For the most part, this game was much closer than you would expect for a matchup between one of the few title contenders in the East and a tanking team. That’s because Jacque Vaughn has a few very tantalizing prospects on his roster, and one of them really came to play in this one. Second year player Andrew Nicholson was feeling it offensively in this game, knocking down a pair of corner threes, pulling off a sweet spin move from the elbow to get himself a lay-up, nailed a jumper off a pick-and-pop and showed his underrated ability on the block. He’s an emerging player that can do a lot of things offensively and he really should be Orlando’s starting power forward going forward ahead of Jason Maxiell.
Rookie Victor Oladipo and second year player Maurice Harkless also looked nice in this game. I was a bit surprised that Oladipo didn’t get the start at point guard, but I guess I’m OK with him coming off the bench until the Magic find a suitor for Jameer Nelson. Oladipo appears to be a tireless attacker that will foray to the rim time after time off pick-and-rolls and other actions. Harkless is mostly viewed as a defensive prospect, but his offensive game needs to come along for him to develop into a solid rotation player. If this game was any indication, he’s on track to becoming a bit more of a diverse threat. He drilled a pair of threes and even had a nice attack of the rim on a pick-and-roll late in the game.
But let’s make no mistake about it, the Pacers are really good. Their offense is going to be sticky at times this season, particularly as they wait for the return of Danny Granger, but that defense is as good as ever. Given their exploits on that side of the floor, I think you can make a case for Paul George and Roy Hibbert as the best duo in the league. Hibbert controls the game so well on the interior, and he dominated this game to the tune of 16 rebounds and seven blocks. It’s a nightly joy to watch the Pacers’ defense work with Hibbert in the middle, as he does a tremendous job containing pick-and-rolls while still managing to protect the paint. George was tremendous as well, putting up 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting (3-of-6 from three), with six rebounds, five assists and three blocks.
This one looked like it had the makings of a classic Bulls-Heat game in the early and the late goings, but Miami dominated the bulk of this game by completely destroying the Bulls defense by attacking them in semi-transition. I thought the Bulls did a pretty good job when their defense got set in this game, but the combination of foul trouble for Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler and Miami relentlessly pushing the pace and playing quite flawlessly on the break put Chicago in a bind they couldn’t escape. The Heat ramped up their defense as well in this contest, rotating like mad and taking away almost all of Chicago’s offensive opportunities that didn’t involve Carlos Boozer bullying somebody downlow. Derrick Rose had a forgettable return, shooting just 4-of-15 from the field with six missed threes and five turnovers. Miami really put the pressure on him and Chicago’s auxiliary options were unable to make the Heat pay for most of the night.
Aside from the lights out shooting from Shane Battier and Ray Allen, I came away from this one really impressed with Norris Cole. I thought he was everywhere in this game, making stellar plays in transition and when attacking the rim, snatching up seven rebounds, finding teammates and competing defensively. Mario Chalmers wasn’t bad himself – 13 points, five steals, four assists – but it appears as if Erick Spoelstra has reached the point where he is comfortable closing games with either on the floor. And in case you were wondering, plus/minus freak Chris Andersen had eight rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 17 minutes, during which the Heat outscored the Bulls by 14. I’m not a fan of individual plus/minus that isn’t adjusted for other factors, but Andersen has been a real difference maker for the Heat since they signed him last year.
In what can easily be described as the biggest upset of the season, the Lakers – or, more specifically, the Lakers’ second unit – housed the Clippers, winning the fourth quarter 41-24 en route to a 13-point opening day victory. Throughout this entire game it was tough not to feel like the Lakers were showing a lot of heart to stay in the game, but that eventually the Clippers would exert their will and their large talent advantage would carry them to victory.
Instead, a mash unit made up of Jordan Farmar, Jodie Meeks, Xavier Henry, Wesley Johnson and Jordan Hill vastly outplayed the Clippers down the stretch, using a spread pick-and-roll attack to cause the Clips’ D to fundamentally breakdown while they zoned off Chris Paul on pick-and-rolls and dared Blake Griffin to beat them (I’m not sure you can dare a star power forward to beat you anymore than by putting Wesley Johnson on him in the post). It was the first time since Mike D’Antoni was hired by the Lakers last season that it looked like the team was playing his style of basketball. Ironically, even with star talent like Steve Nash, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard on the floor last post-season, the offense never looked as good as it did with the second unit tonight (the Clippers’ horrendous defense played a large role in this, too).
Hats off to D’Antoni, too, for sticking to his word. In the pre-season he said that a lot of his line-up decisions would be made by the players and whoever was hot. He held true to that philosophy in this one, choosing not to disrupt the flow that Farmar and the second unit had, which meant keeping Nash, Blake and Gasol on the bench for the final 15 minutes of the game. Again, this is not a move I think D’Antoni would make last season, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the Lakers didn’t have the kind of athletes that they do now. They may be no names and reclamation projects at best, but they competed and with a legit NBA point guard in Farmar piloting the attack, the Lakers were able to find open looks.
Xavier Henry looks like the most promising youngster of the bunch, outside of Farmar, of course, but he’s proven to an extent and should be the sixth man for this team. Henry had a career high 22 points in his Lakers debut, the high mark of of the team’s 76 bench points, and showed an array of skills attacking the rim and shooting from the outside. He’s never really shown the ability to knockdown jumpers consistently, but he made all three of his three-pointers, and his athleticism has always been his calling card. He had a nifty dunk in transition and had a eurostep on a drive to the rim that the Lakers haven’t seen from someone not named Kobe in a long time.
Johnson, who shot 1-for-11 from the field, with that one make being a critical three in the fourth quarter, also played a big role defensively. He was asked to guard Blake Griffin the post initially, and then the Lakers would tilt their defense toward Blake, sending help at him and putting him in tough spots. When he did try and score, Griffin looked uncomfortable to say the least. I think the Lakers had a great gameplan for playing small and defending Blake at the same time, and they also did a great job against Chris Paul the scorer.
The Clippers have to be worried about how their defense performed. The offense had some great movement for most of the night, but their defense fell apart quickly in the second half. Darren Collison was letting whoever was in front of him get to the rim with ease and the backline of the Clippers defense couldn’t withstand Farmar’s dribble penetration in the fourth quarter, which freed up the Lakers’ shooters. Now, the Lakers may never shoot the ball as well as they did in that fourth quarter again this season, but the shots were there because of the Clips’ breakdowns. The fact that the Clippers don’t have a reliable, or even decent, third big man is a huge deal – Ryan Hollins played four minutes while Antawn Jamison and Byron Mullens didn’t see the floor. Perhaps this is a positive in that it will get DeAndre Jordan more minutes, but the Clippers aren’t going to be an elite defensive team without a quality back-up big.
This game may end up meaning nothing more than that crazy things can happy in the NBA, but there were some encouraging signs from the Lakers in this one – not the least of which is that Pau Gasol looks like the prototypical D’Antoni big when he’s shifted to center – and some things to worry about for Doc Rivers and the Clippers.