12 Takeaways from Wednesday Night's NBA Action

Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistOctober 31, 2013

12 Takeaways from Wednesday Night's NBA Action

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    Tuesday's NBA action was merely an appetizer; on Wednesday, we got the main course. That's right folks, after a long summer and a piddly trio of games to kick off the year, we finally got to bask in the glory of a full slate of NBA competition.

    There were upsets galore, as two of the Eastern Conference's elite clubs slipped up against participants in last year's lottery. Plus, we got our first look at some key players in new locales.

    Rookies like Michael Carter-Williams emerged, sharpshooters like Klay Thompson ignited and Dwight Howard turned back into Dwight Friggin' Howard.

    In other words, it was a busy night in the Association.

    Let's break it down.

Michael Carter-Williams Cares Not for Tanking

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    Does anyone know if the Philadelphia 76ers have ever tanked before? I ask only because it seems like they're unclear on the mechanics of deliberate losing.

    Judging by his stunning debut performance, rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams was particularly unclear on the concept.

    In what was easily the most shocking result of the night, Philly beat the Miami Heat by a final score of 114-110. The much-maligned 76ers, widely regarded as the league's worst team, took it to the Heat early, hitting their first 11 shots of the game.

    And the rookie was right in the middle of everything.

    "Everything was clicking tonight," Carter-Williams told the Associated Press, via ESPN. "If we can consistently play together, then we can be a good team."

    MCW, criticized since his college days for a shaky jumper and a lack of strength, silenced critics everywhere with one of the single greatest opening nights any first-year player has ever had. He finished the Sixers' incredible victory with 22 points, 12 assists, seven rebounds, nine steals and one turnover.

    According to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:

    In doing so, Carter-Williams not only upstaged the present-day (LeBron) James, but the one who—10 years and one day earlier—debuted with 25 points, six rebounds, nine assists, four steals and two turnovers in a loss to Sacramento.

    Laughing in the face of his scouting report, Carter-Williams was fantastic from long range, hitting four of six threes. And he even hit two foul shots (he was 6-of-8 from the line) to help ice the game in the final seconds.

    MCW's near-quadruple-double would have been a spectacular achievement in any circumstances. But against the defending champs' trapping defense—the kind that typically tears untested point guards to shreds? Are you kidding me?

    The Sixers may still go on to lose 70 games this season, but opening night belonged to them.

Jarrett Jack Doesn't Change

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    Jarrett Jack became a hot free-agent commodity after playing a major role for the Golden State Warriors last season. Though he had a nasty habit of overdribbling and taking the ball to trouble, the backup guard's steadying locker room presence and willingness to take big shots made a huge difference for a young Dubs team last year.

    Apparently, he's going to do the same thing for the Cleveland Cavaliers this year.

    Jack steadied a reeling Cavs ship in the first half, pouring in 12 points and helping stave off the Brooklyn Nets while Kyrie Irving took a seat with foul trouble. That helped preserve a one-point halftime advantage that Cleveland maintained the rest of the way, ultimately beating the much more highly touted Nets by a final score of 98-94.

    Jack picked his spot like a perfect backup point guard should, and it turned out to make a massive difference in the game.

    Oh, and Andrew Bynum played eight minutes, which was also kind of a big deal.

Gerald Wallace Is Shy

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    Scoring has never really been Gerald Wallace's forte, but what happened against the Toronto Raptors was truly bizarre.

    Wallace, acquired as part of the trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to the Nets, played 40 minutes, attempted one field goal and turned the ball over five times. Coming on the heels of a rant that questioned his teammates' competitiveness, you'd have thought that Wallace would come out with guns blazing.

    Instead, he faded into the background.

    Look, Wallace's real value as a player comes from his defense, tenacity on the boards and general hustle. Truthfully, it's probably best for the Celtics if he doesn't shoot much. But one attempt in 40 minutes is a bridge too far.

    Either he's trying to work his way off a Boston team that has no interest in winning games, or his game has fallen off a cliff.

    If it's the former, new Celtics head coach Brad Stevens already has his first big league personality issue to deal with.

    It's going to be an interesting year in Boston.

Moose Got Loose

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    Greg Monroe almost certainly isn't going to get a contract extension from the Detroit Pistons before the Oct. 31 deadline, which means he'll be a restricted free agent this coming summer.

    After tossing up 24 points and snatching 16 boards in a 113-102 win over the Washington Wizards, it's safe to say the man Pistons fans affectionately refer to as "Moose" is gunning for a max offer on the open market.

    Monroe was a beast against Washington, dominating the paint and powering his way to the foul line 15 times.

    Detroit has faced major questions about its ability to space the floor since adding Josh Smith to a front line that already featured the paint-bound duo of Monroe and Andre Drummond. But if the Pistons frontcourt is going to just shove opponents around like it did Wednesday, those spacing issues might not end up mattering.

