Nets and Clippers Open N.B.A. Season With Big Wins

iCrackStreamsDecember 23, 2020

Coming out of last season’s bubble, Paul George’s reputation suffered some damage. He groused about the challenging circumstances, then underperformed in the playoffs. It all helped lead to questions and concerns about the Los Angeles Clippers entering this season, though there was no doubt that George would be a part of the team’s future after he signed a long-term extension.

On Tuesday night, George offered a reminder that he is still one of the best players in the N.B.A. In leading the Clippers to a season-opening 116-109 win over the Lakers, George scored 33 points while shooting 13 of 18 from the field. The performance came on the night the Lakers collected their championship rings. Both teams have title aspirations again this season.

“I took shots when they were available,” George said in a televised interview after the game. “I didn’t press.”

The Clippers led by as many as 22 points in the half, found themselves tied with the Lakers in the third quarter, then imposed their will on defense in the game’s late stages to secure the win. They also got a solid effort from Kawhi Leonard, who scored 26 points. LeBron James had 22 points for the Lakers, and Anthony Davis finished with 18.

It was a competitive game — and a relief for viewers who had stuck around after the Nets christened the new season by throttling the Golden State Warriors, 125-99, earlier in the evening.

Here’s how the Nets beat the Warriors, and the Clippers beat the Lakers.

Credit…Sarah Stier/Getty Images

Opening night won’t just be a long-awaited return to the court for Kevin Durant. His teammate, Stephen Curry, with whom Durant won two championships, also will play. Curry, a two-time Most Valuable Player Award winner, missed 60 games last season because of a broken left hand.

Curry and Durant will face each other as opponents for the first time since 2016. After that season, Durant shocked the basketball world by joining Curry in Golden State, forming one of the most talented partnerships in the history of the league.

“You always kind of find yourself in awe of stuff he can do on the floor,” Curry told reporters this week, adding, “That was a big part of our success: kind of feeding off of each other, that energy and that pursuit of greatness every day. Seeing it up close and personal, you had no choice but to meet it every day.”

Durant, for his part, is not outwardly putting extra stock in Tuesday night’s game, even though it is against his former team.

“Playing against old teammates never really ratcheted me up,” Durant told reporters this week. “I always felt like I was on that level no matter who is on the floor. I feel like each game is important to me.”

It’s a beautiful sight to see. Kevin Durant has hit 4 of his first 5 shots. What’s impressive is that all four of his makes have been different. One was a runner, another a 3-pointer, a pull-up jumper which also sent him to the line, and, finally, a baseline dunk. He scored 8 points in the first three minutes of the game. An impressive start so far, pushing the Nets to an early double-digit lead, 18-8. Kyrie Irving has hit 2 of 3 so far for 5 points.

Before his first regular-season game as an N.B.A. head coach, Steve Nash told reporters that Kevin Durant “does look exactly like he did before the injury, but he also needs a little bit of breathing room to get himself acclimated to competitive basketball.”

“The only thing I say about it is that he’s done everything and he’s in absolutely the ultimate position to come back from this injury,” Nash said of Durant, who tore his right Achilles’ tendon during the 2019 N.B.A. finals, which sidelined him for all of last season.

As far as his coaching debut — Nash’s first direct involvement in a N.B.A. game since he retired as a player in 2015 — Nash said that this game day had a “different rhythm but similar nerves and anxiety” as when he was a player.

“I always felt a little nerves until I actually got out there in pregame warm-ups. So I feel that a little bit tonight and that’s probably a good thing,” Nash said.

The Nets jumped out to a 40-19 lead in the first quarter, while the Warriors looked out of sorts on offense, before the Nets ended the opening frame leading 40-25. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were dominant, scoring 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting combined. Joe Harris also scored 6 points, hitting a pair of triples.

Kelly Oubre, a new Warriors addition, had a rim-rattling dunk and Stephen Curry had 9 points on 3-of-7 shooting to keep the Warriors afloat, but Golden State had trouble generating quality offensive possessions as a whole.

