A season that was supposed to be about juggernauts and destiny and foregone conclusions has been anything but so far, and the San Antonio Spurs' uncharacteristic vulnerability on Monday was the latest proof that no preseason narrative is ever a sure thing.
San Antonio fell to the Houston Rockets by a final of 101-99, losing at home for the third straight time. As if the loss itself wasn't enough, the Spurs also trailed by double digits for, again, the third straight time at home.
This from a team that dropped just a single game at the AT&T center the entire 2015-16 season.
Wrangling James Harden is a big ask for any defense, even one with Kawhi Leonard's unparalleled stopping power. Even one that also got Danny Green back for the first time this season, reforming the NBA's most potent defensive wing tandem.
The duo did not deter Harden, who put up 24 points, 15 assists and 12 rebounds on 9-of-19 shooting. Leonard did what he could to match Harden's production on the other end, scoring 34 points on 26 shots.
The Spurs had their chances to win, pulling ahead in the opening moments of the fourth quarter with Harden on the bench. But the Beard's return brought with it another strong Houston stretch. Just as he has all year, Harden controlled everything for the Rockets, and San Antonio didn't have an answer, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:
Even after all that, San Antonio could have tied the game at the buzzer if Leonard or LaMarcus Aldridge had converted close-range looks—opportunities you'd expect a potential superpower to capitalize on. Those misses were not the only evidence that, right now, the Spurs are something less than that.
San Antonio fielded one of the greatest defenses of all time last season. Even with Pau Gasol replacing Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili getting older and David Lee moving into the rotation, it was still reasonable to expect reasonably stifling D.
Leonard, after all, became the key last year, and his powers have only grown.
The Spurs have been fine; they rank among the league's top 10. Failing to stop Harden merely shows they're not otherworldly.
On the other end, they're very good as well—thanks largely to Leonard's growth. But that's kind of the point; descriptors like "fine" and "very good" are the reason the Spurs haven't separated themselves from a larger class of similarly excellent (but not transcendent) teams.
So are stats like this, per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express News:
One can hardly mention any rough patch for this franchise without half-seriously wondering whether it's just trying to stay under the radar. Nothing would be more Spurs than that.
But San Antonio's home instability and losses like the one against Houston underscore a fascinating early- season truth: Right now, there are no monsters out there.
The Golden State Warriors have had their struggles (and lost to these Spurs...badly). The Cleveland Cavaliers are also predictably excellent, but they're out East and widely expected to coast. At best, they're a sleeping giant—not one stomping on villagers en route to a 70-win season. They'd probably be the pick for the league's best team, but they don't have that unbeatable vibe.
The Los Angeles Clippers have had some enormous wins, but let's wait until they get out of the second round before we get too crazy.
There is a vacancy in the NBA's celestial echelon, that rare level the Warriors, Spurs and Cavs reached last season. Someone, or several someones, may check in eventually. But it's interesting to note that in a season so many lamented as predetermined and, therefore, somehow boring, it's defined so far by its parity.
I guess there really is a reason they play the games.
The Knicks Figured a Few Things Out
One of which might be: Kurt Rambis is a genius?
The New York Knicks beat the Brooklyn Nets by a final of 110-96, and the bespectacled assistant recently put in charge of the defense deserves all the credit. Except not really—mainly because there may not be defensive scouting reports for most of the Nets players, but also because New York won this one on offense.
New York rode 22 points from Carmelo Anthony and had success staggering his and Kristaps Porzingis' minutes in the second half (nice one there, Jeff Hornacek!) while holding Brooklyn to 41.3 percent shooting.
Long live Kurt?
There's a Lot of Learning to Do in Chicago
Jimmy Butler hung 39 points on the Atlanta Hawks, but the Chicago Bulls defense allowed the Hawks to shoot 50.6 percent from the field in a 115-107 loss.
Afterward, Butler was pointed in his comments to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:
Not the kind of talk you hope to hear outside of training camp, but the Bulls need some back-to-basics thinking now that they've slipped to 4-4.
Atlanta, meanwhile, got eight players in double figures and moved to 6-2 on the year.
The Celtics Aren't Right...on Either End
Coming into their 118-93 loss to the Washington Wizards, the Boston Celtics had the NBA's highest offensive rating and field-goal percentage.
And now, after shooting 43.2 percent and scoring 93 points, they don't.
Not that offense was necessarily the problem. As has been the case all season, the Celtics struggled on the other end: Otto Porter hit them for 34 points on 14-of-19 shooting, something that just doesn't compute against a defense that ranked fourth in 2015-16.
It's bad, per Chris Forsberg of ESPN.com:
The surprising frailty—a result of injuries to Al Horford and Jae Crowder, but also owing to some odd lapses in execution—persisted against the Wizards, who won for just the second time this year. After giving up 128 points to the Cleveland Cavaliers and 123 to the Nuggets in its last two games, Boston was similarly generous against the Wizards, falling behind 34-8 early.
It's been a while since anyone let Washington get so comfortable, according to Kyle Weidie of Truth About It:
The Celtics need to get healthy in a hurry. Either that or they'd better pick at least one end of the court to focus on. That'd be better than what happened Wednesday, when they botched both and fell to 3-4.
Construction Has Begun on Steve Clifford's Statue
Or, at least it should have.
The Charlotte Hornets ran their record to 6-1 with a 104-98 home win over the Utah Jazz (who were missing George Hill), tying the Cavaliers for the best mark in the East. It's the first time the Hornets have ever won six of their first seven games to open a season.
