NBA opening night takeaways: Kawhi aces Raptors debut; Giannis, Kemba have MVP battle; Melo, Rockets a mess
Also, checking in on the debuts of Trae Young, Luka Doncic, Mo Bamba and Deandre Ayton
After the Celtics and Warriors tipped off the 2018-19 NBA season with victories on Tuesday, the more, shall we say, populated opening night was on Wednesday with 13 games on the slate. And very few of them disappointed. Here's a look at some of the major takeaways from Wednesday's action.
Anthony Davis, Pelicans dominate
When DeMarcus Cousins went out for the season last year, the Pelicans took off because of two reasons: A crazy-fast pace, and a defense that vaulted into top-five territory. That's the blueprint coming into this year with Cousins departed for Golden State, and on Wednesday the Pelicans were virtually flawless in their execution en route to a 131-112 trashing of the Rockets -- in Houston no less. Anthony Davis was a monster, finishing with 32 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists, but it was the play of his fellow front-courters Nikola Mirotic and newcomer Julius Randle that put Houston to sleep.
Mirotic went nuts with 30 points and 10 boards on 6-for-8 from three, and Randle chipped in with 25 points and eight boards. When I was in New Orleans toward the end of training camp, Alvin Gentry told me he loves the options playing those three together would present, with Mirotic spacing the floor and Randle operating as a playmaker at the top, both allowing Davis to do his thing on the catch and in space. So far, so good.
As for the pace, the new man charged with jump-starting the Pels' tempo is Elfrid Payton, who, ho-hum, notched a triple-double with 10 points, 10 dimes and 10 boards. Gentry told me one of the big things they liked about Payton before they signed him was his ability to get in the lane. If he pushes the pace like this, and draw defenders, Davis and others are only going to benefit.
It was just a perfect start for a New Orleans team that plenty of people have included on their list of Western teams that could struggle to make the playoffs. It appears Davis and company have other ideas.
So, about that Rockets defense ...
The whole reason Houston was able to push Golden State to seven game in the conference finals last year was its long, athletic, all-switching defense, which we knew would be weakened by the departures of Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. But 131 points on opening night? At home? Watch this play in the paint, on which the Rockets are depending on -- wait for it -- either James Harden, Eric Gordon or Carmelo Anthony to make the right rotations/efforts to make the stop:
This is the new defensive reality for Houston, which, as currently constructed, will be deploying a lot of lineups with those three in there. If you think James Ennis replaces Ariza, you're very likely wrong. My first season-opener overreaction was that the Sixers' half-court offense is in trouble, and my second is that Houston's defense is in trouble. They could still be OK, but not top 10. They need to be top-10 level to have any shot against Golden State down the line.
Melo still bringing his mid-range madness ...
When Melo took, and made, a pull-up, long-range two-pointer during the preseason, he turned to the Rockets' bench and straight-up apologized. It seemed to be a sign that Melo understood Houston's strategy to avoid these shots at all costs, and was actively trying to change his offensive approach -- which, of course, has relied upon these very shots from the second he entered the league. Then came Wednesday night, when Melo, who has to be one of the most stubborn players in history, went right back to his old ways of launching pretty much the worst shots in basketball time after time.
First he passes on the three (the shot everyone in Houston is trained to take) to take his favorite step-in long two-pointer:
Then Melo did his dribble-the-air-out-of-the-ball thing before trying, embarrassingly, to pull up on Anthony Davis. Big mistake:
Melo just refuses to change, plain and simple. He thinks these are good shots because, frankly, any shot he's taking he thinks is a good shot. But they're not good shots. They're bad shots. Particularly this last one. Melo has been saying all the right things, talking about how they have a chance to do something special in Houston and he is happy to be a part of it and blah blah blah. Chris Paul, Melo's Banana Boat buddy, said people knocking Melo's game were ridiculous, and that nobody realizes was an amazing shooter Melo is. Interestingly, this amazing shooter barely shot 40 percent from the field last year.
Translation: He's not amazing. He's stubborn. And he's not really that good anymore, even as just a shooter. And forget about his defense. For the game Melo finished with nine points on 3 of 10 shooting, inclusive 1 of 5 from three. He was also a minus-20 in his 27 minutes. You can do your own math.
Giannis' Freak Show starting early
With 25 points, 18 rebounds and eight assists, Antetokounmpo was incredible Wednesday night as the Bucks held off the Hornets 113-112 in what was easily the game of the night. Anyone who watched Giannis suffer through Jason Kidd's "system", which forced Giannis to work unnecessarily hard to make his impact, could see immediately on Wednesday what Mike Budenholzer's offensive plan is going to do to unlock The Freak. More space. More pace. Shooting all around. You open up the court like that on a consistent basis, and there is no stopping Giannis going to the rim.
First in transition:
Then in the half-court:
Good luck, everyone.
Kemba Walker nearly brought the Hornets back from 10-point fourth-quarter deficit vs. Milwaukee that was much bigger than that for much of the game. Breaking Dell Curry's franchise record for most opening-night points, Walker finished with 41 points on 7 of 13 from three. He was devastating coming off the pick and roll for triples, as he did here to close the third quarter:
The Hornets are an interesting team. Last year they only won 36 games, but per Cleaning the Glass's metrics, they had the statistical profile of a 42-win team. The problem was the fourth quarter, particularly in the final five minutes, when Charlotte dropped 12 games by five points or less. When I talked to new Charlotte coach James Borrego this summer, he said improving their fourth-quarter production was going to be a main goal this year, and they would do this by putting four 3-point shooters on the floor much of the time, thus spacing the floor and clearing out the lane for Walker. He also said they couldn't;t rely quite so heavily on Walker, as it allows defenses to settle in on him too much.
