Utah @ LA Clippers, 4:30 pm. Derrick Favors sat out Utah’s opening-night loss in Portland, sidelined by a preseason leg injury, but returned in a big way against the Lakers on Friday. Eased into action off the bench, Favors battered the Los Angeles front line for 15 points, nine rebounds, two blocks, and two steals in just 20 minutes of action. The Jazz are still short-handed, missing star forward Gordon Hayward and key backup guard Alec Burks, but Favors’ presence in the starting lineup will give Quin Snyder the flexibility to use Joe Johnson as a reserve wing rather than slotting him as an undersized power forward.
DeAndre Jordan has really earned his hype, fame, and fortune, serving as the core third guy leading LA’s “second team” out of their 30-year doldrums to become a perennial contender (and, perhaps more importantly, surpass the Lakers in national relevance) (we see you, Billy Crystal and Frankie Muniz). But give me Rudy Gobert. The Stifle Tower is bigger, younger, and already a better defender, holding his opponents to an astoundingly low 41 percent shooting at the rim last season. The gap in shooting percentage allowed between Gobert and the number two rim protector in the league, Andrew Bogut, was even larger than the jump from Bogut down to Al Horford, 20th on that list.
Golden State @ Phoenix, 6 pm. After getting Kawhi’ed in their debut, the souped-up Warriors finally looked to open up and run against a bad Pelicans team...and weren’t all that impressive? I know I’m being unrealistic, and that I’ve set the bar impossibly high. Hell, they scored 122 points, and each of the stars came to play: Kevin Durant had 30/17/6, Klay Thompson scored 28, Stephen Curry 23, and while Draymond Green shot poorly, he grabbed eleven boards and handed out seven assists. They were, for the most part, really freaking good.
But that’s the deal they made this summer when Durant joined up with what was already a multi-year powerhouse: really freaking good isn’t going to cut it. They’re expected to go 82-0, flirt with 150 points every night, and play beautiful, harmonious basketball never before seen combined with this level of individual talent. Golden State’s starting lineup – the four All-Stars, plus Zaza Pachulia – were outscored by New Orleans in more than eleven minutes on the floor together. They shot just 37.5 percent from the field, allowed over 50 percent shooting, and were out-rebounded despite playing with a center. Obviously, there’s no need for panic in the East Bay, and even if the Big Four doesn’t coalesce right away, being able to stagger the minutes of four All-NBA guys in their primes is quite the unique luxury.
San Antonio @ Miami, 6 pm. Why wasn’t I smart enough to buy some stock in Kawhi Leonard’s MVP campaign? On October 11, two weeks before the season, Leonard was getting +$1100 odds from 5Dimes. A career-high 35 points, typically suffocating defense, and an upset win in Oakland later, he was down to +$650, behind only Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Curry. Through three games, he’s averaging 28.3 points on 50 percent shooting, has drawn 28 free throws without missing a shot, and nabbed a dozen steals. He’s one of the switchiest, most versatile defenders in the league, and he’s helped keep his wing matchup (including both Klay Thompson and Rudy Gay) to 33 percent shooting.
Tim Duncan is irreplaceable for San Antonio; he turned 40 during the playoffs, but even as his minutes and offense dropped off precipitously, his defense remained stellar. In keeping opponents to just 96 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court (he held his particular assignments to just 47 percent shooting at the rim). But the only Spur to keep opponents off the score sheet at the same rate, and the only one to allow an even LOWER shooting percentage at the rim? Kawhi Leonard.
Milwaukee @ Detroit, 6 pm. I covered Rashad Vaughn as a high school prospect, and was sure that he’d be an NBA contributor. Still just 18 years old when Milwaukee took him 17th overall in 2015, Vaughn spent much of his rookie year buried behind Khris Middleton, OJ Mayo, and Jerryd Bayless on the shooting guard depth chart. He racked up several early-season DNPs and spent four games in the D-League, then looked overwhelmed and timid when he started picking up minutes after Mayo and Bayless missed time. Now Bayless is in Philadelphia, Mayo is banned from the NBA for two years, and Middleton is out for most of the season with a hamstring tear – the Bucks are dying for someone to step into the void at shooting guard.