I’m not ready to say goodbye to the Golden State Warriors.

I find myself pining for the splendor of Steph Curry, the snarl of Draymond Green, the beautiful basketball, the sheer dominance. I fear we may never see it again — at least, not at the level we once did.

Klay Thompson’s shredded Achilles’ tendon probably means a second straight lost season, and possibly a fatal blow to the Warriors’ hopes for a revival. And that’s where I truly become wistful.

I don’t miss the Warriors as a fan would (my San Jose roots notwithstanding). It’s not just that I’ll miss writing about their roundball artistry (though that’s certainly true, too). It’s more personal than that.

To their fans, the Warriors provided endless basketball bliss — a montage of deep 3s and shimmies and raucous parades. To others, they provided a standard of selfless play and joyful domination. They defined an era, and redefined the formula for building a superteam.

But they gave me something far more precious: a final few hours with my father. I just didn’t know it at the time.

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It’s just one game. But Andrew Wiggins, who will now have to fill some of the gap left by Klay Thompson’s absence, has had a rough start to the game. He started 1-8 and has missed multiple wide-open jumpers.

On the other end, Caris LeVert is thriving early on in his role as sixth man for the Nets. He has 12 points on 7 shots along with 3 rebounds and an assist, providing a spark off the bench while Durant and Irving sit for a spell. LeVert’s ability to keep the offense afloat while the Nets’ star duo rests will be crucial as the season progresses.

Side note: TNT’s audio appears to be out of sync with the video. I just heard the clank of a missed jumper seconds after the ball hit the rim on the screen. Look, it’s not just the players who are getting themselves into shape.

The onslaught continued for the Nets, as they ended the first half up 63-45. Kyrie Irving continued to put on a show, pouring in 24 points on 13 shots and hitting several momentum-stopping jump shots to keep the Warriors from sustaining any sort of run. Kevin Durant had 12 points on 11 shots. Caris LeVert ended the half with 12 points.

For Golden State, every point seemed to be a labor. Stephen Curry led with 16 points, but it took 15 shots. He also had 5 assists. Andrew Wiggins shot 2-10 for 8 points. The Nets have looked faster and more aggressive, keeping the game mostly uncompetitive. Their defense also was effective in stopping the Warriors from getting uncontested shots.

One potential red flag for the Nets: They only had 10 assists to 13 turnovers. They’re winning based on a lot of isolation basketball. But who can complain when it works?

Commissioner Adam Silver, in a pregame interview on TNT, reiterated that he did not think that N.B.A. players should receive the vaccine right now, saying that he did not want players prioritized over more vulnerable populations.

“While there is no doubt a role our that our players can play at the appropriate time, and whether it’s in the African-American community in certain cases, whether it’s demonstrating to young people that it’s safe to get the vaccine should our players feel that way, I just think right now, given that there’s limited doses and given that there’s another cohort of people out there who need it much more desperately than young, healthy people, my sense is we should wait,” Silver said.

“But ultimately we’ll follow what the public health officials tell us to do. I know we’ve already had some conversations with public health officials who suggested that there is a role that our players can play in demonstrating to the broader public that it is safe to go ahead and get vaccinated.”

So, this is Kevin Durant:

And this is how the Warriors are doing:

It got ugly here in Brooklyn (depending on your vantage point). The Nets pushed the lead to 31 in the third quarter. The Warriors are only shooting 5 of 21 from deep, compared to 10 of 22 for the Nets. That has essentially been the ball game. Durant now has 16 points; Irving has 26.

The game became a blowout early on … is still a blowout entering the final quarter, as the Nets outscored the Warriors by 10 in the third, to lead 99-71. We are all about bright spots here, so we found one for Golden State: Stephen Curry has 10 assists. So there’s that.

