Greatest Opening Night Games in Recent NBA History

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 6, 2013

Greatest Opening Night Games in Recent NBA History

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    The opening night of the NBA's regular season means so many different things to so many different people.

    For the fans, it's the glorious end to the months-long wait for the return of their favorite sport. For players, it's the official promise of a new day, their chance to rewrite history or validate past claims. 

    And for those masterminds calling the shots, it's a chance to see if their offseason moves worked out.

    The night brings excitement on its own, regardless of what the final scores might say when everything's all said and done. But sometimes a bit of generosity from the basketball gods brings instant classics to the season's opening ceremony.

    With superstar players, clutch-time shots and spectacular dunks, opening night has carved out some gems over the last 10 years. So we've consulted with our basketball experts and compiled the six most brilliant games of the bunch.

Knicks vs. Celtics, 2011

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    Date: Dec. 25, 2011

    Location: Madison Square Garden in New York

    The Big Apple's basketball buzz had reached a near fever pitch by the 2011 holiday season.

    The long-suffering fans of the New York Knicks looked to be on their way to some overdue relief. New York had signed center Tyson Chandler over the summer to serve as the defensive complement to the team's dynamic scoring duo of Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, and were ready to contend in the Eastern Conference.

    But the Boston Celtics were itching for their chance to reclaim their spot at the top of the league's standings. Just three years removed from their championship banner-raising performance in 2008, the Celtics had been sent packing by the Miami Heat after just five games of their Eastern Conference semifinals clash in 2011.

    This was Boston versus New York at its finest, with the rival cities each entertaining thoughts of a title.

    For all of the hype, though, this game appeared on its way to being a blowout victory for the Knicks. A 6-0 spurt keyed by Iman Shumpert and Tyson Chandler gave New York a 17-point lead midway through the second quarter.

    But NBA games are often a series of runs, and the Celtics enjoyed enough of them to make this game competitive again.

    After slicing their deficit to 10 points by the end of the first half, they completed the comeback on Rajon Rondo's basket with 7:13 left in the third. Mike D'Antoni called a timeout to stop the bleeding, but the Celtics rolled off eight straight points out of the break.

    Boston's lead got as high as 10 early in the fourth, but New York rallied to even the score three times over the final 3:25. Anthony helped the Knicks reclaim the lead on a 18-footer with 1:34 left, and after Marquis Daniels knotted the game with a layup, he knocked down two free throws to push New York in front 106-104 with 16.3 seconds left in regulation.

    Daniels misfired on a three 10 seconds later, but Rajon Rondo tracked down the offensive rebound. Doc Rivers used two 20-second timeouts to set up his play, but Kevin Garnett couldn't convert from 14 feet and the Knicks survived.

Spurs vs. Suns, 2003

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    Date: Oct. 28, 2003

    Location: SBC Center in San Antonio

    For the San Antonio Spurs, the 2003-04 season began with dynasty thoughts running rampant through the Alamo City.

    Just months removed from dethroning the three-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, the Spurs had scaled the game's ultimate summit with a six-game series victory of the New Jersey Nets in the NBA Finals. Tim Duncan was already making his case as the greatest power forward in league history, while Tony Parker was looking to build on his breakthrough sophomore campaign (15.5 points and 5.3 assists per game).

    As for the Phoenix Suns, this was their chance to help solidify their standing in the upper half of the Western Conference. Just two years prior, Phoenix had snapped a 13-year playoff run but rebounded in 2002-03 with a 44-win season that vaulted them back into postseason play.

    A rising core of Stephon Marbury, Shawn Marion, Amar'e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson had Suns fans setting their sights even higher on the West's pecking order.

    Those lofty expectations looked validated when the Suns stormed out of the gate and sprinted to a 16-2 lead just seven minutes into the game. But San Antonio methodically chipped away at Phoenix's lead over the next 17 minutes and had whittled it down to just four points by intermission.

    The Suns built their advantage back to double digits three different times in the third quarter, but the Spurs closed the period on an 8-0 run to leave just a one-point deficit, 68-87, on the scoreboard heading into the fourth.

    The next 10-plus minutes saw a back-and-forth tussle for the edge, but the Spurs still hadn't found their way to the right side of the score. Marbury split a pair of free throws to give Phoenix an 82-79 lead with less than 90 seconds left in regulation, but Bruce Bowen answered with a shot from close range to make it a one-point game. 

