go far in the playoffs. They were swept by the Mavericks last year. Chicago, again, a team on the rise. And they added some players to complement their excellent MVP, Derek Rose, a point guard without peer in the NBA.

CORNISH: And, of course, we can't talk opening day without talking about what in a way is the marquis game, right? The Dallas Mavericks taking on the Miami Heat in Dallas, a rematch of last year's NBA Finals.

PESCA: People do not expect the Mavericks to repeat this year, but people didn't expect them to go to and win the Finals last year. Everyone does expect the Heat to get back. Last year, for the first month of the season, the Heat was just getting to know each other, but then they cruised, famously losing in the Finals. Perhaps, in the regular season they and the Bulls will vie for the top seed in the East. But I really think that it's going to be a question of let's get deep into the playoffs before we could start weighing in on the basketball ability and inevitably the character of LeBron James.

CORNISH: NPR's Mike Pesca. Mike, thanks so much.

PESCA: You're welcome.

CORNISH: This is NPR News.

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