1. Dwight Howard Debuts With A Boarding Party
HOUSTON -- It will be remembered as a clunky and mostly clanky spectacle that, record rebounding aside, belongs in no scrapbook.
"I think we could have been a lot better," Howard said.
Yet he'll gladly take those 26 rebounds and the 96-83 victory over the misfiring Charlotte Bobcats that Howard's board work helped secure, well aware that this slog against an Eastern Conference bottom-feeder could have been a far unhappier occasion. Despite a labored offensive showing Kevin McHale likened to a "trip to the dentist," Houston ultimately claimed a triumph that, judging by some of the upside-down scores on this Wednesday night, had to have the Miami Heat and Brooklyn Nets feeling pretty envious.
"Amazing," Rockets teammate James Harden said when asked to recap Howard's debut. "Running the floor. Taking all my rebounds. Doing what he does.
"He's a game-changer."
He's healthy and happy above all, which is why Howard -- who eventually mustered 17 points to go with the career-high-tying rebound total -- won't be dwelling on Houston's raggedy execution or McHale's discontent too long.
The Rockets were stagnant and/or disjointed when they had the ball to the point that they scarcely resembled the team that frequently turned heads in the preseason. It certainly didn't help that Harden, thanks to a tight back and banged-up wrist, wasn't close to the full Bearded Lefty. Harden scuffled to score 21 points and suffered the indignity of being forced to lay one in on a breakaway because he couldn't get enough lift for the dunk, while Patrick Beverley (bruised ribs) and Jeremy Lin (stitches in his chin) came away with their own scars.
What will get them over all of it quickly, though, is the sight of Howard -- rangier than he ever looked as a Los Angeles Laker -- controlling the paint and likewise covering enough ground to occasionally slide over to power forward defensively when McHale had him out there alongside Omer Asik.
Team officials continue to privately insist that Asik, after lodging his offseason trade request, is not available as long as he continues to flourish as a frontcourt starter next to Howard. Their premise: Houston's rim protection with Howard and Asik as a starting tandem or at least one of them on the floor at all times -- with Chandler Parsons, Omri Casspi and Francisco Garcia all ready to step in as a small-ball power forward when McHale needs to mix things up -- is at such a special level that it would take something quite unique in return to consent to breaking them up.
Hard to argue with the first returns, no matter what you think of Charlotte's front line anchored by a rusty Al Jefferson and Houston's inevitable free-throw woes, when Howard and Asik are combining to snag 40 rebounds to the visitors' team total of 37. The Bobcats were also hounded into 36.7 percent shooting from the floor and gradually faded away.
"My mind was at the ball, but my body was still on the other side," Howard said, reflecting on his limitations as a Laker trying to work his way back from back surgery and then through subsequent shoulder trouble. "I couldn't do it.
"I'm a lot healthier than I was last season," Howard continued, rating himself an 8 out of 10 in terms of playing at full capacity.
Said Bobcats coach Steve Clifford, who worked with Howard in both Orlando and Los Angeles as an assistant: "When he's right -- and it looks like he is -- he can impact every single play on the floor."
"He never moved last year like he was moving in preseason," Clifford said even before tipoff. "He's looking like a different guy."
Yet it clearly goes beyond the mere physical for Howard. One real game into his Rockets career, Howard's comfort level in his new surroundings is easy to detect, which presumably only pumps more juice in his legs. He never settled into the Lakers' star-laden culture and the resulting tension only mushroomed to toxic levels. In Houston? There's no hint of such problems on the horizon.
One club insider went so far as to tell ESPN.com that Howard, at this early juncture, is the "best leader on the team by far."
It certainly looks as though these Rockets are rallying around him, too. Howard's name was called first in pregame introductions at Toyota Center, with Harden's going fifth, but it was No. 12 who took the microphone before the opening tip to implore the home fans to revel in this "new age" and this "new team."
"I just want to go out there and play, have fun and get back to being who I am as a player," Howard said. "I think when you focus too much on what everybody else is saying, that's when don't play like you want to play."
He surely knows there's only one way he'll ever really hush the skeptics. He knows it's time to finally replant some firm roots somewhere to chase that elusive championship. Players of Howard's stature aren't supposed to be on their third NBA employer at the age of 27; history tells us only five Hall of Famers played for three different teams before turning 28. They are: Adrian Dantley, Bob Houbregs, Bob McAdoo, Alex English and a former Rocket named Moses Malone.
Howard certainly challenged himself in this first act, revealing afterward that he went into the game gunning for a Moses-like 30 rebounds and proclaiming himself to be "upset that I didn't do it." He also broke out a McHale impression at his locker to lighten the mood, pretending to lament how this performance didn't at all resemble McHale's "Boston days" like he used to do in Orlando with Stan Van Gundy impersonations, but his initial approach has been sufficiently serious to win over many of the locals. More than one customer sitting courtside before tipoff could be heard to shout "We love you, Daryl" at Rockets GM Daryl Morey.
Count the ultimate expert on Houston big men, who bequeathed control of the Rockets' front office to Morey, as part of the growing fan club.
