Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics
The opening game of the 2018-19 NBA season began with the two most storied franchises in the Eastern Conference facing off after the Celtics proved to the 76ers they were not ready to really compete for a title in last season’s playoffs. Both teams are young and looking to make a statement this year, so it’s only logical to have these two teams take the spotlight and open up the season. The first four minutes would see sloppy ball-handling and plenty of missed opportunities on the break, right at the basket nonetheless.
Robert Convington would foul Jaylen Brown on the fast break with 6:51 left in the quarter, and if both teams were attempting to prove anything, they hadn’t done so yet, as the 76ers 1-point lead had came as a result of the 76ers defending the break well and connecting on their mid-range jump shots in the early going. That would quickly change, as Jayson Tatum quickly showed off his progress from his summer workouts with Kobe, and his nine points in the quarter would come on the Celtics initial 7-0 run that would see them take a 14-8 lead that eventually ballooned to 21-14. Brown and Tatum were given plenty of scoring looks and opportunities to make a play with the ball, and they took advantage of it, relentlessly attacking the 76ers defense.
Early substitutions were made by both teams, and Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier, and Marcus Smart were all obviously the better players off the bench, but with Kyrie Irving on the bench after shooting 0-for-3 from the field and not being engaged in the offense, the Celtics band of hybrid-wings would rest, and in order to take advantage of Aaron Bayne’s perimeter defense, Simmons would strike on the break. His team was falling behind early on, forcing him to attack the rim rather than run set plays to get shooters open or run a pick-and-roll for a scoring chance, pass, or pick up a mismatch. He will struggle without a consistent jump shot, as it prevents him from converting more free throws, and takes away from the 76ers overall offense, but a 21-21 tie largely from Simmons efforts in that 7-0 run in the last three minutes of the quarter would be sufficient enough.
The Celtics would continue running plays in their half-court offense, spreading jump shots around to everyone in the rotation, with Hayward connecting on his first two attempts to start the quarter. A tough effort under the boards by Baynes would be rewarded with a wide-open three by Smart to give the Celtics a 28-21 lead just a minute-and-a-half into the quarter, forcing 76ers head coach Brett Brown to call a timeout. Tatum would disrupt the 76ers offense a few possessions later, and his fast break dunk would return the Celtics lead to nine. Fultz would hit a mid-range jump shot at the free throw line, and after another Celtics basket, Embiid would respond with his second three of the game. A back-and-forth affair ended with Simmons slamming it home on the fast break to snap the 32-26 deadlock. Celtics coach Brad Stevens would call a timeout with 6:51 remaining in the half, and Simmons at this point had seven points, eight rebounds, and three assists, almost single handily being the reason the 76ers were even in the game, as their entire system was being facilitated through him.
Simmons would continue putting work in, posting Smart up at the elbow, showcasing some crafty foot movement as he converted on a turnaround hook while being fouled. His free throw would lead to another dunk after a defensive stand by the 76ers, but Morris would hit a three to settle the opposition’s growing morale. A playground style briefly emerged, with both teams content with taking partially open threes early into the shot clock or open dunks. Eventually the pace would settle down, but they were still playing a playground style essentially, with everyone seemingly getting their chance with the ball to break down their defensive assignment, leading to an entertaining moment where Tatum put Covington on the floor with his crossover move, and a buzzer-beating mid-range jumper to end the half.
Simmons would end the half with 10 points on 4-for-7 from the field, as well as nine rebounds and five assists, but Irving would shoot 0-for-8 from the field, and contributed very little to the game at all, with the 76ers screeners slowing him down enough for his defensive assignments to get open mid-range shots, or drives to the rim. The 76ers 11 turnovers were the primary reason this team was down 47-42 at the half, as their 40% from the field was actually better than the Celtics’ 36.5%, but when 12 of the 76ers 45 shot attempts were threes, and they only connected on two of them, while the Celtics were shooting 25%, then they’re simply taking too many shots that their personnel simply shouldn’t be taking. It makes you question if the 76ers can actually beat this team in a seven game series, as when the Celtics assumed most potent scoring threat is playing poorly on both ends, and this deep Celtics team is able to simply draw up plays for every other starter and reliably depend on certain role players for significant minutes, then how will the Herculean efforts of one man overcome that? I understand Embiid is also one of the top young players in the game, and his impact in this game has been understated since I’ve failed to mention his defensive impact, spacing ability, rebounding, and surprising ball handling abilities for a player of his size thus far in my article, but I assure you these two will simply not be enough, even if they both earned double-doubles tonight, just as they weren’t enough in last season’s playoffs.
