Cleveland @ Toronto, 7 pm, ESPN. This Eastern Conference Finals rematch features two teams coming off of impressive season-opening victories. With the ink still drying on his $139 million contract, Raptor guard DeMar DeRozan knocked down nine of 14 midrange jumpers on his way to 40 points against the Pistons. Even more auspiciously, big Jonas Valanciunas abused Detroit starlet Andre Drummond, grabbing six offensive rebounds and getting to the free throw line 14 times (hitting 12 – Valanciunas is a terrific foul shooter for a seven-footer). Having a strong post presence to complement Toronto’s All-Star backcourt will go a long way in getting them a few more games with the Cavs in early summer. Eventually, Good Kyle Lowry will show up too, and if DeRozan and Valanciunas are still rolling when he does, the Raptors will even cause some sleepless nights in Cleveland.
The Big Three looked as good as they ever have together in a 29-point banner-raising win over the Knicks. Kyrie Irving hit from everywhere and poured in a game-high 29, Kevin Love added 23 and 12 rebounds, and stretched the New York defense well beyond its comfort zone, while LeBron James cobbled together a ho-hum 19-14-11 triple-double. This game means more to Toronto than it does to the champs, but DeRozan will find much less space at the elbows, and Tristan Thompson is much less jumpy guarding Valanciunas than Drummond was.
Indiana @ Brooklyn, 7:30 pm. Myles Turner is here, y’all. The 20-year-old stretch 5 (yes, they created a new positional subspecies for he and Kristaps Porzingis) fell to 11th in the 2015 draft amidst concerns over a shuffling, choppy running style, and because Rick Barnes doesn’t know how to use talent. But Turner was cleared by independent orthopedists and kinesiologists, and most importantly, he’s 6-11, can shoot from anywhere, and also protect the rim.
In Wednesday’s overtime win against Dallas, Turner scored 30 points, hauled in 16 rebounds, and blocked four shots. He made seven of ten attempts inside five feet, and also drained five of eight jumpers beyond 15. Indiana allowed less than a point per possession while Turner was on the court – no other Pacer starter made as much of a defensive impact. New coach Nate McMillan may have found his second star next to Paul George, and they can’t even legally take him out for drinks until March.
Orlando @ Detroit, 7:30 pm. The new-look Magic won the first quarter of their debut against Miami, but quickly frittered the lead away, kicking off their season with a home loss to their in-state rivals. Center Nik Vucevic was the only player to take more than three shots and make half of them – and when $72 million man Bismack Biyombo returns from his one-game flagrant foul accumulation suspension tonight, guess who will see the biggest hit in minutes and role? Though with Orlando’s glaring weaknesses in the backcourt, if combo forward Aaron Gordon can become a serviceable shooter (he went 2/2 on Wednesday, but hit just 28.9 percent from downtown his first two seasons), then he can spend more time on the wing and open up two big-man spots to rotate Vucevic, Biyombo and three-time All Defense First Team honoree Serge Ibaka.
With all the rim protection at new coach Frank Vogel’s disposal, the Pistons offense might have an even tougher time scoring than they did in a feeble, 91-point opener in Toronto. Andre Drummond is expected to play after taking an elbow to the head Wednesday, but he needs Reggie Jackson back in the lineup to be at peak effectiveness. One of the great alley-oop finishers, and one whose effectiveness diminishes rapidly the more steps you put between “catch ball” and “drop ball in basket,” Drummond dribbled before eight of his eleven attempts, and shot just 33 percent after holding the ball for more than 2 seconds.
Phoenix @ Oklahoma City, 8 pm. After leading for just 4:07 of the first 47 minutes against the lowly 76ers, Oklahoma City pulled away late to stave off a very embarrassing first step into the post-Durant era. Russell Westbrook just missed extending his streak of triple-doubles against Philadelphia to four, settling for 32 points, 12 rebounds and a meager 9 assists instead. If the Thunder want to avoid falling out of the playoffs for just the third time since being stolen moving from Seattle, they’re going to have to find reliable shooting from somewhere. The team as a whole shot 27.3 percent from distance, with wings Victor Oladipo and Kyle Singler combining to go just one of ten beyond the arc; you’ll very soon see all five defenders keep a foot in the paint, ready to rip at the ball and put a body on Westbrook’s forays to the rim.
Oklahoma City’s big-man pairing of Enes Kanter and Steven Adams didn’t miss a beat from the playoffs last year, hauling in eleven boards and finishing a team-high plus-16 in just 11 minutes sharing the court. That should continue tonight against Phoenix’s inexperienced, inconsistent front line: teenaged lottery picks Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender played 22 and 13 minutes respectively, in their NBA debuts, while 23-year-old Alex Len has yet to develop the toughness and intensity to complement his 7-1 frame. Possessing levels of bulk and guile that the Suns’ front line can only dream of at this point, Kanter and Adams eat Phoenix alive on the boards and with putbacks.
