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Three Things to Know: Deandre Ayton outduels Luka Doncic in rookie showdown

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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.

Anthony Davis-led Pelicans thrash Rockets in opener

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HOUSTON (AP) — Anthony Davis couldn’t help but notice James Harden‘s freshly minted MVP trophy sitting at midcourt before a ceremony during warmups on Wednesday night.

After Harden hoisted the trophy for the first time before the Toyota Center home crowd and received a few MVP chants throughout the night, Davis began to make an MVP case of his own.

Davis had 32 points, 16 rebounds and a career-high eight assists while Nikola Mirotic scored 30 points to lead the New Orleans Pelicans to a 131-112 win over the Houston Rockets in their season opener.

“When it was sitting there before the game, I glanced at it, and then I had to lock back in for the game,” Davis said. “That stuff will take care of itself. As long as we keep doing what we’re doing as a team, the rest will come on its own.”

Davis added three blocks and three steals, while Mirotic shot a sizzling 6 of 8 from 3-point range, and Julius Randle had 25 points off the bench.

“We moved the basketball and we made shots, but we put our hats on and defended,” Davis said. “To come out with a win against a team like that after the season they had and coming off the season we had, we wanted to come out and set a tempo for ourselves.”

Eric Gordon led the Rockets with 21 points off the bench, while P.J. Tucker and Chris Paul both added 19 points. James Harden had 18 points, 10 assists and nine rebounds.

“A little bit of legs and non-communication and giving them easy points, easy opportunities — a little bit of everything,” Harden said. “But first game, you just continue to build those good habits and continue to get better every single game. We’ll be all right.”

The Pelicans dominated the first half, taking an early lead and never relinquished it as they hammered the undersized Rockets in the paint. New Orleans led 71-54 at the break and led by 29 points in the second half. The Pelicans outrebounded the Rockets 54-37.

“It was a good win for us, but to be honest, we feel like if we play at the level we’re supposed to — we’re not surprised,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “We played exactly how we have to in order to beat that team.”

New Orleans dominated Houston in paint scoring, 76-44, and also shot 40 percent on 10 of 25 shooting from 3, compared with a rusty 33.3 percent (16 of 48) from the Rockets.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t seem overly alarmed by the defensive display, praising New Orleans’ energy.

“They played harder, longer and did a better job,” D’Antoni said. “They played great, but at the same time, there was a period in there where we got really tired and then trying to figure things out, being tired doesn’t work, and we didn’t have the energy and we kind of let go of the rope at the end of the first half. We obviously have some things to work on, we’ve got to get our legs and then go after it.”

Coming off the bench for Houston with seven minutes remaining in the first quarter, Rockets offseason pickup Carmelo Anthony received a standing ovation when he entered the game wearing his trademark headband and the No. 7. Anthony made his first two shot attempts, the first, from 3, and finished 3-of-10 shooting for nine points in 27 minutes.

TIP-INS

Pelicans: C Jahlil Okafor (right ankle sprain) entered the game late in the fourth quarter, playing less than two minutes.

Rockets: PG Michael Carter-Williams (left knee soreness) played on a minutes restriction as a precaution, with D’Antoni setting the cap around 15 minutes. Carter-Williams played 16 minutes and had 10 points. … Centers Nene (right calf tightness) and Zhou Qi (left knee sprain) did not play.

MOMENT OF SILENCE

Before the game, the Rockets honored the life of late Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen on the big screen wearing a Portland hat, offering a tribute and moment of silence. Allen, a Microsoft co-founder who also owned the Seattle Seahawks, died Monday in Seattle from complications of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, according to his company Vulcan Inc. He was 65.

A PERFECT 10

Elfrid Payton‘s minimalist triple-double made him the first player to record exactly 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a single game since March 2, 2013 when Kyle Lowry did it for Toronto. It was Payton’s 11th career triple-double.

HE SAID IT

“For all you analytics guys, we’re not winning 82 (games) this year. That’s done, that’s all about how it’s been proven.” – D’Antoni.

UP NEXT

Pelicans: Host Kings on Friday.

Rockets: At Lakers on Saturday.

Jahlil Okafor leaves game with ankle injury, on crutches after game, will get MRI

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This is the opposite of how Jahlil Okafor wanted to start his Pelicans career.

He had 8 points on 4-of-7 shooting on the night, then with just seconds left in the Pelicans’ first preseason game, Okafor went down with what looked to be a sprained ankle after tripping over the foot of a Bulls’ player in transition.

New Orleans is Okafor’s chance to prove he still has a role in the NBA. The former No. 3 pick out of Duke has battled injuries throughout his career but also has watched the game quickly evolve away from his old-school style of play. Throw in his poor defense and it’s been hard for him to find a spot, but the Pelicans gave a chance to be the fourth man in a rotation with Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, and Julius Randle.

This injury is a setback in that goal. Hopefully, he will not be out long.

Anthony Davis and Pelicans enter yet another season full of speculation about their future together

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This is the latest of NBC’s NBA preview stories, with at least one a day appearing on these pages until Oct. 16, when the NBA season kicks off. We will look at teams and topics around the NBA throughout the series, today it is New Orleans.

In Anthony Davis‘ lifetime, 22 players have made an All-NBA first team during their first six seasons. Just seven did so without reaching a conference finals in that span. Of those seven, only one began his seventh season with his original team.

Anthony Davis is set to become the second.

