Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 29, 2011

NBA Tips Off To A Season Of Change

A NOTE TO READERS:  On Sports and Life is traveling over the New Year’s weekend, so there will be no post on Sunday, January 1st.  Regular twice-weekly updates will resume next Thursday, January 5th.  Have a safe and happy new year!

It was only the first day. For all of the teams involved it was but one of 66 games in a regular season that truncated or not, will run all the way until the end of April. So perhaps one should not make too much of just one day, only the first game. Still over the course of the NBA’s opening day on Christmas, a recurring theme emerged that suggests change could be coming to the hard courts.

Originally set as the opening Sunday of the league’s national television contract, the three-game Christmas Day schedule was expanded to five contests when the NBA’s five-month lockout of its players ended with a new collective bargaining agreement Thanksgiving weekend. The lure of getting basketball back in front of the captive audience of fans sitting in front of their flat screens after turkey and presents was too great to pass up; leading to a chaotic and absurdly short period for free agent signings, training camps, and a pre-season “schedule” of two whole games for each team.

The result was a league returning to action with rosters still in flux; in some cases literally as general managers looked to fill holes and in virtually every case figuratively as squads worked to achieve cohesion and chemistry while still getting into playing shape. But ready or not the season began, and if the television ratings are any indication hoops fans were happy to welcome their heroes back. Each game drew better ratings than the game in the closest equivalent time slot in 2010, and the late afternoon game between the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers drew the third highest rating ever for a regular season game on ABC.

In the opening noontime contest the defending Atlantic Division champion Boston Celtics visited Madison Square Garden to face off against the New York Knicks. The two teams had last met in the opening round of last spring’s playoffs, when the Celtics swept the Knicks in four games. But those Celtics were in turned bounced in the second round by Miami, and the concern in Boston is whether the team’s aging Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen have another championship run in them. Boston played without an injured Pierce, and fell behind by as many as 17 points in the first half. The Celtics stormed through the third quarter to take the lead, but Boston was unable to shut the door on a Knicks squad that believes its best days lie ahead. New York rallied from 8 down to tie the game at 100-100 on a 3-pointer by Carmelo Anthony. With the home crowd screaming support New York was the stronger team in the game’s final two minutes, emerging with a 106-104 win when Boston’s Garnett missed a jumper at the buzzer.

As the action above Penn Station was ending, a rematch of last season’s NBA Finals was getting underway in Dallas. The Mavericks raised their first championship banner and then tipped off against the Miami Heat. But where the Mavs were clearly the better team last June, on Sunday they appeared outclassed. Miami, stripped of its aura of invincibility by the loss in last year’s Finals, appeared to be a team less arrogant but more determined. The Heat led by a whopping 32 points after three quarters before coasting through the final twelve minutes to a 105-94 victory.

The action then shifted to the west coast, where Los Angeles seemed to have the game in hand, leading by 11 points with just 3 ½ minutes to play. But then the Lakers fell apart faster than their pre-season attempts to trade for first Chris Paul and then Dwight Howard. Led by last year’s MVP Derrick Rose Chicago steadily closed the gap. When Kobe Bryant threw away a pass for his 8th turnover of the game with 16 seconds left, the Bulls’ Luol Deng redirected the ball to Rose, whose jump hook from the lane gave the Bulls their first lead of the 4th quarter. Bryant had one last chance to send the crowd at the Staples Center home happy as he has so many times in his career, but Deng blocked his driving shot at the buzzer to preserve the Bulls 88-87 win.

While the two late games did not involve recent champions like Dallas, L.A., or Boston, they did nothing to dilute the heavy sense of change in the air brought on by the day’s first three contests. First the Oklahoma City Thunder gave every indication that their run to the Western Conference Finals last spring was no fluke. Led by Kevin Durant’s 30 points the Thunder led perennial Eastern Conference contender Orlando throughout the game. Ahead by 18 after three quarters, the Thunder coasted to a 97-89 victory over the Magic. Orlando looked very much like a team distracted by Dwight Howard’s trade demands; while Howard himself definitely looked like he would rather be elsewhere as he finished with just 11 points on 4 for 12 shooting from the field.

Then in the nightcap the L.A. Clippers, the league’s perennial doormat with just six winning seasons in their 41-year history, opened with a solid 19-point win over the Golden State Warriors, 105-86. To be fair, the Warriors are scarcely an NBA powerhouse, having made the playoffs just once in the past 17 seasons. But the Clippers did emerge from the chaos of the league’s pre-season with Chris Paul wearing their uniform and they did beat the Lakers in both of the two teams’ pre-season tilts. So for a day at least, one could wonder not just whether the Lakers were among the elite of the Western Conference, but whether they were even the best team calling the Staples Center home.

It was only one day of course; just the first game on the season’s schedule. But until Dallas made its winning run last year, the Western Conference had been represented in the Finals by either the Lakers or the Spurs in 11 of the previous 12 years. Before Miami’s mercenary Big Three came up short against the Mavericks, the Eastern Conference representative had alternated between Boston and Orlando the previous three years. By the time the plug was pulled to turn off the lights on the Christmas tree, the Celtics, Mavericks, Lakers and Magic had all lost. The Heat, Bulls, and Thunder were ascendant, and even the Knicks and Clippers could dream. Maybe it was a one-day aberration. Or maybe the NBA’s next generation is about to finally get its Christmas wish.

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