Charlotte @ Miami, 8 pm. Both of these teams spent Wednesday night beating up bad offenses, and it’s overwhelmingly likely that these Southeast Division rivals will end up among the morass fighting for the final two playoff berths. The Hornets look to have a bit more firepower than Miami, as wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist scored 23 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in his return to action after shoulder injuries limited him to just seven games last season. Compensating for a nonexistent jumper – now in his fifth season, MKG has attempted just 27 three-pointers – with Dwyane Wade-level feints and back-cuts, Kidd-Gilchrist dropped in nine of his ten field goals from within the restricted area.
Marvin Williams and Kemba Walker, each coming off of a career year in three-point accuracy, continued their hot shooting, Williams draining three of four and Walker knocking down three of seven. If swingman Nicolas Batum plays like the Batum of last year rather than the injury-prone, inconsistent version we’ve seen pop up for season-long stretches, Charlotte will be a difficult team to stop even without an interior scoring presence. Miami saw six players of their own hit double figures in scoring, paced by newly-minted max man Hassan Whiteside’s 18 points, 14 rebounds, and four blocks.
Houston @ Dallas, 8:30 pm. These two longtime contenders are reeling and ruing missed opportunities from their first games. Playing small to accommodate Deron Williams, JJ Barea and Wesley Matthews in a three-headed backcourt, Dallas allowed Indiana to score 15 points on 11 overtime possessions. Though Harrison Barnes hit a triple to send the game into OT, and can hold his own guarding most power forwards, playing him up a position leaves Dirk Nowitzki alone on an island at center. At 38 years old. Rick Carlisle is still one of the premier magicians in the league at lineups and adjustments, but if even a little of the pixie dust starts to fade from him or his Hall of Fame seven-footer, the Mavericks risk completely bottoming out.
Houston coughed up their own winnable game, blowing a late lead as the Lakers hung 120 points on them. The Mike D’Antoni-led Rockets will be able to score against anybody, but have just one average defender in their starting lineup – and center Clint Capela has played 20+ minutes just 32 times in his young career. It’s going to be along season for fans of defense in Houston, but James Harden’s fantasy prospects are through the roof: he opened the season with 34 points, 17 assists, and eight rebounds.
LA Lakers @ Utah, 9 pm. Third-year lefty forward Julius Randle drew comparisons to Chris Webber as an amateur and throughout the draft process. After a rookie season wiped out by injury, Randle averaged a double-double last year, though he shot just 42.9 percent from the field despite taking more than half his shots within the restricted area. Wednesday against Houston, Randle went nine of nine inside five feet, and only took two jumpers in scoring 18 points. Cutting out the excess shots allowed him to regain the playmaking he flashed his one season at Kentucky – Randle flourishes when he’s able to catch the ball in the high post, whether on an entry pass or in the pick-and-pop, and can survey the floor and move the ball. Sharing the floor with last year’s #2 pick, point guard D’Angelo Russell, the 6'9 Randle led the Lakers with six assists.
At full health, Utah sports an enviable murderer’s row of 25-and-under talent: Star wing Gordon Hayward, power forward Derrick Favors, French giant Rudy Gobert, enigmatic point guard Dante Exum, marksman Rodney Hood, and stretch 4 Trey Lyles. Derrick Favors may be back in uniform for Utah, a game-time decision after missing their opening night loss in Portland. With Favors and Hayward sitting out Tuesday, the Jazz youth movement was supplemented by veteran additions Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw; 35-year-old Johnson’s 29 points led Utah in a turn-back-the-clock effort. While Exum develops and grows into himself as an NBA player, the Jazz might have found the established point guard they’ve been searching for over the last several seasons: George Hill scored 19 points, handed out six assists, and played his usual stellar defense at the top of the gaggle of young limbs.
Golden State @ New Orleans, 9:30 pm, ESPN. Poor Anthony Davis. Felled by seemingly thousands of little nicks, bruises, sprains and tears, the erstwhile surefire future MVP was passed in the national spotlight by fellow Kentucky alum centers Demarcus Cousins and Karl-Anthony Towns, even as Davis averaged 24 and 10 with a pair of blocks. But because he’s in street clothes for a dozen or more games a year, and is surrounded by a motley crew of marginal NBA talent, Davis’ star has lost just a bit of its luster.
So what does he do to ensure that he’s at the forefront of the league’s pivot evolution? Squaring off with Denver’s brawny front line of Jusuf Nurkic and Kenneth Faried, Davis scored 50 points, pulled down 16 rebounds, dished five assists, grabbed seven steals, and swatted four shots. He hit from all over, throwing down ferocious, violent dunks and raining feathery jumpers. He drained 16 of 17 free throws, and finished 45 percent of possessions while on the court. Coach Alvin Gentry and the New Orleans fans couldn’t have possibly asked for a better opening night. Unfortunately, his starting guards were E’Twaun Moore and Tim Frazier, and the rest of the Pelicans fell flat on their faces in the 107-102 loss. Poor Anthony Davis.