By turning the ball over less than any team in the league (it had just eight during this one) and getting double-digit scoring performances from bench players Frank Kaminsky, Marco Belinelli and Spencer Hawes, Charlotte pulled away from a deep Jazz team late, winning the fourth quarter 28-20.
Yahoo Sports' Dan Devine laid out Clifford's quiet case as one of the league's best coaches:
Last year, we spent most of the season searching for the second-best team in the East. Charlotte joins Atlanta, Toronto and a healthy Boston in complicating that question once again.
Now, I wonder if there's anyone we can talk to about that statue...
Andrew Wiggins Is Different
Though the spike screams unsustainable, Andrew Wiggins' ongoing accuracy from deep is one of the more pleasant developments in a mostly drab Minnesota Timberwolves season.
Wiggins went 2-of-4 from three and scored 29 points during the Wolves' 123-107 razing of the Orlando Magic, following a 6-of-7 effort against Brooklyn on Tuesday and dropping his overall conversion rate to 63.6 percent on the season.
This is a guy who shot 30 percent from long distance last year and 31 percent as a rookie.
Minnesota has had no shortage of problems this year: Ricky Rubio's elbow injury, too many blown leads, a defense inexplicably regressing under Tom Thibodeau and, until defeating the Magic, just one win.
The defense, at least, has to get better; Thibodeau's legacy on that end is real.
But if Wiggins' development as a shooter is, too, Minnesota has a valuable new offensive dimension—one that looks even better with Zach LaVine also blossoming. (He had a career-high 37 points in Wednesday's win.)
Maybe that's a good step in the process of making this season the launching pad many hoped it could be.
Gerald Henderson Has a Lot of Nerve
Joel Embiid is supposed to be the alpha and omega for the Philadelphia 76ers, which means no success should come when he sits out to rest.
But then Gerald Henderson canned what seemed like a game-winning three on a broken play with six seconds left, and it raised uncomfortable questions: Does Embiid not matter? Is "The Process" a lie?
For a moment, it was hard to know what to believe.
And then the Pacers tied the game and took it in overtime, winning 122-115. In hindsight, it was silly to have ever worried about Philadelphia winning and compromising The Process' integrity.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, the Sixers only do one thing in the early season:
Related note: Get it together, Pacers. Close ones like this are embarrassing.
You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do
And if you're Russell Westbrook, you gotta do everything—which includes stuff you expressly said you wouldn't.
Westbrook had 36 points, seven rebounds and seven assists on 9-of-26 shooting from the field and did some high-volume flinging from deep. That last part is the interesting one because of this tidbit from Royce Young of ESPN.com:
Make it 12 triple attempts for Westbrook. And three makes.
This was also interesting, for different reasons:
The Oklahoma City Thunder fell to the Toronto Raptors by 10 points but were outscored by just three when Westbrook was on the court. On the year, OKC has been trounced by 19.9 points per 100 possessions without Russ.
Poor spacing and few creators mean Westbrook has to be the starter and finisher of just about everything for this team. How he holds up under that kind of strain will be the biggest determinant of the Thunder's success.
A Brief Break to Highlight Something That Actually Matters
If Stan Van Gundy didn't have anything to say about the game, neither should we. Allow this clumsy shoe-horning of his anguished, frustrated, impassioned, beautifully expressed pregame election comments to serve as your Pistons-Suns blurb, per Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:
Martin Luther King said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but bends toward justice." I would have believed in that for a long time, but not today. … What we have done to minorities … in this election is despicable. I’m having a hard time dealing with it. This isn’t your normal candidate. I don’t know even know if I have political differences with him. I don’t even know what are his politics. I don’t know, other than to build a wall and "I hate people of color, and women are to be treated as sex objects and as servants to men." I don’t know how you get past that. I don’t know how you walk into the booth and vote for that.
The Pistons lost by a final of 107-100, but really, who cares?
With the Cavaliers heading to the White House this week (and one of them telling Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated his team might be the last to do it for a while), it's clear the NBA, one of the most progressive leagues in sports, will be heard.
Klay Thompson's Fine, Guys!
The competition probably helped, as the Dallas Mavericks were missing four starters, but Klay Thompson and the Warriors finally caught collective fire in a 116-95 win.
Thompson, mired in a brutal season-opening slump, hit his first seven shots from the field and finished with 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting; He was 4-of-7 from three-point range.
As a team, Golden State made 17 of 33 deep attempts during the 116-95 win.
Again, you have to factor in the opponent, but the Warriors had come in shooting 28.1 percent on three-point shots designated as "open" by NBA.com, which means the defender was 4-6 feet away. That number was bound to rise, regardless of who the Warriors were playing.
The Dubs are no superpower yet, but this could be a sign of what's to come.
Anyone Want to Discuss the Mercy Rule?
The Clippers pushed their record to an NBA-best 7-1, crushing the beleaguered Portland Trail Blazers on both ends. The final score of 111-80 undersold the severity of this beatdown; L.A. led 93-50 after the third quarter and mailed in the final 12 minutes.
Portland played Tuesday night, so that was a factor. But so was the Clippers' dialed-in play. This team has been the league's most consistent so far, and as Dan Woike of the Orange County Register noted, the Clips have mostly done it on defense:
Los Angeles is as good as ever. The focus now, as it's been for years, is keeping the key players healthy and rested. Because none of this will matter if it culminates in another early playoff exit.
Stats courtesy of NBA.com.