This vaunted Celtics depth was on full display in the third, as they forced a timeout after running a line-up of Irving, Brown, Tatum, Horford, and Baynes; endless shooting possibilities unfolded that the 76ers could only try to match with set plays for an aging J.J. Reddick whose shot was not falling last night. When Baynes is connecting on wide-open threes, it’s hard to imagine a scenario you can win despite Simmons nearly collecting himself a triple-double on an assist to Embiid shortly before Irving popped a three in Embiid’s face. Tatum would drive the lane and throw down a dunk to give the Celtics a 61-47 lead and force another timeout with just four minutes played in the quarter.
T.J. McConnell would be inserted for Dario Saric, shuffling the player positioning of the 76ers line-up, but the 76ers would respond by going on a 10-0 run with their spacing and fast break. Gordon Hayward would sit on the bench to start the second half after starting the game, and the strategic reasoning behind that was to allow Hayward to lead the second unit for a majority of the third quarter, giving him the chance to get comfortable for a few weeks, but it’s also a way for Stevens to test his team’s line-ups.
A fluctuating rotation allowed the Celtics to adjust to the 76ers game plan, allowing Embiid to shoot 7-for-15 by the end of the third to lead the 76ers with 16 points as Simmons stopped looking for any lanes to drive in the third in order to set up his teammates, which did not work out well for them. The Celtics slowly sapped the 76ers life away, keeping Simmons away from the paint and forcing him to continuously handle the ball and run the offense. His passing ability is nothing to scoff at, but Stevens adjusted to Brown’s tendencies, and in turn, his team snuffed the 76ers screens, and out-muscled them in the post for positioning. This resulted in unimaginative offensive sets, a rapidly declining shooting percentage by the 76ers, and a 17-point Celtics lead, 87-70, with 9:47 remaining in the game.
Unfortunately, this eagerly anticipated match-up did not deliver, as the Celtics shook off any rust by the first quarter, and it didn’t resemble much of a competition after that. No matter how close the 76ers tried to make it, the Celtics were firmly in control of this game. Horford continued to play his role as a pseudo-enforcer on this team, picking up two key blocks in the first half that could have given the 76ers just the momentum needed to go on a crucial run, and provided floor spacing while attacking the defense and driving the lane when given the space to do so. A multi-faceted machine will always wear down the best efforts of one man, and Jaylen Brown’s blocked dunk by Embiid that went in, leading to Embiid taking all the contact and hitting the floor, perfectly encapsulated this game. There would be 6:37 left to play in the game after that, but the 94-79 lead was simply sat on for the remainder of the game. The 76ers were incapable of drawing up anything to surprise the Celtics, and the Celtics players were content with running around screens and drawing up isolation plays that resulted in easy passes to shooters with open looks, and they game ended with an anti-climatic 105-87 score.
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Golden State Warriors
This incredibly one-sided rivalry really has no business being the second game of a double-header, as the Warriors swept the Thunder in 2016-17, and the two wins the Thunder did earn last season against the Warriors were rather trivial; ringing hollow when they lost to the Jazz in six in the First Round, while Warriors obviously won the championship. The Westbrook-Durant dynamic is always an easy one for the media to focus on for ratings, and for a player like Westbrook who is so explosive and plays on his emotions, it likely does play a factor in their respective attitude during the game. Unwanted cross-country travel, scheduling conflicts, an effort to promote conference “rivalries”, and the Westbrook-Durant dynamic are likely the leading favors as to why we weren’t treated to a Celtics vs. Warriors matchup on Opening Night.
However, with Westbrook sitting on the bench to gain rest after microscopic surgery in his knee, I fail to see why it had to be the Thunder who made the trip up to the Oracle. Relentless hustle and rebounding, a flurry of pick-and-rolls, and post-up opportunities would result in not much of anything other than being dominated by the well-oiled, efficient Golden State machine that everybody in the NBA has attempted to replicate. The Thunder played incredibly similar to the slow, defensive-minded Pacers earlier in this decade, and it makes sense when you consider the best active player on their roster is Paul George, but that brand of basketball is going to be shredded by this Warriors squad, or so you would assume.
