With all due respect to the league’s official opening night, and its ring ceremonies and TNT double headers, the NBA’s season doesn’t start until the League Pass floodgates are opened. Following months of speculation and off-the-court drama, there is nothing quite like indulging in multiple games at once and losing yourself in the avalanche of NBA action.
Every season I vow to optimize my opening night viewing experience, and instead of immediately diving into the deep end by going to the split screens and multiple devices, I should savor a game at a time rather than staring off blankly and suffering a sensory overload. This year, I decided to compromise and go the marathon route, and watch enough of all ten games on the schedule to get a sense of each team and identify some patterns – besides bad ponytails – on the NBA’s true opening night of the 2016-17 season.
Miami 108, Orlando 96
Is there a chance the Miami Heat become a sneaky League Pass attraction this season, thanks in large part to Goran Dragic/Hassan Whiteside pick and rolls and, of course, Dion Waiters? The team will play hard every night for Erik Spoelstra and scramble on defense, and could succeed in spite of the lack of talent on the roster.
(Seriously, Luke Babbit starting at the small forward?! Rodney McGruder – who is clearly one of those simulated draft class players in NBA2K that somehow gained consciousness and has infiltrated the Heat rotation – playing 23 minutes and tying Justise Winslow for the team’s high in plus/minus?! All praise Coach Spo.)
Meanwhile, the Magic were without new addition Bismack Biyombo due to a one-game suspension from his playoff flagrant foul-spree while with the Raptors, and his return to the floor Friday should help a Magic defense that allowed its opening night opponent to shoot 45.8-percent from the field.
The offense, however, will be a glaring hole all season with or without Biyombo, and the team will need Serge Ibaka (6/17 for 14 points and seven boards) to get to the basket and draw a free throw or two while sharing the backcourt with the mid-range skills of Nikola Vucevic (7/14 shooting for 17 points and 14 rebounds).
Also worth watching with this team and its new head coach: the minutes distribution. All five starters played above 35 minutes against Miami; while this won’t be the first time I’ll complain about Mario Hezonja playing under 15 minutes in a game this season, I’m sure.
Dallas 121, Indiana 130 – OT
I… don’t like either of these teams, and spent the majority of my viewing time marveling at the poor quality of NBA defense on display. (I initially intended to count the amount of ball screens that Pacers defenders slid under, then gave up after J.J. Barea’s second off-the-dribble three-pointer. Ugh.)
Dallas’ offense found much more success in lineups without Andrew Bogut (to no great surprise), going to the four-out offense and relying on Dwight Powell dives off of high screens as a lob threat and to collapse the defense to free up corner shooters. The issue was then defense in replacing Bogut with Powell or Barea, as the trickle-down effect of sliding Dirk Nowitzki to center suddenly allowed Myles Turner to run amok on the offensive glass.
Turner’s activity placed him constantly in positions to succeed, whether facing up for a pick-and-pop jumper (on his way to a 30-point performance), swallowing 16 rebounds, or blocking four shots on the night. Following a couple of made jumpers later in the game, suddenly Harrison Barnes stuck to him for an extra second on a high screen, while Paul George came up firing off that same screen for a made-three that put his team ahead.
Myles Turner (and Paul George, of course) were really good in the Indiana Pacers’ season opener. The question then becomes: Do they need those type of performances, especially defensively, on a nightly basis in order to survive in the Eastern Conference?
(And maybe next time don’t disrespect Harrison Barnes so blatantly, and avoid overtime in Game One…)
Detroit 91, Toronto 109
The Toronto Raptors stuck to their gameplan against Andre Drummond’s Detroit Pistons: attack the franchise big man early and take advantage of a weakened Pistons bench. Jonas Valanciunas brought Drummond out high on the pick and roll which, combined with the slashing skills of DeMar DeRozan and a stray elbow on an attempted drive, led to foul trouble in the first half and an ensuing double-digit lead over the remainder of the evening. DeRozan drove by his Detroit defenders for a 40-point night on a career-high 17 made shots, joining Jonas in setting NBA history on opening night.
