Wednesday, December 8, 2021

NBA opening night: Stephen Curry posts ‘trash’ triple double; Russell Westbrook flops in Lakers debut

The Golden State Warriors got their season started on a high note with a 121-114 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in the nightcap of the NBA’s season-opening doubleheader on Tuesday. In the first game, the Milwaukee Bucks looked every bit like the defending NBA champs with a 127-104 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. 

Giannis Antetokounmpo led Milwaukee with 32 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists and two blocks. Kevin Durant posted 32 points and 11 boards for the Nets, but along with James Harden was a minus-20 for the game. 

For the Lakers, LeBron James (34) and Anthony Davis (33) combined for 77 points and looked absolutely dominant in doing so, but nobody else really showed up. Russell Westbrook was awful, which we’ll get to. For the Warriors, Stephen Curry admittedly “played like trash,” as he so eloquently put it during his on-court postgame interview, but he still managed to record his first triple-double since 2016 with 21 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds. 

Here are the key takeaways from each game.

The Warriors never quit

Golden State looked kind of awful for much of the first half. Every NBA team struggles through turnover stretches, especially fast-paced ones, but when the Warriors start fumbling the ball away they can look particularly pathetic by NBA standards. You would honestly think the ball has grease on it. 

As mentioned above, Curry couldn’t buy a bucket. He finished 5 for 21 from the field and 2 for 8 from 3; he missed a dunk for bad measure. His four turnovers don’t do justice to how shaky he was with the ball, though he did make some really nice passes. He made strange decisions, like opting to challenge Anthony Davis at the rim rather than pull up for 3 when he appeared to have the space and rhythm to do so. He had his shot blocked multiple times on driving attempts he’s usually able to finish, or at least get onto the glass with some english. He missed short jumpers. 

But I’m here to tell you: Curry and the Warriors do not quit. Ever. They don’t get down on themselves. They don’t lose confidence. They just keep playing. Keep defending. Keep shooting. That has been a characteristic of this team under Curry’s leadership dating back to the Mark Jackson era, and it showed up again on Tuesday. They hung around long enough to get hot, and once they did, they never cooled back off. That is a winning trait, bottom line. 

Nemanja Bjelica was lights out, finshing with 15 points, 11 rebounds and four assists on 6-for-7 shooting; he was a game-high plus-23 and looked like he’d been playing with Curry and Draymond Green his entire career. As much as Kelly Oubre had no idea where to be inside Curry’s gravity last season, Bjelica floated to open space with ease and made plays off the dribble out of Curry double teams. 

Jordan Poole notched 20 points and hit four 3s. That man is an official problem. 

Russell Westbrook … yikes

Westbrook was miserable in his Lakers debut, which, to be frank, wasn’t all that surprising. Did you think he was going to come out of the gates drilling jumpers? Westbrook finished with eight points on 4-of-13 shooting, including 0 for 4 from 3. He didn’t get to the free-throw line once. He had as many turnovers (four) as assists. In his 35 minutes on the court, the Lakers were outscored by 23 points. 

Westbrook isn’t going to be this bad every game, obviously. But every game he’s going to present the same problem: He’s almost worthless off the ball because he can’t shoot a lick, and yet you can’t let him control the ball because his off-the-dribble shooting is borderline destructive to an offense. And also there’s this LeBron James guy who’s pretty good. He’s going to have the ball in his hands quite a bit. 

One lineup decision that would seem rather obvious: Can Frank Vogel please refrain from playing Westbrook and Rajon Rondo together when LeBron is sitting? I mean there are bad shooting/defensive backcourts, and then there’s that duo. Hopefully this experiment was just a first-game-of-the-season thing for Vogel, but I kind of doubt it. My guess is we’ll see these two playing at the same time deep enough into the season to drive Lakers fans clinically insane. 

LeBron and AD remain awesome

As stated above, they combined for 77 points. They both chipped in 11 rebounds. LeBron made five 3-pointers and all night long had me questioning why in the world I ranked Kevin Durant as the best player in the league this season. LeBron still has it, man. This guy is Tom Brady ridiculous. Just when he loses some of his ability to power through layers of defenders on his way to the rim, he starts becoming an ice-cold pull-up jump-shooter. 

Look at the freaking guy getting it done on both ends in Year 19:

Come on, man. 

How about this defensive rotation:

Incredible. 

Giannis’ passing and free-throw shooting

There was a lot to love about Antetokounmpo’s performance, but I’m going to focus on two aspects in particular: His free-throw shooting and his passing. First the free throws: Giannis went 7 for 9 from the line. Dating back to Milwaukee’s title-clinching victory over the Suns in Game 6 of last season’s Finals, Giannis is now 24 for his last 28 from the charity stripe in games that count. 

Giannis shot just 58 percent in the preseason, but consider the sample size (he was 7 for 12). Giannis is taking just one dribble now as part of a minimalist free-throw routine, no longer flirting with a 10-second call, and he looks more in rhythm and significantly less in his own head. If he is going to make upwards of 70 percent of his free throws this season, good luck stopping him. 

As for the passing, Giannis was exquisite on Tuesday. Every season the game seems to slow down a bit more for him. Look at the patience to let this play develop as when he catches the ball at the free-throw line and is immediately swarmed, which could have, and in the past would have, sped him up. 

Here he is doing work in transition. In the first two clips, you’ll see Giannis easily could’ve just forced his way to the rim with a full head of steam, but instead he calmly lets the floor space, and as multiple defenders inevitably converge on him, he finds shooters. 

On that final play, did you see how quickly Giannis found Grayson Allen trailing in transition? Being patient doesn’t mean being slow. He’s seeing the pass and making it at precisely the right time. Below he does it again, this time out of the post, where he again was poised all night as he waited for double teams to open up shooters. 

Giannis didn’t get the assist here, but look at this dime from out of jail on the baseline:

Take notes, Ben Simmons. This is what it looks like when a player — who also can’t shoot — actually gets better at other aspects of his game every year. Also, Giannis has gotten way better as a shooter. He has an honest face-up game now and showed it in small samples on Tuesday. He continues to build on his 3-point game without forcing it. What a fabulous player. 

Bucks defense at rim

In short, it was awesome. Brook Lopez balanced and timed his drop coverage perfectly, at times showing at the level of ball screens to discourage the pull-up 3 before retreating to protect the lob pass, and he contested with textbook verticality, blocking three shots. One of those blocks led to one of the Giannis transition assists you saw above. 

Here’s Giannis rotating for the monster block on Nic Claxton:

And how about another of Giannis’ early-offense assists being set up by a block at the rim, this one by Jordan Nwora, who was terrific on both ends with 15 points and six rebounds on 3-of-6 3-point shooting.

Not only did the Bucks turn the ball over just eight times, which led to only two Brooklyn points — but they also turned Brooklyn’s 13 turnovers into 22 points on their end. When you win the points-off-turnovers battle by 20, you’re going to win most games. 

Shout out to Patty Mills

Mills was en fuego for the Nets, finishing with 21 points on a perfect 7-for-7 showing from 3. Per Nets PR, that ties the NBA record for most 3-pointers in a debut with a new team, and most 3-pointers off the bench in Nets history. Who needs Kyrie? 

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