Vaughn stretches the floor in a way that Tony Snell cannot, Malcolm Brogdon is needed at backup point guard if Matthew Dellavedova and Giannis Antetokounmpo are going to share the floor so often, and the less Jason Terry sees of an NBA court in 2016, the better. Snell didn’t impress in his Milwaukee debut last night, missing all three of his long-distance shots and racking up four fouls in 20 minutes. Playing 23 of his 27 minutes next to Point Giannis, Vaughn exploded for 22 points, draining 6 of 12 three-point attempts in the last-second win over Brooklyn. Despite Snell’s superior size, Milwaukee has so much length already that they can afford to sacrifice some extra tentacles in favor of Vaughn’s shooting and dynamism.
LA Lakers @ Oklahoma City, 7 pm. Webster is going to have to build a new dictionary to house all the news words and phrases that Basketball Twitter will invent for Russell Westbrook this season. He kicked things off with 32 points, 12 rebounds, and 9 assists in Philadelphia, as if the world didn’t already know to expect 48 minutes and 82 games worth of hero ball. In case you’re wondering, no one had ever recorded 30-and-10 with at least nine assists in a season-opening game (records date back to 1983).
The Lakers’ first two games demonstrate perfectly the game-to-game risks involved with a young team. The fast-paced modern offense that lit up the court Wednesday against Houston looked more like a mirage Friday night in Utah, as they slipped from 120 points down to just 89. Maybe that first game said more about the Rockets’ defense than it did about the Lakers’ scoring – fighting past and around long, disciplined, and aggressive defenders, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson combined to shoot 8 of 30, earn just five free throws, and score 20 points between the three of them. Most teams can’t wall off the paint and rim like the Jazz do, and Russell, at least, looks poised for a big year. But Luke Walton does need to be concerned a little bit, and figure out how to get his core players easier looks against smart defenses.
Washington @ Memphis, 8 pm, NBATV. Washington has had to dwell on their flat opening performance for nearly three full days, after allowing Paul Millsap and a crew of lightly-regarded Atlanta reserves to put a close game out of reach early in the fourth quarter Thursday night. The Hawks shot 50 percent for the game, and 46 percent from three, and outrebounded the less-physical Wizards 52-40. Scott Brooks is going to need to find some interior toughness, fast – while newly-acquired center Ian Mahinmi recovers from knee surgery, incumbent pivot Marcin Gortat is the only big man in the rotation who plays with physicality. Neither Markieff Morris nor Otto Porter is a good enough three-point shooter to draw their man out of the paint, and neither is a good enough cutter or interior presence to require help defense to lean that way. Instead, they float around the perimeter while their defenders keep a foot in the lane and prevent John Wall from getting to the rim.
It’s unconscionable (and, admittedly, Wall himself is partially to blame) for a player with his speed and creativity to only take two shots inside the restricted area – he missed both a twisting transition layup, and a tip-in attempt off an offensive rebound. Not once, not a single time, did John Wall take the ball to the rim and get a shot off out of the half-court offense. Finding the lane barricaded by defenders, instead he attempted ten pull-up midrange jump shots, hitting just two. I’m not sure where Washington finds the shooting to open up the paint, but Wall is going to have to start forcing the issue. Taking a pull-up jumper, for a poor shooter like Wall, is letting the defense win that possession. Carving a path to the rim is so much more preferable: one of the game’s premier passers has an extra step with which to manipulate the defense and pick out a needle of space; or he throws up an off-balance layup after drawing multiple defenders and gives his own bigs better rebounding position. Get to the cup, John.
Dallas @ Houston, 8 pm. Let’s run this back. Dirk Nowitzki missed these teams’ first meeting Friday, a 106-98 Rockets victory, with a stomach bug and sore Achilles. With the franchise icon sidelined, offseason addition Harrison Barnes poured in 31 points on 23 shots. While Barnes will never be a playmaker, he can certainly create offense for himself, and is proving he can hit the three even without the Splash Brothers magnetizing opposing defenders. Two games into his Dallas career, a quarter of Barnes’ shots have been catch-and-shoot threes, and he’s hit them at a 55.6 percent clip.
Houston had already excised almost all of the midrange, low-efficiency shots from their offense...and then Mike D’Antoni took over. Bringing in long-range marksmen Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson from New Orleans only strengthens the team’s ability to shoot from behind the arc, at the rim, and nowhere in between. Gordon in particular seems to have taken to the offense very quickly: he’s scored 19 and 18 points in his two games, is hitting 35.7 percent of his threes, and even showed a little bit of his pre-injury juice as a secondary ball-handler and creator in Friday’s Mavericks game.