And at long last, the NBA goes to sleep for a month

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The lockout had a lot of effects. One beat writer told me last week that because of the frequency of the games, stacked on top of each other, it didn’t feel like a 66-game season, but a 120-game season. Then there were the playoffs, with back-to-backs in the second round. The conference finals whizzing by every other day, then the Finals, jammed in. As soon as they were done, a week, and then the draft, just like that. A mad scramble to get our bearings around the rookie class. Two days later, free agency started, and one of the wildest periods in NBA history began. While that was going on, not after, during, Team USA began its march towards gold.

The NBA, like the NFL, is evolving towards a 365-day story. But now, mercifully, for the players, coaches, managers, and yeah, the keyboard fanatics among us, there’s a break.

The NBA goes into hibernation officially Sunday night, not to resume until media day and preseason in September. It’s a time to reflect on everything that’s gone on, and what’s to come.

The Heat won the title, validating the super-team model. Oddly enough, what became the difference in a team that failed to convert on its starpower was not the collective force, but the overwhelming brilliance of the best player in basketball, LeBron James. Yes, Wade and Bosh were huge reasons why they were there. But what LeBron James pulled together in that final month of play? Astonishing. Boston remains both headed towards the grave and firmly clenching the ground above, refusing to go down. Oklahoma City’s future is bright, still. But the “they’re still young” will only last so long before the money or the frustration gets them, whichever comes first. The Spurs are either the best sub-elite team in the history of the NBA or the worst powerhouse, and it’s impossible to tell which.

The Bobcats are terrible.

Then the draft, and Anthony Davis brings hope to New Orleans. A team that was supposed to be awful for so long, who made such a big mistake in the Clippers trade, now looks to be back in playoff contention within three seasons. Davis will remake them, and his experience and showing with Team USA proves he’s already on the path. The Wizards got their shooter, the Pacers took another white guy, and the Bobcats went with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who will be a big part of their future and a player the fans will love.

The Bobcats are still terrible.

Free agency kicked off the most insane period many have ever seen. Deron chose Brooklyn, the money, and Joe Johnson over Cuban, Dirk, and Dallas. The Nets proved that Mikhail Prokhorov may have 99 problems but a luxury tax ain’t one. The Hawks blew themselves up. The Knicks were going to get Steve Nash, so the Raptors overpaid Landry Fields to block that, then neither the Knicks nor the Raptors got Steve Nash, and the Lakers walked away with him, in a move that just feels… wrong. So Jason Kidd went to the Knicks to back up Jeremy Lin, right? Only… not. Houston gets him, and no one understands what happens there but for some reason it’s Melo’s fault. Lin and Asik and 1900 combo forwards make up Houston’r roster. Ray Allen “betrayed” the Celtics before they could trade or bury him, while JET went to Boston. Raymond Felton’s a Knick again, Goran Dragic is a Sun again, and Camby is a Knick again. We’re somehow going backwards in time.

Michael Beasley’s a Sun and I’m not sure what that’s about.

The Suns tried and missed for Eric Gordon, the Hornets landed Ryan Anderson. The Magic let Anderson walk, but re-signed Jameer Nelson, and we really don’t know what that’s about.

The Nets deal for Dwight Howard fell apart. Nine times. Like Edward Rooney says, niiine. Times.

And then Dwight went to the Lakers. The best center in the league, joining a team with Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. Gasol, who two years ago was considered the best big man in the league, is now the fourth option on a team. It would be disgusting in terms of its overt opulence if we hadn’t become so used to seeing it from the Lakers. The Dwightmare is over, Orlando is in ruins, and Bynum’s a Sixer? Seriously?

And guess what. The Bobcats, despite getting Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon, are still terrible.

Then Team USA. An epic, historic performance against Nigeria. A tough one against Lithuania. A statement made against Argentina, and a thriller against the Spanish who gave them the fight everyone thought they would. But in the end? Gold. LeBron, Kobe, Durant, Anthony, Chandler, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, all added to their legacies. Coach K walks away a winner.

Now the GM’s are all headed for vacations. Players are enjoying their money and time.The media is settling into a time to remember who these strange people they live with that are supposedly called “families” are. It’s a time for rest, to try and get used to this new universe where LeBron’s a champion, Dwight’s a Laker, and the Sixers might be relevant.

The 2012-2013 season will be 82 games. There will be no lockout. There will be no disappointed press conferences. No hijacking, no accusations, no “enormous consequences.” We get basketball in the fall, after this brief respite. It will be thrilling, more exciting than ever, even if the gap between the haves and have nots has never been greater. 2012-2013 is something to look forward to. We’ll enjoy the time, and still bring you stories and analysis every day at PBT, as we move ever closer to October 30th and the tip of Boston and Miami.

Enjoy this time, get acquainted with this new universe, get excited for what’s to come. A lot’s happened in the last few months, and it will still take some time to take it all in. But there’s so much to be excited about, because no matter what, in 79 days, the 2012-2013 season tips off, and it will be rocking.

But the Bobcats will still be terrible. (But maybe not as terrible, if Gordon gets his shot back and MKG surprises offensively, and they can… see? Here we go again…)

With 17 straight points fourth quarter, Zion flashes what could be for New Orleans

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Everyone came for the dunks.

Zion Williamson showed he can be so much more than that — he even has a little Stephen Curry in him.

After sitting through his slow start, fans in New Orleans — and ones sitting in front of televisions from San Diego to Kennebunkport — got what they came to see during the fourth quarter of Williamson’s NBA debut:

Zion absolutely dominated a five-minute stretch of the fourth quarter.

Williamson — a rookie who had missed 44 games coming off knee surgery — was the best player on the court for those minutes, scoring 17 straight points and getting the Pelicans back in a game they had trailed by double-digits for much of the night. And he did it going 4-of-4 from three.

