If the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics provided the curtain raiser, and the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks provided the drama of a title rematch, then the Chicago Bulls and L.A. Lakers playing in the prime-time slot on Christmas Day served up a treat. It was a game full of scoring binges and top defense—a game that was always close, no team leading by more than eight points until late in the fourth quarter.
Being the first game of the season, the standard of play was far from what we saw last year. There were turnovers galore. Passes that were routine last year were dropped. You had to wonder at times if somebody had put butter on the ball because it was slipping out of hands so much.
As with every game, this one answered questions but raised many more for both teams. We found that Josh McRoberts could be a good replacement for Lamar Odom. We didn't get to see if Richard Hamilton is the piece the Bulls were missing.
We did learn a lot about the Bulls from this one. We learned about their defense, their character and their captain, Luol Deng.
The Bulls added Richard "Rip" Hamilton this summer in an attempt to provide more help for Derrick Rose. Rose had to do it all last season in every single game, and that proved to be Chicago's Achilles' heel in the playoffs.
Hamilton was looking sharp in his one preseason appearance, but early foul trouble limited him to just six points in his Bulls regular-season debut.
With Hamilton on the bench, we saw the same Chicago lineup on the floor as last season. It showed. That anemic offense featured standing around, extra dribbling and long range misses that allowed the Lakers to run out into a fair lead.
It's tough to criticize given that the Bulls' answer to this question was stuck in foul trouble early in the game and never really got into it.
There needs to be more improvement with Hamilton on the floor, which is unlikely given his preseason performance.
Carlos Boozer had a poor 2010-11 season. He'll tell you that himself.
He looked much improved in his second preseason game, able to establish a deep position much better than last year. Having lost 20 pounds this summer, he is much faster and more agile than last year.
His offense killed Chicago at times in 2010, as he would get good position before taking the ball out and shooting a fade-away jumper that had little chance of scoring. Either that or he would take the ball weakly to the rim, getting blocked by whoever was around.
Against the Lakers, Boozer took the ball to the rack hard and got to the free-throw line as a result. He has also discovered that he is very threatening from around 15 feet out with a jump-shot that, again, looks much improved from last year.
Whether Carlos Boozer's improvement will be sustained will be crucial to the Bulls' title hopes this year.
On. Off. On. Off.
Derrick Rose wasn't his dominant self against the Lakers. He didn't take hold of the entire game. In fact, it was well into the game before Rose even scored a basket, yet the Bulls still led. That bodes well for the future, as last season the Bulls struggled when Rose wasn't scoring.
Then Rose needed to score. And he did. Stepping into threes, Rose had hit three from three from downtown by halftime. Like a light switch, he had turned it on when he was required.
His teammates stepped up, getting to the basket and getting to the charity stripe. Then came crunch time and the biggest difference from last year. In 2010, Rose would have taken over the game from the beginning of the fourth quarter. This means that on that final play, he would have been much more tired and it would likely have been blocked by Pau Gasol.
This year, with Rose not needing to give his all, all of the time, Rose can stay fresh until the final moments when he is most deadly.
If this keeps up, the Bulls will be a much more potent threat as the season unfolds.
Luol Deng was the Bulls' second option in 2010. This year he'll likely be the third or even the fourth option behind Boozer and Hamilton.
But Deng is still vastly important to the team. He can shut down any player in the game and score on a wide range of looks.
Against the Lakers, Deng played out of his mind in the final period. After Noah stripped the ball from Kobe Bryant, Deng attempted a three and missed. He didn't quit the play and got his own rebound, scored and was fouled to cut the lead to four.
He was the man who got the steal on Gasol that set up Rose's teardrop winner with 4.8 seconds remaining.
And then he prevented Kobe from getting an easy shot and blocked his attempted game-winner from behind to seal a memorable victory.
After five months of not practicing with their teams, not playing in as many preseason games and being out of contact with coaches, it's no wonder that we saw some very rough basketball on opening day.
There were turnovers. There were dropped passes and passes well off target. There were shots that never had a hope of going in, and even Kobe was shooting air balls.
This will all improve, but even this can affect some teams more than others.
Chicago only lost Kurt Thomas and Keith Bogans, replacing the starting shooting guard with Richard Hamilton. That consistency will be key in avoiding some of the horrible basketball witnessed on Christmas Day.
Teams who have added lots of new pieces or have new head coaches have to get to know each other and learn what to expect from one another. In Chicago, the players already know each other very well. They know where each player will be on the court and this helps in avoiding turnovers and keeping the ball flowing.
It will be important for Hamilton to get into the flow of the team as quickly as possible, because in this shortened season there is no extra practice time to develop chemistry. The games are thick and fast.