The NBA is back! No, the NBA didn’t show up to practice an hour late and berate its teammates Tuesday night. But the regular season did tip off with two solid games. In what many expect to be an Eastern Conference finals preview, the Celtics dispatched the Sixers 105–87 at home. And out West, the Warriors mostly sleepwalked through a 108–100 win over a Russell Westbrook-less Thunder squad. Let’s dive a little deeper into each game…
The Celtics’ Depth is Already Paying Dividends
Here’s my favorite note from opening night: Four players for the Sixers played at least 30 minutes against Boston, with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid playing 43(!!) and 37, respectively. Simmons, Embiid, and Robert Covington all eclipsed their minutes-per-game average from the postseason in the opener. On the other hand, the only Celtic to reach the 30-minute mark was Al Horford. More than anything, Tuesday’s first game was a showcase for Boston’s incredibly versatile roster.
Kyrie Irving shot 2-of-14. Gordon Hayward shot 4-of-12 and only played 25 minutes. And the Celtics still won by 18 points with relative ease. I just don’t see how most teams will be able to buy time against Boston this season. Its depth is too much. Jayson Tatum can carry the offense even if everyone else is struggling. Meanwhile, Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Aron Baynes are all incredibly useful pieces off the bench. Rozier and Morris provide instant scoring, while Smart’s constant energy fends off any potential lulls. (Rozier even received some crunch time minutes as Irving’s jumper kept failing.) Baynes is a perfect counter for any bulky center, and his three-point shot is something to keep an eye on. Combine that with the top-end talent of Horford, Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, the Celtics are just relentless. They can match up with any type of lineup you want. The rotation lacks glaring weaknesses. For the East especially, they feel overwhelming. Even for a talented team like the Sixers, the margin of error shrinks incredibly when trying to match up with Boston.
It’s literally only been one game, but Philly looks the slightest bit too top heavy. Markelle Fultz showed he still has a long way to go to approach reliability. Landry Shamet was a nonfactor. Amir Johnson doesn’t move the needle. How many guys can the Sixers truly count on while Wilson Chandler is hurt—six? Maybe seven? I don’t want to overreact. This game would have been closer if the Sixers connected on a few more good looks from three. But I am curious to see how long Brett Brown will commit to starting Fultz, particularly after how impressive last year’s five of Simmons, Embiid, Covington, J.J. Redick, and Dario Saric were. That had to be a disheartening loss for Philly, who can’t quite figure out how to match up with the Celtics, despite force feeding its best players big minutes. I am interested to see these teams play when Chandler is healthy, however. (I also would not be surprised to see the Sixers keep a close eye on the backup center market.)
Of course, so much can change from opening night until the postseason. And drawing any super serious conclusions would be absurd. Still, Boston’s rotation really seems to be a marvel moving forward. The Celtics will be able to match any style of play, and they won’t allow opponents to catch their breath when one of their stars are sitting. The fact Boston can withstand poor shooting nights from two of its highest-paid players, not play anyone major minutes, and still win comfortably against its biggest rival is foreboding, to say the least.
Get Used to the Warriors Playing Big
Golden State eschewed any minutes for its Death Lineup on Tuesday, opting to keep a center on the floor at all times, even when the Thunder threatened to steal the game on the road. The Death Lineup has been the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card for the Warriors. It almost always ensures a win, and it’s what Steve Kerr often turns to during those dramatic third-quarter runs when Golden State demoralizes an opponent. Andre Iguodala leaving Tuesday’s win early didn’t help, but it’s clear Kerr is serious about keeping his guys fresh this season.
The only downside to the Death Lineup is the toll it takes on Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. By keeping a traditional five on the floor—such as Damian Jones or Kevon Looney—Kerr ensures that Dray and KD can play their natural positions, and the defense can set up a bit more traditionally, instead of relying on constant switches and flying around the court. Kerr said before the season he wants to lessen the load on Green and Durant, and he passed his first test by not leaning on a smaller lineup when the game got tight against OKC. (It helps, of course, that the Thunder don’t really invite teams to size down.)
The long-term reasoning here is obvious. The Warriors can simply bust out the Death Lineup in the playoffs and smoke opponents then, and they have plenty of talent to easily win games during the regular season without needing to play their best five together. Keeping a traditional big on the floor now could also help the team integrate Boogie Cousins into the starting five when he’s healthy, as the starters can grow more accustomed to always having a center on the floor.
It’s a little disheartening to consider that the Warriors are so talented they can save their best lineup until it’s absolutely needed in the playoffs. Seriously, Kerr could probably keep the Death Lineup on ice until the conference finals and still cruise to a title. Golden State already (rightfully) has issues caring about the regular season, and now the team also seems content saving its best bullets for only the most important moments months down the road. As long as the Warriors keep winning games (and they will win very many), expect Kerr to hold out on playing one of the best lineups ever constructed until the moment matches the talent. (Or maybe they’ll just be better with Boogie.)