    Anthony Carter, playing in place of the injured Parker, stole a Zarko Cabarkapa pass on the Suns' ensuing possession, but couldn't convert the possible go-ahead shot from five feet. San Antonio corralled the rebound, but Bruce Bowen misfired from 18 feet. Carter, just 6'1" and 190 pounds, snagged the offensive rebound and converted on the third chance of the trip to give the Spurs just their second lead of the game.

    Marbury fired off a pair of mid-range shots on the Suns' final possession, and Penny Hardaway attempted another, but all three missed their mark.

    Despite leading for just 50.4 seconds in the entire game, the Spurs squeaked out of the contest with an 83-82 win. Duncan finished the game with 24 points, 12 boards, six blocks and four assists, while Marbury led the way for the Suns with 24 points, seven rebounds and six dimes.

Lakers vs. Rockets, 2010

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    Date: Oct. 26, 2010

    Location: Staples Center in L.A.

    With the chance to complete their second three-peat since 2000, the Los Angeles Lakers faced enormous expectations for the 2010-11 season.

    But Andrew Bynum's offseason knee surgery plucked a powerful weapon from L.A.'s fearsome frontcourt, while their first opponent of the season, the Houston Rockets, welcomed back an even greater asset to their interior. Yao Ming, who sat out the entire 2009-10 season, was back in action (and the starting lineup) for the season opener.

    Unfortunately for Houston, it was evident early on that this was nothing like the Yao that Rockets fans remembered. 

    Before being replaced by Brad Miller after his first seven minutes of meaningful basketball in more than a year, Yao's stat line read more like A Series of Unfortunate Events. He missed three of his four shots (two from within three feet of the basket), was whistled for defensive goaltending and turned the ball over on a steal by Metta World Peace.

    Despite hauling in 11 rebounds, Yao never hit his stride. He shot just 4-of-11 from the field and had four turnovers before fouling out after less than 24 minutes of action.

    But Kevin Martin, Luis Scola and Aaron Brooks did their best to lift the Rockets offense. The trio combined for 68 points, Scola snagged a game-high 16 boards and Brooks dropped nine dimes.

    Paced by their three-headed offensive monster, the Rockets built an 11-point lead by the 1:47 mark of the third. But L.A.'s Steve Blake closed the quarter with a pair of triples and Shannon Brown added another on the Lakers' second possession of the fourth to trim the deficit to four points.

    Kobe Bryant converted a and-one opportunity to give L.A. a 107-102 lead with 1:45 left in the game, but Houston scored the eight of the game's next 10 points and the Rockets pulled ahead 110-109 on Scola's shot with 29.5 seconds remaining. 

    But Blake had one more long-range bomb to drop, this one 27 feet from the basket with less than 19 ticks left on the clock. Scola and Brooks each had looks from within four feet on Houston's final possession, but neither could convert and the Lakers survived with a 112-110 win.

Lakers vs. Bulls, 2011

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    Date: Dec. 25, 2011

    Location: Staples Center in Los Angeles

    After months of public bickering and closed-door negotiations, the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season finally got under way on Christmas Day.

    The Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls didn't take long to prove that this present was worth the wait.

    The two teams couldn't have been at more opposite ends of the basketball spectrum.

    Chicago entered the contest looking to build off of their 2011 Eastern Conference Finals appearance. With an award-winner on the sidelines (Coach of the Year Tom Thibodeau) and another orchestrating his offense (MVP Derrick Rose), the Bulls appeared to be well on their way to creating the league's latest dynasty.

    L.A., meanwhile, was simply searching for an identity. The Lakers' two-year title run had been unceremoniously snapped by the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals the previous year. Mike Brown held the dubious distinction of being the second man in the last decade to try and find his way out of Phil Jackson's shadow.

    Thibodeau's team grabbed an early lead and carried a seven-point advantage into halftime. But the Lakers looked re-energized out of the locker room, holding the Bulls to just 12 third-quarter points while grabbing a one-point lead by the end of the period.

    Steve Blake's triple with 2:11 left in regulation gave L.A. an 85-77 lead. But the Bulls closed the game on an 11-2 run.