Longtime Rockets executive Carroll Dawson has worked with them all: Malone, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Yao Ming. Ask the 75-year-old if Dwight can get to the peaks some of those legends reached and Dawson breaks into a big smile as he sizes up how the Howard-and-Harden era is starting.
"He has a real chance," Dawson said.
2. Around The Association
Most valuable player: It's not quite the performance to tip off an All-Star campaign, but Kawhi Leonard led the way with 14 points on offense and made the big plays on defense to spark the Spurs.
X factor: Patty Mills went 3-for-3 from beyond the 3-point arc in the second quarter to lead a 30-7 period for San Antonio. Twenty-one of the 30 points came from San Antonio's bench.
Least valuable player: Zach Randolph scored just two points on 1-for-6 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds as he struggled to make an impact against a Spurs frontcourt missing Tim Duncan for most of the second half.
MVP: Greg Monroe. Following a Josh Smith turnover to open the game, Monroe had turnovers on the Pistons second and third possessions. After that: 24 points, 16 rebounds, three assists and two turnovers. He has been a near All-Star the past two seasons, and hes already making his case this season.
X factor: John Wall. Wall played much more aggressively on both ends in the second half. Although that led to more turnovers, it also got him better shots and stifled the Pistons offense. Even if the results were uneven, the Wizards played better with Wall going full bore, outscoring the Pistons after halftime.
That was ... a good start, an OK finish: With Smith playing point forward, Andre Drummond crashing the glass and Monroe working well off both, the Pistons big frontline started strong. But all three faded in the second half, leaving questions about how the trio fits. At minimum, there were plenty of encouraging signs for Detroit, but work remains.
MVP: Tyson Chandler. A good grip of his contributions (10 points, six boards, five blocks) came when the Knicks needed them most. But it was how Chandler looked doing it spry, energized, a beast to last springs shell that has Knicks fans smiling.
Turning point: With two minutes left and the Knicks up one, Pablo Prigioni laid out for a loose ball. Chandler wound up with it, kicking it ahead for an ugly transition that ended with a gritty Carmelo Anthony lay-in. The Knicks never looked back.
That was ... really terrible: These two professional basketball teams combined for 45 turnovers on the night. Forty-five! The Knicks will take the win, but both teams know whats up first on the drawing board.
MVP: Paul George. While the rest of the Pacers were struggling, George kept them in the game offensively, scoring 32 points on just 19 shots. On this night, the Pelicans had no answer for the Pacers swingman.
Defining moment: Up by one with 31 seconds left, George Hill drilled a 25-foot 3-pointer from the top of the circle to effectively ice the game for the Pacers.
That was a learning experience: The Pelicans led for the first 42 minutes of the game, but the Pacers' experience was evident as they made smart plays down the stretch while the young Pelicans fizzled. But for any young team, that is part of the process.
MVP: In his first official game as a right-handed player, Tristan Thompson scored 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting, along with nine rebounds.
Defining moment: With five minutes remaining in the third quarter, Deron Williams headed to the bench, still recovering from his preseason ankle sprain. Lacking their floor general during crunch time, the Nets struggled to produce points.
X factor: Cleveland's bench. Jarrett Jack and C.J. Miles combined for 15 points in the first quarter, as the Cavs clawed back from an early 11-2 deficit. Also, Andrew Bynum played eight minutes after 537 days off.
MVP: Klay Thompson can shoot, yes indeed. He scored a career-high 38 points, finishing 15-of-19 from the floor, including 5-of-7 from 3-point range, to lead the Warriors to the runaway win.
That was ... a quick comedown: Fresh off their invigorating win over the Clippers, the Lakers encountered a division foe that had its act together. Xavier Henry managed 14 points off the bench as an encore to his opening night magic.
X factor: With the scoring department taken care of by Thompson, newcomer Andre Iguodala showed how his all-around game could be just what the Warriors need this season.
MVP: Rudy Gay. Toronto's prized small forward scored seven of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, helping the Raptors pull away late against a pesky Celtics squad.
X factor: Offensive rebounds. Toronto took advantage of Boston's undersized frontcourt, as well as Jared Sullinger's suspension, to wreak havoc on the glass. Led by newcomer Tyler Hansborough, the Raptors racked up 19 offensive rebounds, leading to 28 second-chance points.
That was ... sloppy: Early-season rust was apparent for both teams, as they combined for 39 turnovers. Boston was unable to cut its miscues late (six in the fourth quarter), which allowed Toronto to escape with the win.
MVP: Kevin Love's 24 points and 14 rebounds through three quarters were impressive. But his 3-pointer to force OT (his third game-tying or winning shot in the last 10 seconds in three seasons) sealed it.
LVP: You can start forwarding Derrick Williams' mail to Rick Adelman's doghouse. When Orlando went small, Adelman went with Kevin Martin at the 3 over the former No. 2 draft pick. Not a good sign.
X factor: Minnesotas 34 free throw attempts nearly doubled Orlandos 18, plus the Wolves shot 82 percent from the line while the Magic managed only 61 percent. Better free throw shooting could have spared Orlando the difficulty of coming back.