Davis, a three-time All-NBA first-teamer, has made the playoffs only twice and won a series only once in six years with the Pelicans. He’s following the footsteps of Kevin Garnett, who spent his first 12 seasons with the Timberwolves while advancing in the playoffs only once with them, in his ninth season.

That’s the same Kevin Garnett whom Anthony used as somewhat of a cautionary tale about remaining loyal to a franchise. And the most recent example of someone who became an All-NBA first-teamer so young without reaching the conference finals: Chris Paul, who engineered a trade from New Orleans after his sixth season there.

Uneasy parallels abound for the Pelicans as they try to keep Davis happy.

Of course, Davis is neither Paul nor Garnett nor anybody but Anthony Davis. Davis has mostly stayed on message: His priority is winning in New Orleans.

I believe that. But what if he determines he can’t win enough with the Pelicans? Will he choose them or a team he believes offers a better chance of on-court success. That, I don’t know.

The Pelicans should gain clarity next summer, when they can offer Davis a super-max extension that projects to be worth about $240 million over five years (about $48 million annually).

If he were to wait to leave in 2020 unrestricted free agency, Davis would have a projected max with another team of about $152 million over four years (about $38 million annually). Even if he got traded before then so he could re-sign with his new team in 2020, his projected max would still be “just” about $205 million over five years (about $41 million annually). He can get the super-max from only New Orleans.

If Davis is predisposed to stay with the Pelicans anyway, why wouldn’t he just take that monster offer next summer?

Again, speculation centers on New Orleans’ underwhelming results since drafting him No. 1 overall in 2012. The Pelicans have tried to fast-track their ascension around Davis, repeatedly trading first-round picks. They haven’t won enough to justify that strategy, and it has resulted in a roster primed for disappointment going forward.

Jrue Holiday is nice. Nikola Mirotic is underrated. Julius Randle could take another step. Otherwise, New Orleans’ supporting cast doesn’t make a convincing case.

Of course, the Pelicans could exceed expectations. They sure did last year, winning 48 games and sweeping the third-seeded Trail Blazers even after DeMarcus Cousins‘ injury.

Davis is locked up for two more years. If he makes another All-NBA team next season, he’ll be eligible to re-sign for the supermax in 2020 no matter how he performs during the 2019-20 season. Next season is not necessarily a breaking point.

But it’ll be another data point in Davis’ ongoing assessment of New Orleans. That assessment will be guided by a new agent (maybe Rich Paul, who represents Lakers superstar LeBron James) – which only adds variability to the equation.

The stakes are high. The small-market Pelicans would likely fall into into irrelevance if they lose Davis, which is precisely why they won’t rush to move him. But if they’re going to lose Davis, they’re better off trading him while his value nears its peak so they can get assets that will help in a new era. Whichever team gets Davis will likely vault up the championship-contention ladder.

Eyes will be on Davis and New Orleans, searching for any sign of discord. That might not be fair considering all Davis has done to fit in with the Pelicans, but it’s also reality. The vultures are swarming.

It has been this way for years now. Davis and the Pelicans are used to it, and neither he nor the team has budged much from their stated plan of sticking together.

But the super-max-extension window is around the corner with only the upcoming season in between. It’ll be a big one for determining whether everything in New Orleans is still on track.

Lakers ace offseason by signing LeBron James

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Lakers signed LeBron James.

Offseason grade: A+

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, you want more?

The Lakers followed the summer’s biggest coup – not just signing LeBron, but locking him in for three years – with a dispiriting (or, depending on your perspective, comical) set of transactions.

Los Angeles didn’t lure Paul George or trade for Kawhi Leonard. Instead, the Lakers valued playmakers as if the best course isn’t giving LeBron the ball, talked about defense as if anyone who was once a good defender or has the physical tools will defend well and treated shooting as if floor spacing barely matters.

The good news: The Lakers are penciled into this plan for only one year.

The bad news: It’s a year of 33-year-old LeBron’s eventually ending prime.

The Lakers have essentially assembled three contingents:

They’ll have a chance to prove me wrong, but I have little faith in those veterans complementing LeBron well. And most of them didn’t come cheap – Caldwell-Pope ($12 million), Rondo ($9 million), Stephenson (room exception), Beasley ($3.5 million). If anything, Caldwell-Pope – whose shared agent with LeBron, Rich Paul, might have forced the Lakers’ hand with re-signing him to a generous salary – is probably the best fit.

That puts a lot of pressure on Lakers president Magic Johnson to assess the young players. Which will become capable of contributing to winning at the highest level before LeBron’s prime ends? Which should be traded for veterans? These are not easy questions, but it’s a much more enjoyable challenge than the one Los Angeles would have faced if LeBron didn’t come.

The Lakers went 35-47 last season, their best record in a half decade. LeBron changes everything.

But there might be a ceiling on the Lakers’ progress next season. Don’t ignore the departures of Julius Randle (to Pelicans) and Brook Lopez (to Bucks). Even Larry Nance Jr. helped the Lakers build credibility before getting shipped to the Cavaliers in a midseason trade that helped open cap space for LeBron.

This isn’t the end of the road, though. After convincing Luol Deng to relinquish $7,455,933 in a buyout, the Lakers are in line for about max cap space next summer. They also still have all those valuable young players to develop or trade. The cupboard is full of ingredients around LeBron.

Now, the Lakers must just find a winning recipe.

I don’t think this year’s plan is it, but whatever missteps the Lakers made this summer, landing LeBron overshadows everything else.

Offseason grade: A+