Well, there are only two days of Rosh Hashanah, so that introductory metaphor was bound to be short-lived. The final four holdouts — Hawks, Wizards, Bulls, and Clippers — all go tonight, and the NBA season will be official for every fan base in the country. And the Warriors are below .500 for the first time since November 14, 2012!
Washington @ Atlanta, 7:30 pm. After three seasons of ascendance, as Mike Budenholzer turned Atlanta into Spurs East, the Hawks seem to have stagnated and risk being passed in the conference hierarchy by younger, hotter teams. Human lightning bolt emoji Dennis Schroder takes the reins at point guard, but he’ll find the lane more clogged with Dwight Howard’s rim runs than with Al Horford and Paul Millsap popping out to the elbow. Howard remains a very good rim protector and rebounder, and improving the Hawk’s shoddy board work will give Schroder chances to get out and go in transition – where the 23-year-old German has already grown comfortable finding Kyle Korver trailing into pockets of open space.
Washington also took a step back last year, finally and mercifully replacing lame-duck coach Randy Wittman with Scott Brooks. Not exactly upgrading to a Ferrari, but even a Corolla runs better than a rickshaw with a busted wheel. John Wall is a true superstar, but like a year ago, the Wizards’ team success rests on the health and development of Bradley Beal and Otto Porter. Kent Bazemore and Atlanta’s team defense keeps Beal in check tonight, Howard gets a lot of post touches to start his homecoming on a positive note, and Korver and Bazemore rain from outside in a double-digit win.
Boston @ Chicago, 8 pm, TNT. Missing presumptive starters Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, the Celtics had to sweat out a tight win over an abysmal Nets team in their opener last night. The offense rolled to 122 points, behind 25 from Isiah Thomas and 21 from Jae Crowder – but they’re going to need players other than Thomas to get to the line every once in a while to beat most teams. When Olynyk returns in a few weeks, Horford would be best-served taking a few steps inside the arc (he took four three-pointers last night, making one) and bumping up his efficiency, ball-handling, and passing, while letting the second-most accurate three-point shooting seven-footer in league history bomb away from outside. With Smart out for the first handful of games, Brad Stevens will have to do a better job of walling off penetration: Brooklyn’s starting backcourt of Jeremy Lin, Bojan Bogdanovic and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson attempted 16 shots from inside six feet.
That won’t fly at the United Center, where Fred Hoiberg plans to start balll-dominating newcomers Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade alongside Jimmy Butler – though as the season progresses, he’ll find a better way to stagger their minutes. The shooting-poor troika is PACED by Butler’s career 32.8 percent from deep, and all three are at their best working from the top of the key and careening to the hoop. Until Doug McDermott forces his way into the rotation, or Nikola Mirotic steals the starting power forward spot, Chicago won’t have enough shooting elsewhere to compensate. Boston strangles them defensively, and one night after a 122-117 firecracker, holds Chicago under triple-digits while getting just enough offense of their own from Thomas and Avery Bradley.
San Antonio @ Sacramento, 10:30 pm. Both teams are 1-0, coming off of impressive and unexpected victories. In addition to gumming up Golden State’s all-everything offense Tuesday with five steals and velcro defense on Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard scored 35 a career-high points at the other end (including 15/15 from the charity stripe). The two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year has to be at the top of his game again tonight, as I expect Leonard to see a lot of Rudy Gay – a much bigger, more physical presence than Thompson, and who thrives working on the ball in the midrange rather than spotting up outside the arc.
Gregg Popovich’s veteran team will be much more disciplined defensively than the young, talent-thin Suns team that Sacramento beat up last night, and both Gay and Demarcus Cousins will find a much tougher go of it against the Spurs’ size, precise rotations, and well-disguised help schemes. With an extra day of rest, San Antonio jumps to a big early lead, with Patty Mills and Leonard leading the scoring – allowing Pop to work a quick hook for ancient Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol.
LA Clippers @ Portland, 10:30 pm, TNT. Cold-blooded killer Damian Lillard shot the Blazers to 1-0 on Tuesday, besting a very good (if undermanned) Jazz team in a game that didn’t receive much attention running opposite Game 1 of the World Series and Golden State’s early coronation ceremony. Tonight, he hosts one of the Warriors’ few real challengers, as Los Angeles returns to the scene of their first-round playoff demise to kick off what might be their final season with the Chris Paul-Blake Griffin core. Both veterans are almost assuredly exercising their Early Termination options this summer, and will see significant raises even if they remain in Clipper red in 2017-18 and beyond. Paul turns 32 in May, even he can’t hold off Father Time forever, and with his hyper-competitive personality starting to wear on the laid-back, funloving Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, Doc Rivers has an angry, 6-foot-tall question lingering over his head all season. Loyal and veteran-friendly to a fault, though, Rivers will listen to trade offers on Griffin at the deadline if LA’s season starts going south, according to league insiders: it’s incredibly unlikely, and only as a last resort, but if the Clippers can pull some of the Thunder young assets and draft picks to send Griffin home to Oklahoma City, or if Boston or Philly puts together a Godfather package, it’ll be hard to say no.
For now, Rivers’ primary concern has to be his bench, as it has been for his entire tenure in Los Angeles. Beyond Jamal Crawford, who mostly shares the court with the first unit, the Clippers’ reserves sorely lack defense and shot creation. Austin Rivers, Paul Pierce, and Marreese Speights can all step into an open three (and as a fat center who thinks he’s Reggie Miller, Mo Buckets is going to become an instant fan favorite at the Staples Center), but all three will hemorrhage just as many points back on the other end. With tomorrow and Saturday off, the Big Three all play 35+ minutes, and Los Angeles begins to exorcise their 2016 demons with a gutty road win.