Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends. It’s Rosh Hashanah, Christmas Eve, and all eight nights of Hanukkah rolled into one: NBA opening night!
New York @ Cleveland, 7:30 pm, TNT. Quick message: The league pushed this game up a half-hour, and it will tip at 7:30 instead of the typical 8 pm. Cleveland is apparently also hosting something called a ‘World Series’ tonight at 8, and they’d like their fans to be able to watch both the Cavs’ ring ceremony at 7 and the baseball game.
What we’re more interested in, here, is how LeBron James looks in his first action since his hostile re-takeover of the Best Player Alive mantle in June. GM LeBron and Coach Lue have brought pretty much the whole gang back, and even with a championship hangover and the handful of regular season games they’ll give away by design or apathy, Cleveland should waltz through the East into the rubber match against Golden State.
They’ll be healthy, sharp and focused on Opening Night, and Joakim Noah is no longer quick enough to stifle all of the defensive lapses he’ll see in front of him. LeBron and Kyrie get to the rim at will, open up an early lead, and allow Cleveland fans to focus on the Indians.
Utah @ Portland, 10 pm. This SHOULD be the year that Utah’s young talent gels and they start ascending. They’re so young, and so big, and so versatile. So freaking versatile, particularly defensively. Is shooting your thing? Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, Rodney Hood, Trey Lyles, and Raul Neto, along with veteran offseason additions George Hill and Joe Johnson, all shoot better than 36 percent from three-point range. Rim protection? It doesn’t get much better than the frontcourt duo of Derrick Favors and the French Rejection, Rudy Gobert - and backup center Jeff Withey blocked a shot per game in fewer than 13 minutes last year.
Still, a fired-up Damian Lillard is damn near unbeatable, and Dame will be fired up tonight, kicking off the season at home, trying to prove that last year’s run to the conference semifinals was the new baseline, not a fluke. Al-Farouq Aminu spaces the floor just enough for Terry Stotts to pair him with Evan Turner defensively, while Lillard and CJ McCollum hit a few big shots on the other end to pull out the win in a close, well-played game.
San Antonio @ Golden State, 10:30 pm, TNT. Kevin Durant will struggle, but the Warriors roll over the Tim Duncan-less Spurs. San Antonio’s offense barely misses a beat, and Kawhi Leonard hounds every catch, dribble and shot that touches Durant’s fingertips, but the rest of the defense springs a few leaks without their venerable pivot. Not enough to cause Popovich real worry, since Gasol and Aldridge will communicate better given enough time, but on this night, against the best-passing and best-moving team in the game? Three or four lapsed assignments can turn into a 12-0 run very quickly.
Look for Draymond Green to have a big game, and let’s see whether Curry tries to get all three of his All-Star teammates going before looking for his own shot.