It’s after Christmas, and we’ve finally got NBA to talk about, write about and, of course, bet on. Let’s start by taking a brief overview of notes and quotes from what we saw around the league from the first four games on the opening day of action.
Chicago Bulls – Chicago won 26 road games last year; third best in the NBA behind the Lakers and Heat. And Chicago positively stole a road victory to open the season at the Staples Center against the Lakers to open the new campaign, rallying from a double digit fourth quarter deficit to win on a Derrick Rose floater with less than five seconds remaining on the clock. Head coach Tom Thibodeau preached defense as an assistant in Boston. He preached defense in Chicago last year on his way to an ‘NBA Coach of the Year’ award, turning the Bulls into the league’s best statistical defensive squad. With the top eight players back from last year’s rotation, joined by defensive minded veteran swingman Richard Hamilton, their Christmas Day fourth quarter defensive showing (eleven points allowed in the last nine minutes of regulation) cannot be considered a surprise. Derrick Rose made it clear that, despite the late shutdown, their defense wasn’t good enough: “We definitely don't want to be in a situation like that, but we fought our way back. We stepped up our intensity on the defensive end. Throughout the whole game, our defense wasn't there. I mean, we showed spots of it, but we didn't keep it consistent."
Boston Celtics – The team we saw on Sunday against the Knicks is still very much a work in progress. Boston played their season opener without All-Star forward Paul Pierce, still recovering from his bruised right heel. Pierce’s backup, Jeff Green, is out for the year, scheduled to undergo heart surgery in the next few weeks. Boston started former Laker reserve Sasha Pavlovic in Pierce’s spot, but he was held scoreless while committing four fouls in just over 15 minutes of action. The Celtics just signed swingman Mickael Pietrus after his buyout from Phoenix, but he’s coming off knee surgery and isn’t likely to contribute much initially. Head coach Doc Rivers Christmas wish? "A 7-footer and health for my team. … I'll just take health. That's good enough. I can't be greedy."
Miami Heat – Think this team has high expectations? Their complete annihilation of the Mavs on opening day against the defending champs in Dallas speaks volumes about their mindset entering the season. So does this post-game quote from head coach Erik Spoelstra: “It was a good, business, professional win for us tonight to get this thing started. We understand this is going to be a wild journey." Miami may not be a team focused on regular season success in 2012, but their talent level ensures that this won’t be the last road blowout we see from the Heat in the weeks and months ahead.
New York Knicks – Mike D’Antoni certainly isn’t considered a defensive minded head coach. Both in his previous stop in Phoenix and throughout his tenure here in New York, D’Antoni has been all about offensive efficiency and pushing the pace. The Knicks defense wasn’t very good in their season opener, allowing Boston to shoot better than 51% from the field, while scoring 48 points in the paint and attempting 34 free throws. But with the game on the line late in the fourth quarter, the Knicks came through with the stop they needed to have, forcing a miss on Boston’s final possession. All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony: “I get tired of hearing we don't play defense." In addition to that late game stop, there were some other positive defensive signs. Newly acquired center Tyson Chandler had an immediate impact, notching six of the Knicks eleven blocked shots. Four of their five starters had at least two steals, a big part of the 18 turnovers New York created. The season opener still flew Over the total by 21 points, and the Knicks didn’t cover as short chalk, but there is at least some potential here for a defensive turnaround as the calendar shifts to 2012.
Los Angeles Lakers – There’s no way to phrase this politely, so I won’t. The Lakers stink right now; a team that looks more like a lottery contender than a championship contender. They showed no heart in the postseason last year, getting swept out of the playoffs by Dallas without so much as a glimmer of passion or intensity. Phil Jackson quit, replaced by Mike Brown as head coach. Lamar Odom got traded. Andrew Bynum is suspended for the first week of the season. The Lakers are going to trot out aging veterans Steve Blake and Derek Fisher at point guard once again. LA outshot the Bulls 47% to 40% in their opener, got a great game from Kobe (despite his eight turnovers) and still found a way to lose the game at home, blowing a late lead. This is not a positive sign moving forward!
Orlando Magic – Orlando got destroyed in their season opener by a far greater margin than the final score would indicate. They spent most of the first three quarters trailing by 15-20 points before a late run in garbage time made the final score respectable. As was the case so often last year, particularly in their playoff series loss to Atlanta, the Magic got very little from their bevy of three point shooters. Stan Van Gundy’s offense is all about spreading the floor, getting good looks for Dwight Howard in the paint and equally good looks from their shooters on the perimeter. But Jason Richardson, Jameer Nelson, JJ Redick and Chris Duhon combined for an 0-fer from three point range on Sunday, leading to that ugly defeat. It’s clear that the Dwight Howard situation is going to be a distraction until it’s resolved. JJ Redick told us that quite clearly: “I think we just have to accept the fact that this will be a distraction.” Van Gundy echoed those sentiments: “You have a sense that this isn't permanent, the group we have now. So you don't know if this is the group you're going to have going forward. I think the players feel it a little bit."
Dallas Mavericks – Reports out of Dallas in the preseason said that 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki was ‘fat and happy’ entering the new campaign – out of shape and not supremely motivated to start the new season. That report proved to be correct for at least one game, because the Mavs were a complete no-show as they raised their championship banner. Dallas trailed by as many as 35 points by midway through the third quarter. The Mavs had somewhat of a roster overhaul in the offseason, and the new additions didn’t look good. Vince Carter was inserted into the starting lineup, than promptly benched after halftime. Head coach Rick Carlisle, talking about Carter’s benching: “Game to game, we could have some variance with our lineup at the 2-spot, which is nothing new around here." Brendan Haywood, in the starting lineup replacing the departed Tyson Chandler, went scoreless with just three rebounds and no blocked shots. Lamar Odom played just 13 minutes (1-6 shooting, four fouls) before getting ejected. Odom, talking about how long it’ll take him to get acclimated in Dallas: “I think it could be tomorrow. Sometimes it just kind of happens, and I'll be patient and just wait for it to happen."
Oklahoma City Thunder – This is going to be an unusual NBA season. Teams had virtually no training camps or offseason work. They’re playing an unbelievably condensed schedule, cramming 66 games into 126 days. That ensures every team will be forced to play awkward scheduling spots – back-to-back-to-backs, five games in six nights, six games in eight nights – on multiple occasions. The Thunder appear poised to handle that rigorous schedule in successful fashion, right from the get-go. This team is young and athletic, a huge bonus this year. There’s excellent continuity for Scottie Brooks’ squad as they return the top eight guys from their rotation. Ten different players had at least ten minutes of playing time in their opening night blowout over Orlando – there’s good depth for Brooks to work with. The Thunder have a defensive mindset, a strong work ethic and they’ve got a pair of great crunch-time scorers. Don’t sell this team short in early season play!