Williamson finished the night with 22 points on 8-of-11 shooting, plus seven rebounds, all in just 18:18 of court time.

It wasn’t enough to get the Pelicans a win; San Antonio got 32 points from LaMarcus Aldridge and the victory 121-117.

Williamson spent the first half looking like a rookie who had not played much ane was trying to fit in. He didn’t force anything, made smart basketball plays passing out of double teams, and took what the defense gave him. Zion’s first NBA basket came in the second quarter, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

Williamson played cautiously through three quarters, with five points on 2-of-3 shooting, four rebounds but also four turnovers.

Then in the fourth you could see his confidence grow as Aldridge (and later other Spurs defenders) dared him to hit a three. Once Zion knocked one down and his confidence started to swell, he got back to being the attacking, aggressive player everyone expected — and Pelicans fans loved every minute of it.

It’s just 18 minutes of basketball, the definition of a small sample size. But those 18 minutes only whetted our appetite. They weren’t even the appetizer, they were an amuse-bouche. 

But this could be the start of an amazing meal.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis combine for 49 points, Lakers beat Knicks

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NEW YORK — LeBron James scored 19 of his 21 points early, cutting into Kobe Bryant’s shrinking lead over him for the No. 3 scoring spot in NBA history, and the Los Angeles Lakers beat the New York Knicks 100-92 on Wednesday night.

Anthony Davis led the Lakers with 28 points in his second game back after a five-game absence, after the Western Conference leaders were handed their worst loss of the season Monday in his return.

James’ quiet second half left him with 33,599 points, 44 back of Bryant.

That keeps James in good shape to catch the former Lakers star Saturday at Philadelphia, where the five-time NBA champion was born. Los Angeles has a game in between Thursday in Brooklyn.

Davis scored eight points in the final 3:45 and finished 13 of 13 from the free throw line. He played 30 minutes after going only 23 in his return from a bruised gluteus maximus on Monday in Boston, where the Lakers were routed 139-107.

Marcus Morris scored 20 points and Damyean Dotson had 17 for the Knicks, who put up a much better effort after losing by 30 two weeks ago in Los Angeles. But they just couldn’t come up with timely shots to really threaten the Lakers in the fourth quarter.

James shot 8 of 10 in 17 minutes of the first half, but the Knicks held the rest of the Lakers relatively in check and the game was tied at 48 at halftime.

The Lakers led by six after three quarters, then opened the fourth with Dwight Howard‘s dunk, a 3-pointer by Rajon Rondo and a basket by Kyle Kuzma to extend it to 83-70.

New York hung around and was within six again late but the Lakers prevailed despite only two baskets, both by Davis, in the final four minutes.

Zion Williamson’s first NBA basket a putback

AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
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In his first NBA action, Zion Williamson looked like what he is: A rookie trying to find his way.

At least Willaimson didn’t force the issue and tried to blend in, making smart basketball plays, which led to a first-half bucket and assist in his 8:11 minutes of action.

Zion’s first bucket in the NBA came in the second quarter of his debut game, a putback off a Nickeil Alexander-Walker miss.

In his first quarter run, Zion looked to be unselfish with the ball and made the right basketball play a  few times, passing out of soft doubles and picking up an assist to Brandon Ingram cutting down the lane (but Zion was 0-of-1 shooting).

It was a good start if a bit tentative, something to be expected of a guy who missed 44 games and is now trying to come into the rotation midseason.

As he grows more comfortable, New Orleans needs Zion to attack the rim. The Pelicans have shot creators and shooters — Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, J.J. Redick — and a rim-running, attacking threat that forces defenses to collapse a little will make things easier for the Pelicans’ perimeter players.

San Antonio was sharp in the first half and led by double-digits for much it. That came in part because New Orleans started 0-of-9 from three (despite some clean looks). San Antonio led 60-51 at the half. If the Pelicans are going to make a playoff push, this is the kind of game they need (at home against another team in the mix for one of the final playoff spots in the West).

NBA games still not on China’s state run television

Yanshan Zhang/Getty Images
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In the wake of the backlash from China after Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted out support for the protestors in Hong Kong — the kind of political statement the NBA takes in stride domestically but found it stirred a hornets’ nest in this case — Chinese state television stopped showing NBA games.

That is still the case today, according to Nets’ owner Joeseph Tsai.

Tsai — one of the co-founders of the Alibaba Group, which runs the Chinese equivalent of Amazon — is a billionaire with his feet in both the United States and China. He spoke to Bloomberg News recently about where things stand now in the NBA/China relationship (hat tip Nets Daily).

Tsai is eager to see NBA games back on [state run] CCTV. Although [streaming service] Tencent has begun showing them again, the state-owned broadcaster has yet to budge. A person familiar with the matter says the league is optimistic the network will relent, beginning with the All-Star Game on Feb. 16—there’s no ready replacement, after all, for LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“Once you are on the air,” Tsai says, “everything will come back.”

For now.

The NBA, like any American group doing business in China, is caught up in geopolitical forces well beyond its control, from trade wars to protests in Hong Kong. Morey’s Tweet touched on what Tsai called a “third rail of Chinese politics” but he spoke of the Hong Kong protestors as separatists when they would argue they simply want what was promised them in the agreement that transferred control of the city from Brittish to Chinese rule. (And that last sentence itself is a gross oversimplification of a complicated situation.)

NBA games likely will end up back on Chinese television soon (although it will be longer for Rockets’ games), and the business of the NBA in China will continue. Both sides want to make money (and in China, keep a younger generation happy with a sport they have grown to love). However, the underlying issues that caused the last flare-up are not going away — things may be just simmering on the back burner, but the flames are not turned off.

When things do flare up again, Tsai will end up fight back in the middle of it.