NBA Shootaround: And So It BeginsLayne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images
So much amazing is happening, and the Shootaround crew is back to help you keep track of it all. You’ll find takes on moments you might’ve missed from the previous night, along with ones you will remember forever.
Significant and Important
Shea Serrano: The Oklahoma City Thunder are a professional basketball team. Last night, they played the San Antonio Spurs, also a professional basketball team. Many things happened, some of which were significant and important, others of which were less so. Here are some thoughts on the game, in bullet points:
- Kevin Durant played in the game and did things Kevin Durant does, and while he didn’t do them as well as he is generally known to do, he was still doing them, and that is a good enough start. This is significant and important. We’ve missed you so much, KD. In the postgame interview, Russy Westbrook was asked about having KD back and he seemed genuinely, legitimately, all-the-way exuberant about it. Nothing is better than Happy Russy Westbrook.
- The Spurs lost. Heading into the game, they were 17-1 in season openers under Gregg Popovich, but they lost. This is not significant, nor is it important.
- LaMarcus Aldridge, the most famous new Spurs player, was 4-for-12 in the game, and he missed his last shot and also bobbled the ball out of bounds while trying to secure a rebound on an errant Danny Green jumper in the closing seconds. This is not significant, nor is it important, but I’m certainly going to act like it is. I don’t trust LaMarcus yet. I love the Spurs and I don’t trust LaMarcus. That’s just how it goes. That’s how it’ll be until we all see how he reacts in the playoffs when his feet are held to the fire. I hope they do not drift away into the atmosphere like ash would. That would be unfortunate.
- The most exciting thing in basketball is Russy Westbrook dive-bombing the rim at 200,000 mph, but the most captivating thing in basketball is the few seconds after he’s done that when he processes the experience and burns off the excess fuel with whatever kind of celebration he deems necessary. My favorite is the Mega Scream, followed by the Muscle Tense-Up in second place, and the Ultra Snarl in third. I love Russy Westbrook. I love Russy Westbrook a lot. Russy Westbrook is significant and important.
- DION WAITERS. Yes. Yes. Yes.
- STEVEN ADAMS. Yes. Yes. Yes.
- There were two separate moments when the Thunder had the ball on offense and Kawhi Leonard crawled inside of Durant’s body and stared out of his eyeballs. Nobody plays defense the way Kawhi Leonard plays defense. If he’s guarding you, you might as well go ahead and just pick up the ball and punt that bitch into the stands, because that’s the only way you’re going to keep him from getting it. Being guarded by Kawhi Leonard is no different than getting dropped into a casket full of anacondas. Being guarded by Kawhi Leonard is like being put inside of a bank vault filled with quick-set cement. Being guarded by Kawhi Leonard looks like an awful thing to experience, but it’s an amazing thing to watch. Kawhi Leonard is significant and important.
- Kyle Anderson is slow AF. It’s almost funny how slow he is. This is not significant, nor is it important, and the only time it will be is when it costs the Spurs a meaningful game, at which point we will never see him again.
- I’m so happy all the best pieces of the Thunder are healthy.
- Their team is fucking wonderful to watch and talk about and think about.
- I can’t wait to watch the Spurs and Thunder play in the Western Conference finals.
- It’s going to be so great.
- And significant and important.
- Because if the Thunder win, they’re going to win a championship and stay together (and best-case scenario, possibly become the new Spurs).
- And if they lose, the team is going to explode its guts all over the NBA (and become the current Clippers).
Claw of Nature
Kirk Goldsberry: Could this be the year of Kawhi Leonard? Who the heck knows? But it might be, and if it turns out that way, we can look back at this game and say it all started in Oklahoma. Sure, the Spurs lost, but Kawhi played out of his mind.
He tied his career high with 32 points, but he also used those big hands to add eight rebounds, three steals, and two blocks, including this one on Kevin Durant.