MVP: This won't surprise, but Kevin Durant was the game's MVP. The Thunder superstar finished with 42 points, including making 22 of 24 free throw attempts during the game, the second highest total of his career.
X factor: The Jazz's ball control left something to be desired, coughing up 22 turnovers on the night compared to the Thunder's 13. The turnover differential Oklahoma City to overcome a poor shooting night (40.7 FG%).
That was ... encouraging:The Jazz got big returns on opening night from their young core, as the group of Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and Alec Burks combined for 66 points on the night.
MVP: Monta Ellis made the most of his first game in a Dallas uniform, torturing Atlanta with 32 points on just 17 shots. Ellis did have one drawback, though, turning the ball over seven times on the night.
X factor: Vince Carter -- who shoots 46 percent on 3-point attempts in his career against the Hawks -- continued his ways, scoring 21 off the bench in a variety of ways; catching lobs; hitting running, midrange bank shots; and even pulling up from 30 feet once. He was feeling it.
That was... well-rounded: Dallas isn't going to shoot like this every night, but they definitely controlled all facets of this game. The Mavs forced turnovers, worked the ball inside-out, and gave the Hawks fits on the boards.
MVP: Goran Dragic. Despite the high-profile offseason acquisition of Eric Bledsoe, the Suns' more tenured guard led the way for Phoenix. He made especially timely shots, including two straight buckets in the final minutes that derailed Portland's comeback hopes. Dragic finished with a team-high 26 points and nine assists. (Bledsoe was good too, finishing with 22 and six.)
Defining moment: After falling behind by double-digits early, the Trail Blazers got within a point in the third quarter. The Suns answered with a 12-0 run, and held on to mostly comfortable leads the rest of the way.
X factor: Miles Plumlee. In last season's rookie campaign with the Indiana Pacers, Miles Plumlee appeared in 13 games, scoring a season total of 14 points. Now with Phoenix, the 6-foot-11 power forward had 16 points in the first half. He finished with 18 points and 15 boards, both career-highs.
MVP: Kings fans were treated to a taste of what could be the new DeMarcus Cousins. Teammates created space inside for the 23-year-old center to operate, and he delivered. Cousins final stat line? A double-double: 30 points on 13-of-26 from the field and 14 rebounds.
Defining moment: Before tipoff, Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadivé took the mic and addressed the sellout crowd. Following the events of the past two years, he offered a simple, yet powerful message to Sacramento: "This is your team and it's here to stay."
That was ... electric: Wednesdays home opener was another chance for Sacramento and its fans to celebrate the victory of keeping their team. With a 90-88 win, fans were fortunate to have their cake and eat it, too.
MVP: Oscar Robertson is the only player in league history to record a triple-double in his first game. Michael Carter-Williams fell a steal short of joining him. As it is, the point guard scored 22 to go with 12 assists and nine steals, the latter the most ever in an NBA debut.
X factor: Phillys shot selection. The Sixers spent the past few seasons at or near the top of the NBA in midrange attempts. Not on Wednesday. Philadelphia attacked the rim, earned 24 free-throw attempts, and hit 8 of its 21 3-pointers.
That was ... unlikely: The Sixers opened with a 19-0 run. Miami put up 45 points in the third. Ray Allen hit 4 3-pointers himself in the last 1:43 of the period, including one at the buzzer from 48-feet. And the Sixers -- the NBAs consensus doormat -- used a late 13-1 run to topple the defending champs.
MVP: Dwight Howard is good at rebounding the ball. Despite his poor free-throw shooting, racking up 26 rebounds in 33 minutes is nothing to scoff at. He had a perfectly solid 17 points on 14 shots to make for a double-double. Is Dwight Howard back? We'll see.
LVP: Aaron Brooks came in to soak up the minutes left by Patrick Beverley's departure but failed to justify his place on the roster. He notched only an assist and a steal to offset his two turnovers and three fouls in 11 minutes. Strangest of all? No shot attempts for AB.
X factor: Would you believe it's Josh McRoberts? He grew a beard and learned some new tricks to bring to bear against the Rockets. He did it all Wednesday night for Charlotte, ending with 15 points and 3-for-4 3-point shooting. Keep that energy, McBob.
3. Wednesday's Best
Michael Carter-Williams, 76ers:
Take that, two-time defending champs. The long-limbed rookie had 22 points, 12 assists, nine steals and seven rebounds to lead the Philadelphia 76ers past the Miami Heat 114-110. Bring on his Friday encore in D.C.!
4. Wednesday's Worst
Andray Blatche, Nets: Went scoreless in 20 minutes, missed all five shots and committed three turnovers in Brooklyn's 98-94 loss in Cleveland. That's no way to usher in a now-or-never season.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"He had a great game, couldn't think of a better way to start your NBA career."
-- LeBron James, on Michael Carter-Williams' big night against the champs.
8. Determined Melo
9. Stat Check
Kevin Durant made 22 of 24 free throws (92 percent) in his 42-point performance for the Thunder in their 10198 win at Utah. It was the fourth time in his career that Durant has shot at least 90 percent from the line while making at least 20 foul shots. That ties Michael Jordan for second place all-time behind Moses Malone (five).
10. TrueHoop TV