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Three things to know: Physical Zion, Pelicans run roughshod over Nets

Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Physical, aggressive Zion, Pelicans run roughshod over Nets

The big question for Brooklyn, the one even Kevin Durant was asking, was how will this Nets roster respond when adversity hits? The talent on the roster is unquestionable, but does this team have the grit, the toughness, the determination to push through when things get hard?

We’re going to be finding out sooner rather than later.

Adversity came early to Brooklyn — Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans ran straight through and over the Nets on opening night.

The Pelicans pounded a soft Nets defense inside all night long. New Orleans had 23 more shots in the paint than Brooklyn. The Pelicans grabbed the offensive rebound on 45.3% of their missed shots — 21 offensive boards — on their way to 36 second-chance points (the Nets had four). Brooklyn didn’t make up for it from the outside, shooting 10-of-33 from beyond the arc.

The Pelicans started the game on a 20-4 run and never looked back, cruising to a 130-108 beatdown of the Nets on opening night.

Zion was unafraid to go at the Nets’ best perimeter defenders in Royce O’Neal and Ben Simmons. The Pelicans star uses a low center of gravity on his drives — he gets lower than his 6'6" frame — and seemingly easily went through and around the guys the Nets are banking on to slow the other team’s best players.

Zion was energetic, tough (especially on the offensive boards), and finished with 25 points on 11-of-22 shooting (every shot taken in the paint), with nine rebounds and four steals. The scary thing for the rest of the league? He still didn’t look all the way back with his explosiveness and athleticism. It’s just one game after missing an entire season, but Zion appears on the path to being the guy we remember seeing — an aggressive, attacking, physical force of nature with a soft scoring touch around the rim. And his defense was improved.

It’s just one game after missing a season for Simmons, too, but he was not aggressive, not looking comfortable, and was not the player the Nets needed him to be. On offense he looked like an awkward fit trying to figure out how to playoff off Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Simmons finished with four points on three shots, and just did not impact the game like the Nets needed him to. He fouled out in 23 minutes.

Kevin Durant looked great, scoring 32 points on 11-of-22 shooting, and he even had four blocks. But the other Nets did not step up to his level and did not show a lot of fight in this one — a concerning issue on opening night. Kyrie Irving had 15 points on 6-of-19 shooting. The Pelicans defended well enough on the perimeter to force the Nets into more midrange shots — Brooklyn missed Joe Harris and Seth Curry, both out with injuries — and the Nets didn’t step up and knock down enough of those looks.

Other Pelicans did step up — they had balance. Brandon Ingram looked like his All-Star self with 28 points, CJ McCollum had 21with six assists, and Trey Murphy III impressed off the bench with 16. Jonas Valanciunas had 13 rebounds to go with his 15 points, and he was a big part of the Pelicans dominating in the paint.

It’s just one game, too early to read too much into the Nets. Irving will have better games. Simmons has to get his legs under him. Getting their best shooters healthy will help. Brooklyn is better than this.

But the Pelicans challenged the Nets and ran right over them — the toughness and grit needed to win in the NBA was not on display. Brooklyn has to find it and find it early — they will be every team’s target — if they want to reach the contender status where they think they belong.

2) The Damion Lee show caps off 22-point Suns comeback — and revenge — against Mavericks

For 24 minutes, this looked and felt too much like Game 7 of the playoffs last season — a blowout Dallas win that eliminated the favorite Suns and made everyone outside the locker room question the Suns as contenders. With Luka Doncic running the show, the Mavericks were up by 22 and seemingly in total control of the game.

Then Phoenix got its revenge.

Two huge shots from Damion Lee capped off a dramatic and cathartic comeback. The first was a 3-pointer to put the Suns up four with 1:38 left.

Doncic wasn’t done — he finished with a game-high 35 points on 23 shots, plus had nine assists — and hit an and-1 to tie the game up at 105.

Then it was Lee one more time, this time with a tough game-winner.

Lee’s old Warriors teammate Stephen Curry loved it.

Doncic got a clean look at a long 3-pointer to give the Mavs the win, but it hit the front of the rim, and Phoenix got the 107-105 victory.

A win that helps exorcize the demons of last season. Sure, it’s just one win to open an 82-game marathon of a season, but this was the win the Suns needed to shake off the end of last season.

One thing to watch out of this game, Chris Paul sat on the bench at the end and Monty Williams went with Cameron Payne. After the game Williams said he was riding the hot hand, which may be the case, but Paul had six points on 1-of-6 shooting on the night, although he did dish out nine assists. It’s just something to keep an eye on going forward.

3) Paolo Banchero puts up historic 27/9/5 line in first game

Paolo Banchero might be special.

His opening night put him in historic company — Banchero finished with 27 points, nine rebounds and five assists.

The Magics’ other young stars stepped up, too — Jalen Suggs had 21 points on 8-of-11 shooting, and Franz Wagner added 20.

It wasn’t enough to get the win against a Pistons team that might be pushing for a play-in spot when this season ends. Bojan Bogdanovic had 24 points as the veteran, and Cade Cunningham had 18 points and 10 assists. Rookie Jalen Duren might be a steal, he had 14 off the bench.

Other games of note from opening night in the NBA:

• Ja Morant and Jalen Brunson put on a show late but Morant was a little better — 34 points and nine assists — and he got a little more help as the Grizzlies beat the Knicks 115-112.
• Upset of the night: Revamped Utah wasn’t tanking opening night, pulling off a 123-102 victory against Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets.
• In games in the East between projected playoff/play-in teams, the Bulls upset the Heat 116-108 behind 37 from DeMar DeRozan, and the Raptors beat the Cavaliers 108-105.
• Jerami Grant’s old-school three-point play gave the Trail Blazers the lead with 50.4 seconds to play and Portland beat Sacramento 113-108 on a night Damian Lillard was not his peak self (but still had 20 points).