Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. This was the first full slate of games this season and three of the first four were #LeaguePassAlert games — welcome back NBA.
1) Suns, Deandre Ayton gets best of Mavs’ Luka Doncic in rookie debuts. It’s tedious but let’s start with the required-by-law caveat: It’s just one game. Almost any reaction here is an overreaction. What matters is not where Ayton and Doncic are right now but how much better are they around Christmas. And March.
That said, Ayton showed an offensive game that comes to him with ease and looked the better of the two promising rookies in an opening night showdown.
Ayton had to go up against DeAndre Jordan and did a good job of letting the offense come to him, not forcing it, and he finished with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 10 rebounds, and an impressive six assists. (Credit to new coach Igor Kokoskov, the Suns moved the ball very well and assisted on 78 percent of their baskets.) Ayton did most of his damage deep in the post, mainly when smaller players were switched onto him, but also nailed a few midrange jumpers. His first bucket came with an and-1 against Doncic down low.
That said, on the defensive end of the floor Ayton has a lot of work to do. He just looked lost, without recognition. The book on him coming in was he had never really been taught to defend until college and he just doesn’t have the understanding yet, and that showed. It’s just a reminder he has a LONG way to go on that end.
Dallas’ Doncic couldn’t get his shot to fall (5-of-16 overall and 0-of-5 from three) but the Dallas offense did look smoother with him running it. He still finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, and four assists — and a few highlight moments to remind you what he can be.
Phoenix’s Devin Booker was the real offensive star of the game — he scored 17 points in the final five minutes to seal the win and had 35 on the night for the Suns.
2) Pelicans beat down Rockets in opener, win by 19 (and it wasn’t that close). Last season, Houston’s switch-everything defense was seventh best in the NBA and the stops/steals it got helped fuel an elite offense. There were a lot of questions through the summer about how much the losses of Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute, and defensive guru assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik (retirement) were going to set them back.
It’s just one game, but the returns are not good.
The Pelicans picked apart the switches, got mismatches and clean looks, and flat-out thrashed Houston in its home opener 131-112. This was a 17 point game at the half and the Pelicans led by as many as 29 at points. Anthony Davis feasted on the Houston defense on his way to 32 points,16 rebounds, eight assists, and three blocks. He looked stronger and was scoring in the post on Clint Capela at times.
The Pelicans big-man trio dominated this game — Nikola Mirotic hit his first six threes and finished with 30 points, and Julius Randle punished switches inside on his way to 25 points and eight rebounds. New Orleans is an interesting combination — they play as fast as any team in the league but will punish teams that go small ball on them. The Rockets struggled with all of that.
Houston will play better — James Harden and Chris Paul were good but not playing at their otherworldly potential, and the defense will improve. But there were other concerns. Carmelo Anthony came off the bench for the first time in his career and looked pedestrian and out of sync, not like a guy who can help the team in May, and shot 3-of-10. Worse yet, Michael Carter-Williams was a mess, getting torched defensively, and on offense the Pelicans at points literally did not guard him and that messed with the spacing and flow of the rest of the offense. Houston has some work to do to get back to the level we all expect of them.
3) Kawhi Leonard looks good — if a bit rusty — in Raptors debut. We saw it with Gordon Hayward in Boston on Tuesday night (and to a degree Kyrie Irving as well): Miss a large chunk of the last season and there’s going to be some expected rust and struggles in the first game of the next season.
That was the Kawhi Leonard story in Toronto. He put up 24 points in his first game, but on 9-of-22 shooting. Early on it was clear the Raptors were feeding him to try to get him rolling, but that had a limited effect (although he did look better in the second half).
It’s just one game, and Leonard was moving and defending well, we need to give him some time to get his game fully back. The Raptors beat the Cavaliers 116-104 and as long as they keep winning Leonard can find his game again without pressure.
BONUS NOTE: Could not end this without a shout out to Allonzo Trier. You might remember him as the player who, when you tuned in to watch Ayton at Arizona last season, you said, “hey, who is No. 35, he’s pretty good?” Trier went undrafted but played his way onto the Knicks’ roster through a solid Summer League (17 points a game) and camp (14.2 average in preseason games, better than Kevin Knox).
Opening night he impressed dropping 15 and making some highlight reel plays. This is a rookie to keep an eye on.