Basketball

What we learned from opening night of NBA season 2020/21

The LA Lakers got their rings, but fell to city rivals the Clippers, as the returning Kevin Durant helped give Steve Nash a winning coaching debut for the Nets against the Warriors.

By Rory Jiwani ·

Just weeks after the conclusion of last season, the new NBA campaign is up and running.

The bubble era is over, with teams returning to their home arenas, but it will be some time before basketball fans are allowed back in due to COVID measures.

There were two games on opening night with the defending NBA champion LA Lakers tipping off against their city rivals, the Clippers.

The other match-up saw Kevin Durant return from 18 months out for the Brooklyn Nets against his former side, the Golden State Warriors.

Here are five takeaways from what proved to be a dramatic start to the 2020/21 NBA season.

Lakers get their rings with Kobe Bryant tributes

As per tradition, the reigning NBA champions received their NBA rings before the first game of the new season.

According to the Lakers site, the ring comprised "16.45 carats of stones and approximately 180 grams of a signature batch of 14 karat yellow gold".

That included 804 stones - 15.50 carats of white and yellow diamonds, plus 0.95 carats of amethyst representing the 95 days the Lakers spent in the bubble.

The rings each had 17 Lakers purple amethyst stones placed in the L to represent the team’s 17 championships.

The intricate design had their regular and post-season records on the side along with LeBron James' line "Leave a legacy" which became their playoff slogan.

They also featured tributes to five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant.

Wrapped around each individual number on the side of the ring was a snake in honour of 'Black Mamba'.

And underneath the removable top were all the retired jersey numbers in Lakers history including Bryant's '8' and '24'.

On the underside of that lid is the word 'UNITY'.

In this era of coronavirus, the players and staff had to pick up their rings themselves on court, but they were accompanied by, at times, emotional videos from friends and family.

Kostas Antetokounmpo 'virtually' received his ring from his brothers Thanasis and two-time NBA MVP Giannis.

And you may need a handkerchief for the one for James' video featuring pupils from his I Promise School in Akron, Ohio.

Clippers Win

The Lakers celebrations came ahead of an opening game against Los Angeles rivals the Clippers, who stayed in their locker room during the rings ceremony.

And the noisy neighbours rained on the Lakers' parade, jumping out to a 39-19 first-quarter lead before eventually winning 116-109.

Rio 2016 gold medallist Paul George put down 33 points, 26 in the second half, with Kawhi Leonard adding 26 points and Spain's London 2012 silver medallist Serge Ibaka scoring 15 on debut to give head coach Tyronn Lue a winning start after succeeding Doc Rivers.

Lue said bluntly afterwards, "Our focus wasn’t really on the Lakers. They were the best team last year, so congratulations to them, but now we’re moving on."

Lakers Concerns?

For the Lakers, James was reduced to 28 minutes on court after twisting his ankle in the second half.

He still led the home side with 22 points with Anthony Davis scoring 18 in 31 minutes on court as coach Frank Vogel showed his desire not to over-burden his star names so soon after the end of the previous campaign.

James said of his ankle, "I turned it pretty good but I don't think it's going to stop me from playing Friday (against the Dallas Mavericks)."

And he admitted the uncertainty around the start of the new season, and its quick return, was "just too much to grasp".

"It felt weird even having a basketball game today. We're here now, happy today is over, but it's just a lot to process."

Two-time Olympic medallist Marc Gasol made a disappointing debut after his move from the Toronto Raptors, getting into early foul trouble and ending the night with just one rebound and one assist in 12 minutes of action.

Coach Vogel said, "I'm disappointed I didn't put the ball in his hands more, in the top of the key, like we did in pre-season, to take advantage of his passing ability."

Speaking more generally about managing workloads, he added, "Getting through this stretch healthy is a priority, and evaluating how our new guys fit is a priority when we haven’t had a normal amount of time to do that. The five guys on the floor have got to be better than they were tonight."

KD back with a bang

Kevin Durant made his return to action after 18 months out with a ruptured Achilles tendon.

KD sustained that injury during Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals where his Golden State Warriors went down 4-2 to the Toronto Raptors.

On his comeback, he was up against the Warriors for new team the Brooklyn Nets. And he finished with 22 points in 25 minutes as the Nets, in their first game under new head coach Steve Nash, ran out comfortable 125-99 victors after scoring 40 points in the first quarter.

Rio gold medallist Kyrie Irving led all scorers with 26 points while Stephen Curry had 20 points and 10 assists for the visitors.

Durant told reporters, "I'm just learning my team-mates' tendencies, getting to know them a little bit more. Each game as we continue to build, we'll get more and more comfortable with each other.

"I don't feel like I've got to prove myself, but I want to go out there and be able to do whatever Coach needs me to do out on the floor whether it's guard, score or make passes."

Nash said, "He looks like Kevin, he plays like Kevin, but I don't want to make starting expectations of him until he gets going and gets some games and some rhythm under his best and adapts to playing almost every other night. That's the next step for him.

"We've got to just take it day by day with him. He's done everything he could possibly do to put himself in this position, and he's here because of his hard work and determination. I just don't necessarily want to expect that every night's going to be amazing. His off-nights are amazing for most people in the league but he needs time to adapt, still."

The new Nets era

Steve Nash could probably not have wished for a better start as an NBA head coach.

The fixture schedule offered him a good opportunity too with the Hall of Famer enjoying five years as a part-time player development consultant at the Warriors before taking his first big job.

Armed with that knowledge, South African-born Nash - who represented Canada at Sydney 2000 and helped light the cauldron in the Opening Ceremony at the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games - was able to devise a gameplan to stifle Curry and the Warriors offense.

He admitted, "It was a good performance, the guys played hard. Particularly I thought defensively we did a lot of good things, a lot of carry-over from training camp.

"I don't want us to take too much credit for some of the shooting nights that they had. On a different night they maybe knock some of them down and it looks a little different. But overall it was really solid, not too many mistakes, really diligent with our principles and gameplan so I was proud of them.

"We're a talented offensive team with a lot of players who can make plays, score the ball, athleticism so the offense is going to be a little bit ahead on the talent spectrum at times but I still think we've got a long way to go offensively. We can play with a little bit more pace and cohesion, a little bit more understanding, and that's to be expected. We didn't spend a ton of time on offense in training camp."

After collecting the game ball as the leading player on the night, Irving handed it to Nash and expressed his optimism for the future.