    While Rose validated his MVP status by burying a go-ahead jumper with just 4.8 seconds left to give the Bulls an 88-87 edge, Luol Deng was Chicago's real savior. He scored seven of the team's final 11 points and blocked Kobe Bryant's potential game-winning shot to close the game.

Mavericks vs. Suns, 2005

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    Date: Nov. 1, 2005

    Location: US Airways Center in Phoenix

    The Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns opened the 2005-06 season with a rematch of the 2005 Western Conference Finals.

    Their respective leaders were former allies, Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki. The pair had been teammates in Dallas from 1998-04, but Nash had no reason to regret their divorce. As the key cog in Mike D'Antoni's supercharged offensive machine, Nash drove and dished his way to the 2005 MVP award.

    Friendships may have no place in competitions, but they sure seem to breed some of the most riveting battles. This tip-off tryst was hardly the exception.

    Nash and Nowitzki navigated their respective clubs through a frenetic 48-minute fight that saw the Mavericks erase a 10-point deficit over the final four minutes and 17 seconds of regulation. Nowitzki and running mate Jason Terry transformed an 86-79 Suns' lead at the 2:48 mark to a 90-88 Mavericks' edge with only 15.3 seconds remaining.

    But Nash earned a trip to the charity stripe on the Suns' next possession to even the score at 90 with 4.4 ticks left on the clock. Nowitzki got free for a 25-foot look at a game-winner, but missed the shot and the game went to an extra session.

    Boris Diaw's layup with 36 second left in overtime gave the Suns a 101-96 lead, but Terry and Marquis Daniels sapped the life out of the purple-and-orange-clad crowd. Daniels buried a shot from downtown less than seven seconds after Diaw's make, and Terry calmly knocked down a 14-footer at the buzzer to give the fans their second serving of free hoops.

    But 53 minutes of fast-paced action had taken their toll. The Suns managed just seven points in second overtime, and none in the final two minutes. Keith Van Horn's lone free throw with 23.7 seconds left was the game's only point of the last two minutes, but was enough to solidify Dallas' 111-108 escape from the desert.

    Nowitzki did his best to garner line-of-the-night status (28 points, 15 rebounds), but Nash took home those honors with 30 points, nine assists and eight boards.

Rockets vs. Lakers, 2007

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    Date: Oct. 30, 2007

    Location: Staples Center in L.A.

    It should come as no surprise that the Lakers are an apparent favorite of the early-schedule setters. 

    The NBA loves to highlight its superstars at every chance and play up its biggest markets, so the Kobe Bryant-lead Lakers allows them to kill two birds with one stone.

    What could be surprising here, though, is just how often L.A. forces fans to the edge of their seats.

    This round with the Rockets saw Bryant at his unabashed, shot-chucking best. Since L.A.'s front office had surrounded him with journeymen and hangers-on in the starting lineup (Derek Fisher, Luke Walton, Kwame Brown and Ronny Turiaf), the Mamba had no other choice.

    There weren't a lot of talk about Bryant taking too many shots. If he eased up on the trigger, there wasn't going to be a lot of talk about these Lakers period.

    In the right matchup he could still defer, but this Houston team packed some serious scoring punch with a roster headlined by Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Remember this was only opening night; the pair's annual trips to the training room were still a ways off.

    The two teams combined for 188 points in this game, more than half of which came from either Bryant (45), McGrady (30) or Yao (25).

    After Yao finished back-to-back trips converting point-blank looks at the rim, the Rockets held a 92-79 lead with 1:36 left in regulation. But Bryant did what he could to salvage the night for his home crowd, scoring or assisting on 10 points during the Lakers' ensuing 13-0 run that evened the score with 13 seconds left in the game.

    But following the same script that's been told countless times in the game's history books, an unheralded player emerged from this star-studded affair to deliver the knockout blow for the Rockets. Shane Battier, who had eight points on 3-of-10 shooting entering the final possession, buried the go-ahead triple from 27 feet with only 2.5 seconds remaining.

    Battier then solidified the save with a heady play on the defensive end. Rather than risk a possible game-tying three, he fouled Bryant with 1.3 seconds left and forced him to line for a pair of free throws.

    After making the first, Bryant missed the second, but the Lakers couldn't gather the rebound in time to attempt another shot.

    The Rockets escaped Staples Center with a 95-93 win, and Battier's basketball IQ continued to climb toward mythical status.