- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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The ultimate fantasy parlor game for the hardcore NBA fan:
All expenses paid from your doorstep to an NBA arena 10 times during the 2012-13 season. First class on your preference of air carrier (that means double qualifying miles!) and the penthouse suite at the hotel of your choosing. Once you're at the venue, you can sit wherever you like.
Only two disclaimers: You can't attend a repeat matchup (for instance, only one of the two Heat-Thunder games) and you can visit a specific home floor only twice (for instance, no more than two Lakers home games at Staples Center).
Which 10 games do you want?
My 10, in chronological order:
Oklahoma City Thunder at New Orleans Hornets, Nov. 16
You never need an excuse to drop into New Orleans, but Anthony Davis' arrival warrants a visit.
Davis projects as one of the best defensive players of his generation. A home date against an offensive juggernaut like the Thunder will be Davis' first graduate-level exam in the defensive arts. We'll be waiting for that first switch when Davis -- as sound a perimeter defender as big men come -- finds himself face-to-face with Kevin Durant.
New York Knicks at Brooklyn Nets, Dec. 11
The two teams launch the season against one another on Nov. 1, but opening games, even ones filled with anticipation, are often nothing more than throat clearing by both clubs. But six weeks into the season, the Knicks and Nets will have forged an identity and sculpted systems (or at least tried to). And any intrigue that materialized in the first matchup will resurface in Round 2.
Throughout its history, Brooklyn has traditionally existed as a cultural, demographic and rhythmic counterpart to Manhattan. In 2012, the borough is as healthy as ever. Can that vitality fuel a fan base and, if so, what are some of the collective features of those devotees? Will it resemble anything like New York's storied baseball rivalries of yore?
Houston Rockets at New York Knicks, Dec. 17
How many intriguing characters can you cram into a two-hour NBA drama on the league's most dramatic stage?
The cast starts with Jeremy Lin, who sparked nightly riots at Madison Square Garden during a glorious run in February and March. Then there's Carmelo Anthony who classified the offer sheet Lin signed with Houston as ridiculous and whom reports claim didn't want to play alongside Lin anyhow. Knicks owner James Dolan, whose favorable-unfavorable numbers among fans already hovered at congressional levels, further enraged the base by choosing an inopportune time to tighten the purse strings. Finally, the New York fans for whom a supernova performance from Lin would be every bit as wrenching as it would be exhilarating.
Oklahoma City Thunder at Miami Heat, Dec. 25
As the clock ticked away on the Thunder's season in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, something sparked in Kevin Durant's eyes. His proximity to the Heat's celebration a few yards down the sideline was unbearable. Durant was no longer interested in marshaling a troop of upstarts whose athleticism could challenge the most polished outfits in the league. At that moment, he graduated to a title-or-bust guy.
That drive should propel the Thunder to a romp through their 2012-13 schedule. The Thunder won't be adding a new piece, unlike the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls when Michael Jordan returned and the team won 72 games, but Oklahoma City has a chance for a prolific season during which they lose only two or three times a month. The crescendo will start building on Christmas afternoon when the Heat arrive.
Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, Jan. 4
Angelenos don't share a lot of communal civic experiences, not even in sports. The baseball and hockey rivalries between the city and Orange County have never been meaningful; but last season the Lakers and Clippers developed something real.
The Lakers are still the gold standard in town, but, for the first time last season, the Clippers brought charisma and star power to the party. With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on the floor, the Clippers legitimately believe it's a fair fight and that was evident during the team's three-game season series. Don't expect any dip in the intensity in 2012-13.
Miami Heat at Indiana Pacers, Jan. 8
The Pacers have to feel like the Eastern Conference semifinals slipped through their fingers. By no means was it a choke job of any kind, but they had a 2-1 lead against a wounded Heat team that was imploding on the scene.
Indiana should put another quality squad on the floor in 2012-13, but windows don't stay open for very long in the NBA. That's especially true for teams like the Pacers that have to carefully choose the right moment in time and hit the target when those opportunities arise. The first rematch with the Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (while we're choosing buildings, why not go to the best?) should open a few wounds between two teams that went at it intensely in May.
Miami Heat at Los Angeles Lakers, Jan. 17
The Heat and Lakers were hyped to death in 2010-11 as two freight trains bearing down on each other toward a collision in the 2011 Finals.
That matchup never came to fruition and the lines on the Kobe-LeBron parallel have faded, but Heat-Lakers is still event basketball, especially at Staples Center. The colors on the floor pop beneath the creative lighting scheme while public address announcer Lawrence Tanter's baritone brings gravitas to the game. Since one Lakers home game is a must on the NBA tour, the choice is easy.
Miami Heat at Boston Celtics, Jan. 27
The climax of most homecomings usually occurs during opening introductions, then gradually fades over the course of the night unless the returnee goes unconscious or hits the dagger. Allen is certainly capable of draining a game winner, but his return trip to the TD Garden will be especially entertaining because, when it comes to crowd reaction, Boston fans are utterly unpredictable.
Allen could be greeted like a New England prince or could be taunted from the moment he sets foot in the arena two hours prior to tip for his ritualistic individual shootaround. It's anyone's guess.
New York Knicks at Denver Nuggets, March 13
Of all the returns to the scenes of the crimes, this figures to be the most compelling. You have to talk to a lot of NBA fans in Colorado before you find one who has nice things to say about Carmelo Anthony.
When Anthony walks into the Pepsi Center in Denver on March 13, 25 months will have passed since he'd cleaned out his locker. Time can heal, but in the case of the Nuggets faithful, you have to wonder if there's not a deep, pent-up resentment of Anthony. Of course, Anthony knows this, and that reaction will only incite him.
San Antonio at Oklahoma City, April 4
Provided the Spurs aren't locked into a seed and on their conservation diet, it's hard to experience anything other than top-shelf basketball when these two teams match up. Their Western Conference final proved to be the best chess match of the spring, and the stylistic contrasts should be every bit as pronounced in 2012-13.
Tim Duncan re-upped for three years with San Antonio, but as his career winds down, it's worth fully experiencing his final performances. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James will always be indelible in our minds, but conjuring up mental images of Duncan's greatness when he retires will require a deeper plunge into our memories.