The NBA Is Back! Ten Opening Night Lessons
- The Warriors have some questions to answer. Damian Lillard could be MVP. And the Cavs are shining. Here are our biggest takeaways from NBA opening night.
The Warriors were destroyed by the Spurs, the Cavs got their rings and dominated the Knicks, Damian Lillard looked like an MVP in Portland, and basketball's officially back.
What did we learn on opening night? Here are 10 takeaways.
1. The Warriors have some questions to answer.
Well hey, that was a pretty horrendous start! "I think the guys were embarrassed tonight," Steve Kerr said afterward. "I know I was." Kevin Durant: "It was a slap in the face. Woke us up a bit." It's tricky now. Nobody wants to claim the Warriors have major issues, or that this changes the outlook for the season, mostly because the talent in Golden State will probably make any skepticism look ridiculous by June.
Still: that wasn't just a close loss where new teammates were out of sync. The Spurs exposed real holes, plus problems we'd expected. Draymond Green struggled to get engaged, Steve Kerr yelled at him, he got another technical, and later explained that he won't change. Klay Thompson—"I'm not sacrificing shit" Klay Thompson—never found a rhythm and finished with 11 points. Curry and Durant were generally as excellent as expected, but their supporting cast was as impotent as every skeptic warned. All of it was sobering in a way that was genuinely shocking after the past month of quotes from around the NBA.
Nobody has any real Warriors answers after one game. But there are more questions now, so let me just list these out loud:
• Andre Iguodala was –28 on the night, and he finished with 3 points. What if Andre Iguodala is old now?
• If Andre Iguodala is old now, do the Warriors have more than five playoff-caliber NBA players on the team (including Shaun Livingston)?
• The Spurs dominated by getting easy baskets in transition every time the Warriors tried to run. Will other teams be able to do that?
• What if Draymond's issues are actually a problem? The scrutiny of this team means that every cheap shot will be Vined, every quote will be psychoanalyzed, and every bad shooting game will lead to cross-examinations afterward. At some point, there's a real chance that could wear on everyone, right?
• The Spurs are good, but nobody is 130-points good. How was the defense that bad?
• Is Zaza Pachulia going to be playing on this team in the playoffs? Is David West? What about Javale McGee? Is it possible to survive without a center?
• If the Warriors are rolling out D+ centers with their All-Stars for the next eight months, will they score enough to make the other issues irrelevant?
The answer to that final question is almost definitely "Yes" against 90% of the league, so there should only be so much concern post-Spurs. They also won't face Kawhi Leonard every night, and they should have an easier time finding a rhythm on offense and keeping the ball moving. The biggest issue is probably Iguodala. His back injury in the Finals was the most underrated factor in how that series shifted, and he's as integral to any Death Lineup as Draymond Green. And the Death Lineup is twice as important on a team with no real solutions at center, so... It's something to watch.
The Warriors should be fine, and in a playoff series, they'll have all kinds of advantages that make them unfair. But most every basketball fan I knew had talked themselves into enjoying the Warriors as pure dominance spectacle. Last night they were a lot more interesting.
As for the rest of the night...
2. The Cavs are not here to be modest.
Look at the size of that ring. Look at it. That's a ring you only buy if you are a) a 2,000-pound elephant looking for something tasteful, or b) looking to the celebrate the single greatest title anyone involved will ever experience. I can't even be mad at them. Just like I'm not mad at LeBron for, I think, telling everyone who's not from Ohio that they should stop living. It doesn't matter. That title—and the comeback, and especially the performance from LeBron—bought everyone immunity for the rest of the calendar year. Go make the ring bigger. Let J.R. Smith wear his during games. Build a statue of the ring. That's how great the Finals were.
3. Never doubt Damian Lillard.
"I want to be the MVP," Damian Lillard said Sunday. "If we come out and do the things we’re capable of doing as a team, if we win games, that means my performance will be at the level of an MVP." If this sounded crazy 24 hours ago—admirable, but irrelevant—it's less so after what he did Tuesday.
It's not that I was really "doubting" Lillard, but as the third quarter unfolded Tuesday, the Jazz were beating up the Blazers. Utah was too deep, and the Blazers were too thin outside McCollum and Lillard. Rodney Hood was going off (26 points), Rudy Gobert was controlling the paint on defense, and Joe Johnson was taking over the entire game. He scored 27 of his 29 points in the second half. All the preseason hype was being validated in real time. And then Dame happened, and it felt crazy to have ever doubted him. Especiailly at home, in the season opener, in a game that was close the entire way. Of course he'd finish it.