Aside from that? The Warriors are shooting 24 percent from 3 and only have two players in double figures. Andrew Wiggins is shooting an awful 4-14 from the field for 13 points. For the Nets, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have combined for 48 points and may not have to play anymore tonight. Caris LeVert has 16 points, Joe Harris has 10, and DeAndre Jordan has 10 rebounds.

James Wiseman, the highly touted prospect whom the Warriors drafted second overall in November, has had a mixed N.B.A. debut after Coach Steve Kerr put him in the starting lineup. So far, through 17 minutes, Wiseman has 10 points and 6 rebounds on 3-of-8 shooting. The 19-year-old looked nimble handling the ball but sometimes struggled finishing under the basket and on the defensive end.

Steve Nash got his first win as an N.B.A. head coach in dominating fashion, as the Nets blew out the Golden State Warriors at home, 125-99. The Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant partnership got off to a fast start: Irving had 26 points and Durant added 22, both in 25 minutes. Neither played in the fourth quarter. But for all 48 minutes, the Nets looked like the championship contenders they were billed to be. The Nets were particularly proficient from the perimeter, shooting 15-35 from deep (43 percent). Caris LeVert, who came off the bench, scored 20 points and grabbed 9 rebounds.

Golden State, missing Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, struggled mightily on both ends of the floor. Offensively, the Warriors looked as if they would miss even if they threw a basketball into space from the International Space Station. They shot 10-33 from three (30 percent). Stephen Curry, who missed most of last season, looked overmatched, scoring 20 points on 21 shots. He did, however, have 10 assists. Curry did not get much help from his teammates. Andrew Wiggins, whom the Warriors acquired last season, shot 4-16 from the field for 13 points. James Wiseman, the heralded rookie, scored 19 points and grabbed 6 rebounds, a solid debut, but much of his production came in the fourth quarter when the outcome of the game was not in doubt.

In some ways, it feels like Kawhi Leonard joined the Clippers a million years ago. In fact, it was only during the summer of 2019 when the Clippers signed Leonard and traded for Paul George, a momentous one-two punch that reshaped the franchise.

But some of the behind-the-scenes intrigue of that momentous summer recently resurfaced when Johnny Wilkes, a man who claims to be a Leonard family confidante, accused Jerry West, one of the team’s executives, of reneging on a pledge to pay him for helping deliver Leonard to the Clippers.

After Wilkes, who played high school basketball with Leonard’s uncle Dennis Robertson filed a lawsuit, the N.B.A. opened an investigation. The Clippers have denied any wrongdoing, calling Wilkes’s allegations “baseless,” and Leonard told reporters that Wilkes had nothing to do with his decision to sign with the Clippers.

Leonard has never been considered among the N.B.A.’s most charismatic stars, but his short tenure with the Clippers has produced no shortage of drama. Also percolating in the background: his contract situation. Leonard suggested this week that he would decline his player option for next season, meaning he would become a free agent.

Meanwhile, all is copacetic in Laker-land: LeBron James and Anthony Davis both agreed to new long-term deals over the off-season.

Before the Lakers took the court for their spectator-free championship ring ceremony, Coach Frank Vogel reflected on just how “surreal” the team’s title run still felt to him.

“I don’t really know if it ever really hits you,” he told reporters before the game. “It’s what you dream about. It’s what you work for your whole career. I’m just happy for my family, who made so many sacrifices to allow me to have these opportunities. Grateful to the league for letting us finish the season and creating the bubble environment.”

Because of the coronavirus pandemic and the massive shutdowns it caused, Vogel said he had only sporadically been able to get a sense of what the championship meant to fans in Southern California. But whenever he goes grocery shopping or stops by Target, someone will thank him for what the team was able to do, he said.

The ring ceremony itself, even without fans in the arena, was surprisingly emotional. In recorded video presentations, the players’ families congratulated them, one by one, before they went to collect their rings. There was even a cameo from the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose younger brother, Kostas, spent last season on a two-way contract with the Lakers.

And in a nice touch, frontline medical workers presented the rings to the team’s assistant coaches.