For Those Keeping Score at Home
Everyone Made the Leap in Orlando
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
Andrew Sharp: We start with Mario Hezonja. We were never starting with anyone but Mario Hezonja. He entered last night as many things, but most of all, in an NBA context, he is still a 20-year-old rookie who couldn’t get playing time on FC Barcelona last year. But there he was on opening night, looking as natural as anyone on the court, bombing 3s in his first quarter ever. This was Step 1 in going from “Internet urban legend” to “real NBA player who will pull up from anywhere and hit it.” It’s Hezonja season. Welcome.
There were other transitions last night.
- Victor Oladipo spent the past two seasons as “pretty good young player.” Last night he started to become “best player on this team, definitely.”
- Otto Porter was going from the “wait, is this really happening?” guy in last season’s playoffs to a legitimate small-ball cornerstone.
- Bradley Beal was going from last season’s frustrating third-year player to this season’s potential All-Star who will lead the team in scoring.
- Aaron Gordon was forgotten all last season, right up until last night, when everyone remembered to get excited again.
The Magic are in the same place as Gordon. They’ve been a total afterthought near the bottom of the East for the past three seasons. Last night told everyone those days are pretty much over. Whether they make the playoffs or not, they, like Gordon, will likely be a pain in the ass to play against all season long. That was Lesson No. 1 last night. Elfrid Payton almost had a triple-double, Tobias Harris added 15 points, and the defense was great. It’s crystal clear this team will only get meaner from here.
For now, though, Hezonja air-balled a jumper that would have put the game away. He also bobbled away a drive that could have done the same. There are different stages of The Leap that players and teams make. That was the other lesson.
Hezonja’s time will come, but in the final two minutes, John Wall blocked a layup that would have given Orlando a five-point lead. That led to Wall falling out of bounds and heaving a pass to half court to start a fast break that cut the lead to one. Four-point swing. Then he poked the ball away to cause a turnover on the next possession. Fifteen seconds later, he came out of a timeout, bounced into the lane, and hit the game-winning floater. It was all crazy, but it made a lot of sense: In the game where everyone involved was transitioning to a different plane of NBA existence, the difference was the All-NBA candidate who is about to become an MVP candidate.
Stat of the Night
Danny Chau: World, please don’t take this as a negative. Think of these turnovers like the colonies of bacteria in our intestines, or the active cultures in yogurt. Emmanuel Mudiay and Jahlil Okafor had excellent rookie debuts, both showing that the strengths on their scouting report can translate immediately in the big leagues. Those 11 turnovers ought to be celebrated like a badge of honor. Get that rookie-season high usage, son!
Hot Sauce in My Cup of Noodles
Jason Concepcion: Real talk: I was planning to use this space to scream KRISTAPS POR-ZIN-GIIIIIIIS until my breath came out in a tattered asthmatic rasp. And the Latvian was solid, his pale and willowy arms acting like glowing welcome signs, hypnotizing the Bucks into committing foul upon foul. The result: a Harden–esque 9-of-12 from the line providing the bulk of his 16 points (plus five rebounds and a block). But it’s a long season; there’ll be plenty of time for that.
Instead, I’d like to talk about DERRICK WILL-IAM-SSSSSSSS. Yes, Derrick Williams, a.k.a. the second pick in the 2011 draft, whose career, thus far, has given off nothing but a pungent bust-like stink. An existential tweener who himself seemed to not even know what position he should play, Williams spent his rookie-deal years in Minnesota and Sacramento infuriating his coaches while every so often cutting to the rim for spectacular dunks. Last season, George Karl compared his rebounding prowess unfavorably to that of a Coke machine. In other words, Williams showed every sign of being a bad basketball player. That might still be the case.
Or maybe it isn’t? He had a crackerjack preseason in his first action as a Knick, averaging 16 points on 57 percent shooting in only 21 minutes a game. Yes, I just cited preseason stats, but it’s always better to play well than to not. Last night, though, in the first real, actual, this-one-counts game of the season, Williams’s preseason form carried over. He keyed the Knicks’ second-unit buzz saw, scoring 15 points in roughly 12 minutes of first-half play, erasing a somnolent New York start. He was energetic and active, borderline twitchy, making decisive moves and smart, crisp passes. He created fast breaks and cut to the rim. He was like microwavable ramen noodles: quick to heat up, possibly trash, totally satisfying.