Lillard had 18 of his 39 points in the fourth quarter—to go with nine rebounds and six assists—and he annihilated the Jazz almost by himself. This three technically ended it, but it was all of it that buried Utah. Keeping up with Lillard is going to be so exhausting for teams all over the league, and I can't wait.
4. Never doubt the Spurs.
It can't be overstated how ridiculous Kawhi Leonard was Tuesday night. He was like a free safety, who also played shutdown corner, who also played quarterback on the other end. His deflections on defense made it twice as difficult for the Warriors to ever get going past the first few minutes (he finished with five steals, but it felt like more). He was also more aggressive on offense than he'd been in the entire OKC series (he finished with 35 points to lead all scorers). It was incredible.
The rest of the Spurs were almost as good. Lamarcus Aldridge (26 and 14) got whatever he wanted inside, and also hit from the midrange. Jonathon Simmons was so good (20 points) that it didn't seem real—jokes about the Spurs laboratory are all fun and games until Danny Green gets hurt and Pop just pulls Jimmy Butler out of thin air.
It's hard to say how much of this is sustainable beyond Leonard and Aldridge, but again, doubting the Spurs is always the first mistake. They dominated every phase of the game. They singlehandedly gave the rest of the league hope against the most talented team anyone's ever seen. And this Jonathon Simmons dunk is the official recap of night one:
5. The Jazz have new weapons, but the same questions.
Coming into this season, there were two types of Jazz articles. First, the "look at all the depth the Jazz added, they're ready to climb up the West" articles. Then, the "everyone keeps talking about the Jazz, but who's their closer?" articles. Tuesday, Utah looked awesome through the first three-and-a-half quarters, but by the end, they could go only go to Joe Johnson isos so many times before things finally broke down.
Utah fans will claim that Gordon Hayward was hurt along with Derrick Favors and Alec Burks—true!—but I'm not sure any of them would have made a difference against Lillard in the final minutes. That's not even a criticism. Lillard is incredible, and he's one of a handful of closers that'll be tough for any team to match. Utah doesn't have that player, but there's still a chance for them to be really good once everyone's healthy. A Jazz-Blazers playoff series, for example, looks like it would be incredible. For now, I'm pretty sure Tuesday night proved everyone's Jazz takes right.
6. When he's feeling it, Kyrie Irving will ruin lives.
Somewhere in the middle of the third quarter of Knicks-Cavs, Kyrie Irving got hot.
Kyrie Irving in the third quarter: 13 points on 5-for-7 shooting, 3-for-4 on threes. LeBron James with five assists in the third.— Jeff Zillgitt (@JeffZillgitt) October 26, 2016
Look at the three he hit over Porzingis.
Then watch him finish at the rim over Porzingis.
Look at him go up and under on Brandon Jennings.
When Kyrie is hot, he is impossible. No one on earth is better at rendering defenses completely irrelevant. He finished with 19 in the third quarter, on 8 of 10 shooting. After entering up four, the Cavs were up 19 by the fourth quarter. Kyrie ended it by himself.
7. Derrick Rose is not going to help the Knicks.
Confession: I just don't want to watch Derrick Rose play basketball anymore. He was forcing offense early and often for the Knicks last night, and the rest of the team never really found its rhythm. Maybe that's an aberration after missing most of training camp, but it's also how he played most of the past three Bulls seasons, so it can't be that far off from what New York is getting all year. Remove him from this roster entirely and the team may not be that much better, but they'd probably be a lot more fun to watch.
8. Mindaugus Kuzminskas could save the Knicks.
Toward the end of Knicks-Cavs, the always helpful NBA Catwatch alerted the world to Mindaugus Kuzminskas' dog's Instagram account. Kuzminskas is a rookie from Lithuania who had some nice moments in the preseason, and he and his girlfriend share a Westie named Snaige, which means snowflake in Lithuanian. Elsewhere in the fourth quarter last night, I learned that Ron Baker from Wichita State is on this team. He looks like an extra from Everybody Wants Some who's playing in the NBA. Go Knicks.
9. Family ties don't last forever.
Popovich on whether pal Steve Kerr still seeks advice: "I hate Steve Kerr. If he asked me anything, I'd tell him to go urinate in a bucket."— Carl Steward (@stewardsfolly) October 26, 2016
10. This Warriors season will be fun.
Draymond's mother gets the final word.
Get Javale out their with the STARTERS..— WARRIORMOM (@BabersGreen) October 26, 2016
Here we go!