    And for what it's worth, Monroe's interior dominance opened up a handful of good looks for Detroit's perimeter shooters. Chauncey Billups hit four triples, and Smith even stepped out to hit three of his own. J-Smoove gunning from long range isn't an ideal model for consistent offense, but the point is that Monroe's work down low drew enough defensive attention to open things up.

New York and Toronto Are Very Much Alike

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    Andrea Bargnani is going to make almost $12 million in each of his next two seasons, so it's pretty difficult to muster any sympathy for him.

    But, man, it was rough to see the way New York Knicks fans reacted to his shaky debut.

    Last season, the Toronto Raptors took to substituting Bargs during timeouts, so fans wouldn't get the opportunity to boo him when his name was announced. It was ugly.

    Speaking of ugly, Bargnani missed his first four shots, picked up a pair of quick fouls and generally played like he did last year in Toronto. So it wasn't long before the boos started to echo throughout Madison Square Garden.

    When the ball got near him, an audible hiss rippled through the crowd, and if it's possible for a few thousand people to collectively grimace as one, that happened too.

    On the night, Bargs played 17 minutes, was 3-of-9 from the field and turned the ball over three times. So, basically, he gave the Knicks what a lot of pundits predicted.

    Despite the surprising vitriol from the crowd, the Knicks actually beat the Milwaukee Bucks rather comfortably, jumping out to a massive 56-31 halftime lead before cruising home. Imagine how bad it's going to get for Bargnani when the Knicks lose.

Dwight Howard Is Dwight Howard Again

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    Let's get this out of the way: The Charlotte Bobcats have a way of bringing out the best in their opponents. So maybe it's a little too early to get all fired up about one of the league's most dominant big men returning to form.

    Then again, maybe it isn't.

    There's just no denying that Dwight Howard looked like his old self as the Rockets handily dispatched the Kitties, 96-83. He scored 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting, and a handful of his baskets were of the rim-rattling variety. Even more impressively, he showed the lift and lateral quickness that had been missing in his cameo as a Los Angeles Laker.

    When asked if he could have had a game like this last season, he chuckled. "Physically, I doubt it," he said, according to the Associated Press, via ESPN. "Not the way I did tonight." "My mind was at the ball, but my body was still on the other side," he said. "I couldn't do it. I'm a lot healthier than I was last season."

    The result of his rediscovered physical skills? A career-high-tying 26 rebounds.

    D12 completely controlled the lane on both ends, which is a critically important development in the Houston Rockets' transformation into a legitimate title contender. They can't rely on running up and down the floor, jacking threes and hoping for the best.

    That stuff's fun, but it doesn't win championships.

    When Howard plays like this, he allows the Rockets to win games at a slower pace, which is something they'll have to do this year. Even though the Bobcats were involved, Howard's play was a terrific sign for Houston.

Monta Ellis Is Big in Dallas...For Now

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    After pouring in 32 points on just 17 shots in the Dallas Mavericks' 118-109 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, Monta Ellis is a very popular figure in the Lone Star state.

    This is not an unfamiliar phenomenon.

    Ellis has always gotten his numbers in a way that endears him to fans. His combination of raw speed and breathtaking athleticism makes him an aesthetic joy to watch. No, he doesn't defend. And no, he won't stop shooting when he inevitably goes cold from the perimeter.

    But he'll always be a hit among casual fans.

    The Mavs desperately need a complementary scorer to take the burden off Dirk Nowitzki, and Ellis can certainly fill it up. Assuming Rick Carlisle can engineer a scheme that keeps him from doing too much damage on D, it's possible that Mavericks fans will continue to foster a fondness for Ellis.

    Of course, it's also possible that his shooting will regress toward the high 30 percent range and his nonexistent conscience will eventually come home to roost. It's worth mentioning that Ellis hit 6-of-12 shots from outside the lane, a trend that absolutely will not continue for one of the league's worst perimeter shooters.

    But for now, Ellis is riding high in Texas.

The Timberwolves Are Who We Thought They Were

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    Kevin Love stuffed the stat sheet, Ricky Rubio handed out 11 assists and Rick Adelman's consistently excellent offensive scheme netted a whopping 38 points in the first quarter.

    In other words, the Minnesota Timberwolves did pretty much what everyone expected they'd do if the roster could ever get healthy.

    Of course, the 'Wolves also met expectations in a less encouraging manner by struggling mightily on the defensive end. Against an Orlando Magic team just one day removed from a rugged fight with the Indiana Pacers, Minnesota repeatedly lost defensive focus and allowed a more fatigued, less skilled squad to take it to the brink of an upset.

    The Magic shot 47 percent from the field, 37 percent from long range and grabbed 14 offensive rebounds.

    Thanks to Love's massive three-pointer with 10 seconds remaining in regulation, the 'Wolves managed to force overtime. In the end, Minnesota squeaked out a 120-115 win against an utterly exhausted Magic team.

    This is how things are going to go for the Wolves this year, and nobody should be surprised.

