30-ish thoughts from 15 games
Something that caught my eye in every team's opener.
The NBA’s opening week is always an ecstatic blur. Here’s me drinking in as much basketball as possible:
I’ve managed to watch a significant part of every game so far (and the totality of about half), and unsurprisingly, I’ve got Thoughts.
From stars to scrubs to stats to squabbles, there is plenty to discuss. We’ll have time to go deeper as the season goes on and sample sizes steady, but for now, here’s a quick spin around the association.
Blazers 111, Clippers 123
Listen: Scoot Henderson will be fine. He has an electric first step, and preseason and Summer League showed his command of an offense. But even the best rookies usually struggle in their first NBA games, and Scoot had as rough an introduction as anyone.
In the first few minutes, Scoot was back-cut into a thousand slivers of human flesh by Russell Westbrook, got blocked on what he thought would be an easy layup, committed a travel, and passed directly to the other team. I predicted the Blazers would be the worst team in the West this season, and this game only reinforced that opinion.
(Also, Deandre Ayton only getting up four shot attempts seems…bad. There are a lot of young guys on this team hungry to get theirs, and someone will be squeezed out. Something to watch.)
On the other hand, the Clippers looked as good as I’ve seen them in a hot minute, and it started with Russell Westbrook. I said in my Western preview that Westbrook’s one- and two-pass drive-and-kick possessions are more effective than they are pretty, which was on full display in his 13-assist masterpiece. He also nearly tore the rim off the stanchion with some throwback jams, played solid defense, and generally looked locked in.
This is the version of Russ we last saw in Oklahoma City next to this same Paul George (27 points on 17 shots), and it’s a good one. He won’t drop 13 assists every night, but if he keeps up his distributor-first mindset, the Clippers might have more upside than people think.
Cavaliers 114, Nets 113
Max Strus set a record for most three-pointers in a debut with a new team, going 7-for-13 and tying for the team high with 27 points. He looked like a wonderful fit zipping around off-ball screens and spacing in the corners, and he even forced a couple of turnovers.
Strus won’t score 27 every night, but the theory of the offense is so much stronger with his shooting next to Donovan Mitchell’s bull-rush drives and Darius Garland’s whimsical skipping. Cleveland has to be pleased with the early returns.
Brooklyn was the Cam Thomas show, as he dropped 36 points in 25 minutes and had nearly twice as many field goal attempts (21) as the next-closest person (Mikal Bridges, with 12). It feels like we see this every so often from Cam, but his defensive ineptitude and allergy to passing have always put him right back on the bench. Coach Jacque Vaughn might be forced to keep him on the court, though, as the team struggled to put up points without him — the offense was +31 points per 100 possessions better with Thomas on the floor.
Hawks 110, Hornets 116
Brandon Miller looked good!
The Hornets were widely dragged for drafting Miller over Scoot Henderson, particularly given his off-court legal issues (this isn’t a team brimming with high-character guys).
But Miller had a big fourth quarter despite some early foul trouble and finished with 13 points while showing the exact offensive versatility the Hornets hoped they were getting.
He had a nasty stepback three in the left corner, two catch-and-shoots, and two beautiful finishes on timely cuts from the right corner, including this one on a patient dime from my dude Mark Williams:
Most of his points came in the fourth quarter, and the Hornets would not have won without his efforts. It wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but on a night when so many rookies had their ups and downs, it was good to see Miller contribute to winning.
For the Hawks, Jalen Johnson was all I hoped for and more in an expanded role, with 21 loud points in 29 minutes. He was energetic and decisive. Watching his battle with Saddiq Bey (and maybe De’Andre Hunter) for minutes will be a fun Atlanta storyline all season.
Lakers 107, Nuggets 119
Denver’s starters were as brutally effective as ever; yawn. More interestingly, the Nuggets tread water with Jokic on the bench, which seldom happened last year. The team was just a -3 with Jokic’s tushy on elm; not amazing, but certainly acceptable compared to efforts in years past.
Reggie Jackson was the bench minutes leader with 24. He was a +11 for the game and had a couple of nice defensive plays while knocking down two triples. Denver is starved for bench ballhandling, so despite falling out of the rotation last year, Jackson will be playing a big role by default.
(My man Julian Strawther, preseason MVP, was a “DNP-Coach’s Decision.” Michael Malone traditionally takes a while to warm up to rookies, so Strawther will likely have to wait a bit to earn some playing time. But it’s coming.)
For Los Angeles, I’m cheating a bit here. Coach Darvin Ham said after this game that LeBron would have a 30-minute cap to preserve him for the playoffs…but just one game later, LeBron put in 35 grueling minutes in Los Angeles’ tight win over Phoenix. So it seems the limit is more of a guideline than a rule, to be ignored when convenient. That’s probably in L.A.’s best interest.
Wizards 120, Pacers 143 (!)
This game was confirmation bias manifested into the real world. The Pacers have a great offense, while even Swiss cheese thinks the Wizards’ defense has a lot of holes.
I continue to love Andrew Nembhard, who dropped 10 assists off the bench. The ball was flying around, and the Wizards put up less than no resistance (heck, even Bennedict Mathurin had five dimes!).
One thing to watch: Bruce Brown set a career high with six triples on eight attempts. He’s never been anything close to a volume shooter. I’ll be tracking to see if he reverts to his prior ways or if he’s truly a man reborn, a late convert of the three-point religion.
Indiana won’t play the Wizards every night, but they did exactly what they should’ve done. Can’t ask for more than that.
Washington, frankly, had few bright spots, but Bilal Coulibaly continues to impress with his defensive playmaking instincts. Like everyone else on the team, he got beat plenty of times (and there was little to no help or communication), but he at least put up a fight, lodging three monstrous blocks (including two where he initially looked beat):
Suns 108, Warriors 104
With Draymond Green and Bradley Beal both out, it didn’t feel like we learned much about what these teams are capable of at full strength, but one stat popped: the Warriors were a +5 with Steph Curry off the court.
Like Jokic, Curry has been an on/off deity his entire career; even in his rookie season, the Warriors were +2.4 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off (the 75th percentile). He’s never dipped below +5.2 since, an astonishing credit to his inimitable skills.
But for one game, at least, the Warriors bench wasn’t the problem. Chris Paul, while technically a starter, looked in command of the second unit as expected (his nine assists were one fewer than the rest of the team combined!), Jonathan Kuminga battled foul trouble but played well, and Moses Moody provided a much-needed scoring spark.
On a night when the starters largely didn’t have it, the Warriors should be encouraged by their backline play.
For the Suns, it was a great reminder that Josh Okogie still makes a lot of sense as the fabled fifth starter next to Nurkic (who played a fantastic game, although his defense was a little overstated) and the three stars. His hustle on the boards turned the tide several times, his defense was excellent, and he even banged in a triple. He won’t be this effective every night, but the best version of Josh Okogie is also the fifth-best player on the team.
Celtics 108, Knicks 104
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