The 102.4 pace played in this game was 2.1 possessions slower than the Celtics vs. 76ers matchup, but it felt a lot slower, as the pressure George and Steven Adams applied inside on the Warriors actually earned the Thunder a brief and minuscule lead in the third quarter. The 57-47 halftime lead wasn’t anything worthy of being remembered with the written word, as both teams looked rather unimaginative in this game. The Warriors, relying largely on their four superstars since DeMarcus Cousins won’t be present until at least February, started rookie Damian Jones at the center position, and he did fine for them. Cousins will absolutely be a problem for opposing teams, and I fail to see how anyone can guard that, but with Iguodala leaving in the second quarter with calf tightness after playing only 10 minutes, and three months away from turning 35, their bench may be the thinnest it’s ever been. Shaun Livingston shot 3-for-5 and played as well as he always does for this team as the point guard of the second unit, but Kevon Looney, Quinn Cook, and Jordan Bell need to play better if the Warriors want to reassert their dominance prior to Cousins’s return.
George would shoot 9-for-23 from the field, worse than even Durant’s 9-for-21, but not as atrocious as Klay Thompson’s 5-for-20, or Draymond Green’s 1-for-6 shooting. Adams would earn himself a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds, but no other player on his team would score an efficient 20 points, and as such, the Thunder were never going to win this game. The Twittersphere exploded, saying the Warriors shouldn’t be proud of their win, as if the Thunder proved anything in this game. The Warriors weren’t out there trying to blow the Thunder out by 30 points, they were simply testing themselves to see what they’re capable of until Counsins returns, because when the opposition’s best player is George, and they’re running a slower, defensive-minded system in order to play to his strengths since Thunder coach Billy Donovan is still unfit to be a head coach, the Warriors core likely decided to take this one easier than they normally would have. They didn’t look as determined as they could have been, and it resulted in them having to battle to regain the lead for the remaining 8:46 in the quarter once Patrick Patterson hit an open three to make it a 64-61 Warriors lead that the Thunder briefly surpassed with Schroder’s pull-up jumper with 6:19 remaining in the quarter, 71-70. 77-75 would be the closest the score would be between these two teams after this run by the Thunder put them in great position to close the game, as the third quarter ended with an 83-79 Warriors lead; definitely possible to squeak one out on the road.
George’s assertiveness is going to be needed from him for this Thunder team going forward, because they need to maintain a playoff position while Westbrook rests, so to see George and Adams’s two-man game working so well in the first half, and to see that assertiveness also seep to Schroder, is a welcome sight for this squad. Unfortunately, no matter how much you handle the ball and how aggressive you are with it, everything ultimately boils down to the fact that you must make shots to win. Schroder went 7-for-19 and was the tertiary option last night, as well as the primary ball-handler; he needs to score better than 21 points on 36.8% shooting from the field. A back-and-forth affair throughout the opening stages of the quarter allowed the Warriors to take a 97-91 lead with 4:30 remaining, and that’s when George attempted to make things interesting with a made three to make it 97-94, and despite the team as whole only shooting 36.3% compared to the Warriors’ 44.2%, they were right back in this game when it mattered the most.
Jones’s hook shot on the next possession was succeeded with wasted possessions, delay of game penalties, timeouts, and fouls. The next basket wouldn’t be made until the 2:23 mark, when Schroder made his two free throws to give him his final points of the night. The game was 99-96, and a hook shot from Adams with 1:27 remaining would make it a 102-99 Warriors lead, but this came after a converted and-one opportunity from Curry after being fouled by Schroder on a jump shot from the top of the key. Looney and Durant would each make easy baskets off assists in the Warriors methodical half-court, ball-moving offense after the Thunder would miss their shots in an attempt to answer Curry’s clutch and-one. For all intents and purposes, the game was over here, and would only be elongated through meaningless free throws, but it at least gave the Thunder the chance to hit the century mark, and the Warriors cruised to a 108-100 victory.