Grant Belcher, News9.com
OKLAHOMA CITY – This NBA season took a little while to get started.
But the delay only means there will be more excitements packed into a shorter time frame.
With teams playing essentially every night, the ridiculous schedule might have some fans' heads spinning before too long.
But if you can't catch every single Thunder game, we've broken down the top five can't-miss Thunder games heading into the 66-game season.
Sunday, Dec. 25 vs. Magic
This one might seem obvious. Christmas Day is certainly a celebration of many things, but for the NBA, it means a celebration of a season that many thought would not come to fruition. The league was so overjoyed at the end of the lockout that it decided to add a couple of games to opening day to make it an all-day marathon.
The Thunder are the beneficiaries of that decision. Many are calling on OKC to win the West and possibly even an NBA title this season. All eyes are going to be on the young, popular Thunder players on opening day to see whether the team looks like a legitimate championship contender. Plus, Kendrick Perkins losing 35 pounds and getting healthy was one of the big stories of the lockout. Perkins was known as the "Dwight Howard Stopper" in Boston, guarding the Magic big man better than any defender in the league. Sunday will be a big day for Perkins to show that he is back to his old self against his old foe.
Wednesday, March 21 vs. Clippers
The Clippers have been the talk of the offseason as the new featured team in Los Angeles. Chris Paul played the first two years of his career in OKC became the face of the city during that time. Blake Griffin is an Oklahoma City hometown hero through high school and college, not to mention perhaps the most exciting player to watch in all of basketball.
Put them all together and what do you get? A must-see game as Oklahoma City welcomes the new-look Clippers for the first time this season. Even fans without ties to either city would love to have a front row seat to watch what might be the two most exciting teams in the NBA go at it. In the past, OKC fans were able to cheer on Blake Griffin with no real fear of losing to the Clippers. But this season might be different. For the first time in a long time, the "other" Los Angeles team could be poised to make some real noise in the Western Conference playoff race, and this game might actually have some seeding implications.
Sunday, Mar. 25 vs. Heat
Proof that the season will indeed be coming fast and furious: two of the five can't-miss games come just four days apart. Depending on how you look at it, OKC either lucked out or had bad luck in having to face the Heat twice this year (not all East and West play each other twice). Playing Miami twice means two more tough games, but playing them just once could have meant no chance for fans to see LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh at Chesapeake Energy Arena.
Games that could potentially be an NBA Finals preview always draw plenty of attention and if there is any game that would be a Finals preview, this one is it. Most believe that the Thunder are the favorites to come out of the West this year with several West teams either taking a step back or getting a year older. The game will also feature 5-6 All-Stars and several MVP candidates.
Sunday, April 22 at Lakers
In case you haven't noticed yet, there is a trend as to which day of the week most of the must-see Thunder games are on. Nationally televised Sunday afternoon games are a sign that a team is not only fun to watch but a serious contender. Though the Lakers might be on their way down, no one will ever forget the Thunder-Lakers first round series from two years ago, and each game between the two teams brings back memories of it.
The real question for this game is whether Los Angeles will still be in contention for a top four spot in the West. Los Angeles has always managed to overcome its share of adversity to challenge for a top seed, but this year could be different. While other teams made big moves, the Lakers missed out on their top two targets (Dwight Howard and Chris Paul) before losing a key piece from the past few years (Lamar Odom). Not to mention that the game's most decorated coach in Phil Jackson will be nowhere to be found. The matchups between the Thunder and Lakers this year could either be as epic as ever, or symbolic of a changing of the guard in the Western Conference.
Wednesday, April 25 vs. Nuggets
Once again, the big games come close together. Three days after the matchup against the Lakers, Oklahoma City will finish out the season against division rival Denver. Many thought that the Nuggets were toast after Carmelo Anthony departed, but they found surprising success on both ends of the court and proved that they could be a scary young team.
If everything goes according to plan, the Thunder will have wrapped up the Northwest Division title well before the final game of the season. The other three division opponents (Portland, Utah and Minnesota) don't seem to pose much of a threat. But if any team is going to challenge OKC for that title, it will likely be the upstart Nuggets, and there could be a lot on the line in the final game of the year.