Playing through fake crowd noise that sounds, to this expert, like static, the Clippers have run out to a 16-5 lead. Perhaps the Lakers are still recovering from the ring ceremony. Or maybe the Clippers are revealing the importance of two of their key off-season acquisitions: Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum, who have combined for 11 points.

The Lakers got more attention for their eventful off-season — Dennis Schröder, who was in the running for sixth man of the year with the Oklahoma City Thunder last season, was in the Lakers’ starting lineup — but Ibaka and Batum are both long, wily veterans who can hit 3-pointers and space the floor, no small asset in the N.B.A.

That was a Nets-esque start for the Clippers, who have a 39-19 lead after the first quarter and are showing a lot of offensive balance. Eight players scored, including all five starters. And their defense is causing all kinds of problems, forcing the Lakers into five turnovers.

It might be worth noting that the Lakers and Clippers met in the opener last season, and the Clippers won that game fairly handily. The Lakers, of course, went on to win it all. The point being: One game, especially the season opener, does not mean a whole lot. But the Clippers, at least for one quarter, are showing cohesion a couple of months after their meltdown in the bubble — and after facing a lot of off-season questions about chemistry.

Talen Horton-Tucker has checked into the game for the Lakers, who have cut into the Clippers’ lead, and LeBron James thinks the 20-year-old guard can become a star. James recalled watching one of Horton-Tucker’s high school games on television a few years ago and calling his agent: “You need to take a look at this kid,” James told him.

A second-round draft pick out of Iowa State a year ago, Horton-Tucker played sparingly for the Lakers last season, when he was still a teenager — and the youngest player on the roster. But he had a breakout preseason game earlier this month, collecting 33 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists against the Clippers. He figures to be a part of the rotation moving forward.

“You see what he’s doing now,” James said. “He’s going to continue to get better and better and better.”

After five quarters of lopsided basketball tonight, it’s nice to finally have a competitive game. After trailing by as many as 22 points, the Lakers nearly came all the way back and now trail, 56-54, at halftime. Anthony Davis and LeBron James (who else?) both have 10 points for the Lakers. They also got nice spark from Dennis Schröder, who has 9.

In the final minute before halftime, Lakers Coach Frank Vogel successfully challenged an offensive foul call on James that turned into a 3-point play for him — a big swing.

Kawhi Leonard has struggled for the Clippers, shooting 4 of 13 from the field.

Viewers are getting their first look at Luke Kennard as a member of the Clippers. Kennard, a 24-year-old wing who has had a quiet night, scoring 2 points in 10 minutes off the bench, spent the first three years of his career with the Detroit Pistons before the Clippers picked him up over the off-season as a part of three-team trade.

It’s been an eventful week for Kennard. On Monday, Kennard and the Clippers reached an agreement on a new four-year deal that could be worth as much as $64 million with incentives, according to multiple reports. With the Pistons last season, Kennard averaged 15.8 points a game while shooting 39.9 percent from 3-point range.

Shooting guards are getting paid these days. Consider the Nets’ Joe Harris, who recently signed a four-year deal worth $75 million.

One person who was apparently amused by Kennard’s new contract? Montrezl Harrell, who tweeted several laughing emojis along with a brief message: “OK!” after the news was reported. Harrell, the league’s reigning sixth man of the year, had spent the past three seasons with the Clippers before signing with the Lakers in November — for two years and $19 million. Tonight, he has 12 points and 6 rebounds late in the third quarter.

After the Lakers scrambled all the way back to tie the game, the Clippers ratcheted up their defensive pressure — again. It also helped that Paul George caught fire, helping the Clippers to an 89-78 lead entering the fourth quarter. George, who was maligned for his postseason struggles in the bubble, has 22 points while shooting 9 of 12 from the field. Leonard also has 22.

LeBron James tried to impose his will for a stretch of the third quarter (see his earlier dunk), and has 18 points. But the Lakers seemed to use up a lot of energy coming back from that huge deficit.

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