    On the plus side, Love appears fully healthy. He poured in 31 points, grabbed 17 rebounds and handed out four assists. That's an undeniably good sign, but if the 'Wolves are ever going to convince anyone that they're more than a .500 team—even with all of the talent on that roster—they're going to have to commit to playing both ends.

Indy's Bench Is Still an Issue

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    One of the biggest offseason storylines this past summer was the reconstruction of the Indiana Pacers' putrid bench.

    Last year, Indy's elite starting quintet was one of the best five-man units in the NBA. But whatever that group got, the reserves gave right back. So the additions of Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland and a potentially healthy Danny Granger were all cause for optimism.

    But Granger is out with a bad calf, Copeland can't crack the rotation and Indiana's bench production has remained unimpressive.

    In a 95-90 win over the New Orleans Pelicans, the Pacers reserves shot a combined 3-of-10, logged zero assists and turned the ball over four times. No backup played more than Ian Mahinmi's 24 minutes, and the second-string center only saw the court so much because of Roy Hibbert's foul trouble.

    Basically, the bench hasn't done anything to warrant the trust of head coach Frank Vogel, and even on the back end of a back-to-back set, Indiana had to lean far too heavily on its starters to beat a lottery team. 

    Sound familiar?

Getting Old Sucks

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    The San Antonio Spurs knocked off the Memphis Grizzlies by a final score of 101-94 in a game that raised real questions as to the whereabouts of Zach Randolph.

    I mean, there was a guy playing for the Grizzlies who certainly looked a lot like Z-Bo. But there's no way it was him. The real Randolph would never have spent 26 minutes going 1-of-6 from the field and posting a team-worst plus-minus rating of minus-21.

    Right?

    The truth is that Randolph, 32, and in his 13th season, suddenly looks totally overmatched. Never an elite athlete, it stood to reason that Z-Bo would age gracefully. But that clearly hasn't happened.

    Instead, Randolph's game seems to have fallen off a cliff.

    There were signs in last year's playoffs, to be sure. It appeared as though Randolph was having trouble clearing space to get good looks at the basket, and what little bounce he had was all but gone. A summer off didn't do anything to change those things.

    In fact, he seemed more glued to the floor and laterally limited than ever.

    Maybe this was just an off-night. But maybe it was also the result of a player getting old right before our eyes.

    If the Grizzlies are interested in aging remedies, maybe they should check in with the Spurs before they leave town. The 36-year-old Manu Ginobili looked rejuvenated after a playoff performance that was worse than Randolph's. The Argentine lit Memphis up for 12 points, five assists, four rebounds and two steals in just 24 minutes.

Kevin Durant Is Going to Do Things the Hard Way

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    Everybody knew the Oklahoma City Thunder were going to struggle to score without Russell Westbrook. The Grizzlies exposed OKC as a team whose system was utterly dependent on having two superstars in last year's playoffs.

    There were rumblings over the summer that the Thunder had installed some new sets that included more motion in an effort to take the pressure off Kevin Durant, but apparently those plays never made it to the regular season.

    So KD rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

    Durant had a dreadful shooting night, hitting just nine of his 24 field-goal attempts and going 2-of-8 from long range. But he threw his body into harm's way on possession after possession, finishing with a ridiculous 24 free-throw attempts.

    He made 22 of them, which, incidentally, is probably the number of bruises he'll be nursing after the beating he took.

    "Yeah, I love it," Durant said with a smile after scoring 22 of his 42 points from the free throw line, including a pair with 6.4 seconds remaining, to lift the Oklahoma City Thunder to a 101-98 win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday night. "I just tried to be aggressive and I think my teammates put me in great positions to be aggressive. I need to finish some of those 'and-1s' and make more shots," Durant said, according to the Associated Press, via ESPN.

    It's absurd that Durant had to nearly kill himself for the Thunder to beat the lowly Utah Jazz, but based on what we've seen, OKC just doesn't have another way to win.

    At this rate, KD might wind up in a body cast before Westbrook returns.

Klay Thompson Made a Compelling Case to Start

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    Klay Thompson was in the starting lineup when the Golden State Warriors took on the Los Angeles Lakers because Harrison Barnes' injury (inflamed foot) ruled him out of the competition for the starters spot.

    With a deadly jumper and the mindset of a stone-cold scoring killer, the Warriors pondered over the summer whether or not Thompson would function well off the pine. That way, Barnes could run with the starters in a low-pressure role. It made sense to bring Thompson off the bench this year, and for what it's worth, the third-year guard was cool with the idea of being a sixth man.

    Luckily for the Dubs, head coach Mark Jackson made the decision to keep Thompson in the starting lineup.

    Thompson absolutely exploded against the Lakers, raining jumpers from everywhere on the floor. When the dust had settled, the Dubs had crushed L.A. by 31 points, and Thompson had registered a career-high 38.

    The shooting guard nailed 15 of his 19 shot attempts, including five of his seven triple tries. He did damage off screens, on spot-ups and even by pulling up in transition for a handful of ultra-confident bombs.

    When you're the most dangerous shooter in a game that also features Stephen Curry, that's really saying something.