Now, do I trust him? No. I can’t shake the feeling that Williams, right now, is like the first month of a Ponzi scheme. Even last night, especially in the second half, he looked as if he might do something really dumb every second he was on the court. It’s just that he does everything with SO MUCH ENERGY that — again, right now, in Game 1 of the season — it’s all somehow working.
Hot Sauce on My Basketball
Knock Yourself Out
Ben Detrick: Over in Brooklyn, player introductions for the Nets’ season opener against the Bulls were handled by Jadakiss, the raspy, Yonkers–bred rapper. He wore a Julius Erving jersey from the ABA’s New York Nets and capped off the commencement with his mucous-y “ah-hangh!” ad lib. A bronze bust of Jadakiss was shown on the JumboTron; later, I ran into the sculptor. He described carrying the head in a duffel bag on a flight from Los Angeles, and he said airport security was concerned its hollow marble base might be concealing contraband (like a fist of heroin or plastic explosives or Komodo dragon eggs or whatever people smuggle).
The Bulls were cruising along by 19 when the Nets’ least-celebrated offseason acquisition decided the court was his own personal trough of bucatini. Andrea “Sheepshead Bae” Bargnani, en route to 17 points and seven boards, helped trim the lead to single digits by doing Bargzy things: hitting a spinning putback over Joakim Noah, air-balling a wide-open 3. His antics weren’t enough, and with several minutes left, the Barclays crowd began to file out as Chubb Rock’s “Treat ’Em Right” bopped over the speakers.
After the game, Jadakiss hosted a listening party for his new LP, Top 5 Dead or Alive, in the arena’s Billboard Lounge. There was a sea of music writers and label handlers and dudes who rapped verbatim to Jadakiss and French Montana’s “88 Coupes” (at least no one had the gall to recite the line “Flippin’ work / Comin’ back like Derrick Rose”). Off to the side, rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who notched eight points and five rebounds in his pro debut, had snuck in to watch, still wearing gray postgame Nets sweats. Brooklyn had lost its opener, but no one in the tangle of black-quilted puffer coats and leather jackets gave a damn.
Chau: Hours before Kobe had the Staples Center crowd rapturously cheering every one of his 24 points on 24 shots,1 on the other side of the continent, two of his mentees were doing what they’ve done all their lives: trying to be him.
In the final minutes of the season opener between the Indiana Pacers and the Toronto Raptors, Paul George and DeMar DeRozan took turns adapting recipes from the Modern Kobe Cookbook to fit their situation. George pulling up for a 12-footer off a curl on a baseline out-of-bounds play to tie the game. DeRozan sauntering into the frontcourt, then immediately backing into a smaller defender for a post-up isolation before turning toward the center of the paint and nailing a half-floater, and the foul. George, at the top of the key, driving past Cory Joseph and absorbing the contact for a hard-fought layup. DeRozan, against George on an isolation, creating space with a behind-the-back dribble into a 16-foot fadeaway with less than five seconds on the shot clock. It was basically a Civil War reenactment with artillery that only shot things from midrange. Neither player finished the game with a savory field goal percentage, which I suppose was part of the experience.
DeRozan was discombobulated to start the game. Say what you want about his hero-worshiping, cover-band approach to the game, but when he’s locked in, you can see the contours of a star player. He looked listless for much of the game, bricking free throws, unable to get a step ahead of his defenders, but he defrosted as the game progressed. Meanwhile, George was doing everything possible on the court except getting the ball into the basket. Frank Vogel’s controversial decision to move George to the power-forward slot suddenly became less about role and more about figuring out how to highlight a star with true potential as an omnipositional player.
The Raptors won in the end, and most of the credit probably goes to Jonas Valanciunas’s breakout and the elite defensive component DeMarre Carroll adds to the team that it didn’t have last season. But it was DeRozan who scored seven points late in the game and made some of the biggest plays down the stretch. And so we end on a Kobe–ism: It doesn’t matter how you began if you make your actions in those final ticks of the clock worth remembering.