The Pistons’ bench rotation is in flux for the first couple of months while without starting point guard Reggie Jackson, but that’s no excuse for the duo of Beno Udrih and Arron Baynes and what may be the league’s worst pair of haircuts. (Is this a trend? /in my Seinfeld voice: “What’s the deal with the ponytails?”) Also disappointing, to a lesser extent, was the performance of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, with a 2-of-9 night from the field and almost no resistance against DeRozan.
Brooklyn 117, Boston 122
The Brooklyn Nets will spoil many a point spread this season under new head coach Kenny Atkinson (ask our own Matty B!). The team set their franchise’s record with 44 three-pointers hoisted in the defeat (converted at a 34.1-percent rate), and something tells me that mark might be broken again this season, repeatedly. Even Brook Lopez felt obligated to partake, making one of his two attempts from deep on an otherwise forgettable night, with just seven points on 1/7 field goals. The Brooklyn bench chipped away at a 23-point hole and made it a single-possession affair late in the fourth quarter, but neither Bojan Bogdanovic (21 points) nor Justin Hamilton (19 points and 10 rebounds) could tie the game with under 20 seconds remaining.
The Boston starting unit played as well as expected, in running their sets to spread the scoring around and offering added spacing due to the addition of Al Horford – who finished with 11 points, five rebounds, and six assists in his Boston debut. Rookie Jaylen Brown continues to impress with his incredible athleticism and naivete, which almost resulted in an attempted murder charge on Hamilton at the rim. Keep an eye on Boston’s bench as a point of vulnerability throughout the season.
(Ponytail count: We’re now at three in two games, thanks to Jeremy Lin.)
Minnesota 98, Memphis 102
Before we forget, Minnesota is set to remind us how young of a team they are and how bumpy the road to respect might be this season. Andrew Wiggins was an early agitator and helped propel his team to a 9-0 run to begin the game, and finished with 25 points and took as many field goals as free throws (14). Karl-Anthony Towns added 21 points along with five assists and a highlight or two, though he struggled a bit with the deft defensive technique of a rejuvenated Marc Gasol.
The difference between the two teams might currently come down to depth, with the Grizzlies supplementing their star duo with solid contributions from players such as James Ennis III, JaMychal Green, Wade Baldwin IV, and Deyonta Davis. Head coach David Fizdale even had the luxury of absorbing Tony Allen’s injury absence by starting Andrew Harrison at the off-guard, and although Harrison struggled with his shot, making just one of his seven attempts, he provided a plus-eight contribution in his game-high 38 minutes on the court. With free agent signing Chandler Parsons still sidelined with a knee injury, the Memphis depth will be especially crucial to start the season.
Charlotte 107, Milwaukee 96
Milwaukee Bucks who took more shots than Jabari Parker’s nine (in 29 minutes played):
Giannis Antetokounmpo – 13/21 FG, 31 PTS, 38 MIN
Greg Monroe – 5/14 FG, 14 PTS, 29 MIN
Mirza Teletovic – 3/12 FG, 6 PTS, 27 MIN
Matthew Dellavedova – 5/10 FG, 11 PTS, 29 MIN
It must be nice to have the luxury of drafting a devastating small-ball scorer with the second overall pick and, a few years into his development, relegate him to decoy duty on the perimeter. At least Jabari affects the game in so many other ways besides his scoring… (I’m kidding, I officially don’t get this Bucks team and already feel bad for Giannis and Mirza.)
Now these Charlotte Hornets… there’s a team that is confident in their strengths, and that strength is defense. Roy Hibbert looks like a perfect fit in Steve Clifford’s scheme and even added 15 points and three assists on the offensive end, to pair with nine rebounds and five blocked shots. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s return from shoulder surgery was a success, as he supplied 23 points and 14 rebounds with his usual superb defense, and – #HOTTAKE ALERT – showed some consistency with his jump shot by keeping his lead elbow tucked into his body.
Kemba and Nic Batum struggled shooting it from deep – combining for 4/14 on threes – but chipped in by keeping the ball moving (15 assists between them) and playing passing lanes for a couple of steals a piece. It’s a perfect situation for Hornets’ head coach Steve Clifford in his season opener, in that he gets a comfortable victory and yet still can harp on the team’s bench production, or lack thereof outside of Cody Zeller (15 points and six FT attempts) and Marco Bellinelli (0/2 from deep but the only sub with a positive plus/minus at plus-five).