On Wednesday, for all Walker's heroics, the Hornets got a lot of great contributions, particularly when they went super small for much of the fourth quarter -- so small, in fact, that Walker actually wound up guarding Giannis one-on-one (he stopped him!). Malik Monk was terrific with 18 points on 4 of 8 from three -- and wouldn't that be something if Monk, who was pretty disappointing as a rookie, had a breakout second year. Borrego thinks he has the talent to do it, and Game 1 looked pretty encouraging. Keep an eye on Charlotte, and give Walker the star-player props he deserves. He doesn't get talked about in that group nearly enough.
Kawhi, Raptors off and running
in his Toronto debut, Leonard, who missed all but nine games last season, hardly looked like he'd missed a beat in putting up 24 points and 13 rebounds as the Raptors defeated the Cavs. Yes, he looked somewhat rusty in small ways, but he found an offensive rhythm after his first rest of the game and the old Leonard started to appear.
Leonard pushed in transition and went right into attack mode. He stuck pull-up jumpers. He drew defenders and found teammates. He got on the offensive glass for tip-ins. All night he was getting to his spots. He was physical and smooth with the ball in his hands. And along with OG Anunoby, he showed why the Raptors' perimeter defense might be one of the stoutest in the league.
Have a look at the highlights:
Also, so much for Leonard's conditioning being a problem. He played a game-high 37 minutes.
Yes, the Wolves need Jimmy Butler
With all of Butler's trade-demand/practice-tirade drama swirling around, Minnesota lost its opener to a seriously depleted Spurs team 112-108. Butler finished with 23 points and played as hard as usual. He was clutch down the stretch of a close game, drilling a side-step 3-pointer for the corner that could've been the shot of the game .. until DeMar Derozan scored on the other end and the Spurs wound up pulling it out.
You can understand Butler's feelings that the Wolves would be sunk without him. Karl-Anthony Towns, who just signed a $190 million extension and finished with eight points after fouling out in 22 minutes. As for Andrew Wiggins ...
To be fair, Wiggins did score 20 points. That highlight isn't indicative of his night, but it is indicative of this Minnesota mess, which isn't going away until Butler gets traded, which owner Glen Taylor has reiterated the team is committed to doing. Get this: Butler reportedly didn't even ride to the game on the team bus. He came by himself. Can you imagine? Dude wants no part of this situation.
Luka Doncic, Trae Young just OK
Might as well put these two together because after being traded for one another on draft night, they'r going to be compared to each other for a long time. Neither was particularly great in their debut.early that illustrated his huge potential as a playmaker, but never found the broke on his jumper. That said, you only need to watch this guy for about five seconds to know he can flat out play. He finished with 10 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Check out this dime to DeAndre Jordan:
As for Young, his line looked pretty good: 14 points, six rebounds and five assists. A lot of that was done with the Knicks up huge and the game getting relatively sloppy, but he showed an ability to get to into the paint and finish creatively, and you know the jumper is going to there most nights. Again, it was his passing that was probably most impressive. Atlanta GM Travis Schlenk and new coach Lloyd Pierce have both told me that they see passing as Young's best skill. Pierce also told me that it's something of a baby-step formula for the Hawks right now. They're most concerned with creating the right shots, and they'll worry about whether they make them down the road. Young created some nice looks for himself and his teammates Wednesday. He'll build from there.
Mo Bamba won't be on the bench for long
Orlando's seven-foot rookie looked pretty damn nice in his debut -- which, incidentally, Orlando won 104-101 over the Heat. Bamba finished with 13 points and seven boards on 6-of-8 shooting, and showed a little bot of everything on both ends of the court. First, he blocked two shots, which we knew he could do. He also hit a three, which we suspected he could do on some level, but to actually see it is scary for a guy with his size. Bamba, who finished as a team-high plus-13 in his 24 minutes off the bench, also showed an ability to create of the bounce and finish, as you'll see in the first clip of this highlight reel:
Also, shout out to Aaron Gordon, who carried Orlando with 26 points and 16 boards after signing a $76 million extension this offseason.
Booker a certified star, rookie Ayton on his way
Even though he signed a five-year, $158 million extension this summer, a lot of people have questioned whether Booker is a true max-contract star player, or if he's more of a volume scorer who can put up numbers on a bad team. I've always been high on him, which sounds convenient after the 35 points and seven assists (on 12 of 19 shooting, including 6 of 10 from three) he registered on Wednesday, but it's always been easy to see how fluidly this guy operates and how easily offense comes to him. Call me crazy, but I like guys who can put the ball in the basket. Somewhere, someone told me that's the point of basketball.
Anyway, back to Wednesday. Booker did it from everywhere, and when the Mavs pulled really close in the fourth quarter, he took over when his team needed him. Check this guy out:
As you can see, Booker had a number of nice finishes at the rim, both in transition and after beating his man off the dribble, and his jumper is ice. He's just a pure shot maker, from anywhere on the court. Josh Jackson was also superb for the Suns, and rookie Deandre Ayton finished with a cool 18 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in his debut. Ayton hit jumpers. He finished inside. This dude is a stud. This sounds weird to say, but the Suns are potentially building something really good.
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