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5 games Utah Jazz fans should circle on the calendar

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Utah Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell (45) drives the ball past Portland Trail Blazers guard CJ McCollum (3) at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

Ivy Ceballo, Deseret News

As unusual as it is to say at this time of year, the NBA season is about to begin.

The NBA released the first half of the truncated 2020-21, 72-game schedule, and while the season officially kicks off on Tuesday, the Utah Jazz’s first game is the following night.

Many of the most rabid Jazz fans and basketball junkies will want to watch every game and soak up as much of the season as they possibly can, but not everyone will be able to.

How will the Jazz stack up compared to the rest of West? Which games will be the most telling? What are the must see contests between now and the All-Star break?

No worries, I’ve scoured the schedule and picked out the five games of the first half of the season that I think you should absolutely watch.

Dec. 23 at Portland

The season opener is always a good place to start when sizing up a team, especially if it’s against a playoff contender, and that’s exactly what the Jazz will have when they open the season on the road Wednesday against the Portland Trail Blazers.

The Blazers had to fight tooth and nail for their playoff spot in the Orlando bubble, but they’re bringing back a better team this season. Jusuf Nurkic is coming back healthy and Portland also added 3-and-D wing Robert Covington as well as Derrick Jones Jr. during the offseason.

With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum leading the way, the Blazers are always a tough team to beat and they pose threats to some of the Jazz’s more vulnerable spots.

The Jazz won the season series against the Blazers last season, 2-1, but their last win against Portland on Feb. 7 could have easily gone the other way. On what would have been a game-tying layup with 11.2 seconds left to play, Rudy Gobert got away with a blatant goaltending violation, ending the game in controversy.

Lillard and McCollum are one of the best backcourts in the NBA and the Jazz’s perimeter defense struggled last season with Lillard scoring a combined 127 points in three games against the Jazz.

This has all the makings of an intense season opener for both teams.

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Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) is fouled as he drives between Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell (45) and Royce O’Neale (23) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Nov. 25, 2019, in Milwaukee.

Aaron Gash, Associated Press

Jan. 8 at Milwaukee

With two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo recently inking a supermax deal to stay with the Bucks, Milwaukee is likely to be considered a perennial threat in the East. So any game between the Bucks and a Western Conference contending team could end up being a finals preview.

This game, like the season opener, is on the road, which will be much different this season. There won’t be riled up fans creating a loud and hostile playing environment, but that doesn’t mean that the teams lose their level of comfort by playing in their home arenas. That still means something, so getting a win on the road against the favorite to win the East would be a huge get for the Jazz.

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Utah Jazz forward Bojan Bogdanovic (44) drives past Golden State Warriors center Willie Cauley-Stein (2) at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 13, 2019.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Jan. 23 vs. Golden State

Last season any game against the Golden State Warriors was nearly a guaranteed win for the opponent. The Jazz swept them 4-0 with ease throughout the 2019-20 campaign. The Warriors were without Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry only played five games before sitting out the rest of the season injured, Draymond Green basically had to play with a G League team and there wasn’t really anything for him to play for.

This season, Curry is back and Green will have a reason to try. Unfortunately, after missing last year with an ACL injury, Thompson will also miss the season after tearing his right Achilles in the offseason.

There’s no guarantee that the Warriors will have enough firepower with Curry, Green, Andrew Wiggins, newly acquired Kelly Oubre and rookie James Wiseman, but it will at least be interesting to see how they fare through the first half of the season and it would be a nice confidence boost for the Jazz if they can handle Golden State and add them to a list of teams they don’t need to worry about.

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) blocks a shot by Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77).

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) blocks the shot by Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic (77) at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. The Jazz won 112-107.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Jan. 27, 29 vs. Dallas

A little bit of a bonus here. Many teams this season will be playing sets of games, which is what will happen when the Mavericks visit Utah in late January. They’ll play twice in three days and I would suggest catching both of these games if you can, but if not, either one will do.

Led by MVP favorite Luka Doncic, the Dallas Mavericks had a historically efficient and effective offense that ranked best in the league by quite a bit. They spent the offseason collecting defensive assets, making them one of the truly scary teams in the Western Conference.

It is very possible that come playoff time the Jazz will have to make it through the Mavericks if they want to last and playing them twice in three days gives them some time to focus a game plan with more nuance than just a one-off contest. 

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Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) dunks against the Utah Jazz during the second half of an NBA basketball game Monday, Aug. 3, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.

Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP

Feb. 24 vs. Lakers

LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers won the 2020 NBA title and then they got better. 

They added the grit and utility of Montrezl Harrell, Sixth Man of the Year candidate Dennis Schroder and a defensive beast in Marc Gasol.

Feb. 24 will be the Jazz’s first game against the reigning champs. I believe that the Lakers and the Mavericks pose the biggest threats in the West and that any team wanting to make it to the 2021 finals will have to get past one or both teams.

Not only could this game serve as a preview of what could come in the playoffs, it gives the Jazz a chance to test out the theory that if they’d had the services of Derrick Favors last season, the Lakers wouldn’t have walloped them so badly.

This is probably going to be a case where Gobert and Favors start together in order to limit the damage of Anthony Davis and Gasol. It’s the first opportunity for the Jazz to see if they have what it takes keep the Lakers from feeling too confident about their chances of winning back-to-back rings.