New Orleans 102, Denver 107
Dude was possessed, and did everything he could to keep his team in contention against a deeper and, sadly, better squad. That’s not to disrespect Mike Malone’s collection of talented vets and interesting young players, but there’s a certain frustration in watching a transcendent talent like Davis dominate every single statistical category for his team and still fall short. If 50 points – on 17/34 from the field and 16/17 from the free throw line – along with 16 boards, five dimes, seven steals, and four blocks can’t carry a team to victory, then how despondent must the rest of the roster be?
Instead, let’s try to focus solely on another insane statline from Anthony Davis and appreciate the individual effort, if not the team’s result. And as for Denver, I’m cautiously optimistic, if unsure whether to credit them for being the better team or continue to shade this Pelicans roster (and especially general manager Dell Demps). Jusuf Nurkic may have been overshadowed by The Unibrow, but he is capable of posting nightly 20-point efforts and leading a surprise Nuggets team to respectability.
Oklahoma City 103, Philadelphia 97
I loved this game and generally everything about these Philadelphia 76ers. I may have been transfixed by an amazing home crowd, where the Philly faithful serenaded their young talent with chants of “Dario!”, “MVP”, and “Trust the Process” (for Mr. Saric and Mr. Embiid, respectively) while at the free throw line, but this 76ers team is fun.
For the first time since hiring Sam Hinkie to rebuild the franchise, this team has actual NBA talent to play alongside its high draft picks, and it paid off on opening night. Sergio Rodriguez picked up nine assists in his 31 minutes, including a couple of sneaky no-look passes to cutters, and enabled the offense to run actual plays (like some “Hammer” sets to free Saric for a couple of corner-threes).
And then there’s Joel Embiid. There’s a strong chance he becomes everybody’s second-favorite player this season, along with the sole reason why you might actually watch a 76ers game. His versatility and preternatural footwork is amazing for a player with his lack of on-court development time, and his upside might be unparalleled in the league if he can remain in the lineup and out of the trainer’s room.
Oh, and Russell Westbrook almost had another 30-plus-point triple double, but fell an assist shy. He’s kind of good at this basketball thing. Also, Domantas Sabonis might be an NBA rotation player. And small sample size, obviously, but Victor Oladipo and Russell seemed to take turns in running the offense whenever they shared the court together, and might be more comfortable in staggered rotations where they can handle the ball at will. Tough to gauge the level of difficulty against a hyped 76ers team and crowd, so we might have to revisit this Thunder team again soon against some more advanced competition.
(Joel Embiid, though!)
Sacramento 113, Phoenix 94
People who make me sad about these Phoenix Suns: Robert Sarver, Earl Watson, the end to Tyson Chandler’s awesome career, Eric Bledsoe healthy and wasting his prime on a bad team, Jared Dudley for taking power forward minutes that could go to the kids, and everything about Brandon Knight since leaving Milwaukee.
People who give me optimism about these Phoenix Suns: Devin Booker, Dragan Bender’s versatility, mobility, and joy at the game of basketball, Marqueese Chriss’s touch pass to get Alex Len a dunk, T.J. Warren and potential at 23 years old, and P.J. Tucker (purely out of fear).
And good for the Kings to beat up on a legitimately bad team! Given all the context and drama in the organization at seemingly all times, any positivity is welcome, especially with a new head coach in town and Boogie on board. It’s also got to feel nice for Willie Cauley-Stein to immediately start his sophomore season by welcoming a rookie to the league.
(Ponytail count: 4 – Matt Barnes)
Houston 114, Los Angeles Lakers 120
And speaking of questions, the lingering issue with the Houston Rockets was whether or not they could outscore their opponents on a consistent basis. After one game and against a foe that should finish as one of the league’s worst, the answer is a resounding “NAH”.
James Harden’s passing skills were impeccable, matching the entire Laker team’s assist total at one point in the second half. His handles and hesitation moves enable him entry into the lane at will, and this whole point guard experiment by Mike D’Antoni might be more than just a novelty, judging by Harden’s chemistry with Clint Capela. It’s just that whole concept of defense which, y’know, counts…
Is it too early to get excited for D’Angelo Russell? Or am I already too late to jump on the bandwagon? Is Julius Randle good, or at least not terrible? And was St. Jean right about the Lakers being a League Pass team worth following?