Five Takeaways from NBA Wednesday: Welcome back, fear the Thunder
It’s the first full slate of the season for the NBA — 14 games — but in case you couldn’t hang out in front of the TV because you had to coach one daughter’s soccer practice then go to a fundraiser for another (parents out there are nodding their heads), here are five takeaways from a night around the NBA.
1) Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant are back — fear the Thunder. You could see it through the preseason, but Wednesday might they made it official — the Thunder are back. There was Russell Westbrook putting up 19 first-half points plus dishing out four assists to keep the Thunder in it. Then with the game on the line in the fourth Kevin Durant and Westbrook combined for 16 points on nine shots. With that the Thunder beat the Spurs, 112-106 in a tough season opener.
Durant didn’t have a monster night — 22 points on 6-of-19 shooting — although a big part of that had to do with him being guarded by Kawhi Leonard much of the night (Leonard had a monster night of his own, 33 points on 23 shots). Westbrook finished with 33 points on 23 shots, plus 10 assists.
Here’s what should make fans of other contenders nervous: Billy Donovan was brought in to make sure the Thunder were more than Westbrook and Durant. That’s the only way they can win the ultimate prize next June. Wednesday, with the game on the line late, Dion Waiters hit two huge jumpers. Steven Adams made a great switch and contest on the Spurs’ shot attempt to win the game the buzzer. For all his defensive flaws, Enes Kanter put up 17 points and 16 boards. The point is those other guys did step up and make plays, and that makes the Thunder far more dangerous.
2) Kobe Bryant started his 20th season and looked exactly like what we should expect. Like expecting your grandmother to understand Halo, expecting Kobe Bryant to change at this point in his career would be foolish. Kobe is who he is — he doesn’t get to the rim much anymore, his shot selection isn’t ideal, however his footwork and fundamentals are impressive, and when those shots fall he’s dangerous. And those shots were falling in the first half Wednesday night as Kobe put up 15 points early.
Kobe started the game 8-of-16 shooting, but he missed his final eight shots. Bryant — and the entire Lakers team — ran too much isolation down the stretch as they blew a 16-point lead and lost to the Timberwolves 112-111. To be fair, it wasn’t just down the stretch, the Lakers’ offense was stagnant and isolation heavy all game, they just hit shots for stretches. Kobe finished with 24 points on 8-of-24 shooting, going 3-of-13 from three. Maybe a little of that is rust coming off all his injuries, but the reality is he’s not an efficient scorer anymore and his challenge will be sustaining the success he does have. The Kobe of Wednesday night is a Kobe we could see a lot this season.
By the way, both Karl-Anthony Towns (14 points, 12 rebounds) and Julius Randle (15 points, 11 boards, and fearlessly went right at Kevin Garnett) showed promise. They are two young players to watch.
3) Detroit beat Utah and is off to a surprising 2-0 start. The last time the Pistons were 2-0, they were so underwhelmed, they promptly traded Chauncey Billups for a washed-up Allen Iverson. After that deal led to seven dismal years, Detroit is surely more pleased with its fast start this season. The Pistons have beaten the Hawks and Jazz, relying on energy and defense. Detroit’s offense has sputtered, but Stan Van Gundy’s revamped lineup has at least shot well on 3-pointers. It’s too early to overreact, but for a Pistons team that began the season on the playoff bubble, this fast start might nudge to inside-looking-out status. —Dan Feldman
4) Did NBA’s new replay center miss a goaltending call that cost Orlando the game? Welcome back to the NBA Scott Skiles, good luck sleeping after this game. His Magic were up by one point when John Wall made what would ultimately be the game-winning shot.
That gave the Magic 10.7 seconds to try to hit a game winner of their own. Tobias Harris drove past Otto Porter and put up a floater that bounced and hung on the rim while guys jumped up thinking tip — and on the floor the referees called goaltending on the Wizards for one of those tips.
However, once the NBA’s new replay center got a good look at it, they reversed the call and said Bradley Beal’s touch of the ball — after the game he admitted he touched the ball — was incidental and not when the ball was over the cylinder (and after Nikola Vucevic had hit it). Man that is close. I think this is the angle that might have sealed Orlando’s fate — the ball was certainly coming out but was it still over the cylinder when Beal hits it?
Magic fans, this is not why you lost — you had a five-point lead with two minutes to go and couldn’t hold it. That is what is going to keep Skiles up more than the call.
5) Knicks, Nuggets pick up impressive upsets wins. There are always some upsets opening night, but Denver and New York gave us head-turners. The Nuggets beat the Rockets on the road 105-95 behind 23 points from Danilo Gallinari, plus a defense that held Houston to 84.6 points per 100 possessions on the night. James Harden was 6-of-21 shooting. Not sure Denver can sustain all that defense, but the Mike Malone era got off to an impressive start.
As for the Knicks, their offense looked uptempo and like a triangle in a 122-97 win over a Bucks team that is supposed to have a strong defense. Carmelo Anthony was off (11 points on 4-of-16 shooting) but Derrick Williams had 24 points on 17 shots, while Langston Galloway added 16 points on 10 shots (4-of-5 from three). Again the question is sustaining it, but that’s a strong start for the Knicks.