Typically it takes two months on the NBA calendar to get into early days of January. This season, it’s taken all of two weeks.
But based on the games, the news, the injuries, the purported trades, some controversies and the vital and unusual safety protocols in place for a non-bubble 72-game season, the first two weeks of 2020-21 seem to have had two months worth of everything.
Except, of course, a James Harden trade, which might never come.
Here are five takeaways from 15 days:
The return of Stephen Curry: Golden State’s season began with little to recommend it, a rerun of 2019-20 for all its promise and watchability. Then Curry went Currazy in the second of consecutive games against Portland Trail Blazers, scoring 62 points to remind the basketball world that he’s still the league’s best point guard and one of its most dazzling scorers ever. Next game, Curry got 30 in just three quarters before sitting down against the Sacramento Kings. He’s getting to the line more, shooting 2-pointers and showing hints of some retro Allen Iverson play. It might be asking a lot to have this version of Curry all season, but it is satisfying to see him step up when his Warriors cohorts have lots of rough edges.Stephen Curry lit up Portland for 62 points and looked a lot like his old Kia MVP self.
Home-and-home sets: This quirk of booking two games in the same city, same opponents, is a nod to the virus protocols, done to reduce the number of flights and hotel stays if those intra-conference games were booked as separate trips. It’s not likely to survive when things get back to (dare we say) normal, for at least three reasons. First, bunching games so tightly against one foe can create a real disadvantage if one team’s star happens to be hurt that week — the other guys get two bites at the apple while, say, a Kevin Durant or Luka Doncic is out. Second, it might be tough to sell tickets for some of these weekend series. Third, pitching tents in a road city for three nights could be an invitation to some distractions.What are some of the top early storylines in 2020-21?
Still, there’s a mini-playoff vibe to seeing an instant rematch, the way the Miami Heat bounced back from its 47-point spanking by Milwaukee last week to beat the Bucks 24 hours later in the same building. We get a chance to see adjustments, grudges, lineup changes and other inside games with this little baseball series.
Heavyweights on hold: Sean Grande, radio play-by-play man for the Boston Celtics, pulled together a fascinating set of stats as the season wrapped up Week 2: Eight teams that played into September in the Orlando bubble restart, who began last season with a .678 winning percentage, had dipped to .511. Meanwhile, the eight teams not invited into the bubble went from a .297 start in 2019-20 to .411 this year.
That suggests a freshness vs. fatigue factor has been in play with some of the inverted early standings. But the Los Angeles Lakers played to the bitter end (Oct. 11) and have done fine. No way struggling teams like the Toronto Raptors and Denver Nuggets are going to blame only that for their sputtering starts.
The Raptors have had trouble scoring, haven’t gotten the Pascal Siakam they envisioned when he became their leading man and have admitted to some problems of cohesion and resiliency. To their credit, they haven’t played the “R” card — as in relocation, playing home games in Tampa for what really is a 72-date road schedule. The Nuggets have had some absences, with Michael Porter Jr. sitting lately due to health protocols, and have seen what was figured to be a strength (depth) produce some pretty shaky bench play.
No one should be panicking yet, but this compacted season is flying by so problems not fixed promptly might never get solved.
Bunch of blowouts: A trend that was most apparent on Christmas Day, when the five games were decided by a total of 116 points, has continued. According to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press, 25% of the games played so far have seen one team leading by at least 30 points. The past three seasons, that rate was 10%, 11% and 9%, respectively.
Why? Pick your theory. The flattening of any real homecourt advantage, what with mostly empty buildings that deprive a home team of drawing inspiration and comeback ability from its crowd? Those game-to-game adjustments when facing a foe on back-to-back dates? The short run-up and prep time to this season? We’ll have more ideas if the tendency continues.
Happiness in The Big Apple: It doesn’t take much at this point to rouse the New York Knicks’ fan base, and that team’s 4-3 record heading into Wednesday’s game against the Utah Jazz (7:30 ET, NBA League Pass) has been plenty. The rout of Milwaukee on Dec. 27 started some buzz, but the victories at Indiana and Atlanta dialed it up to high.
Forward Julius Randle has posted big stats (22.1 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 7.4 apg) while hitting 40.7% from 3-point range, reminding folks he was the No. 7 pick six years ago. RJ Barrett began this season as if he has a chip on his shoulder after catching insiders yawning over his rookie play. And first-round pick Immanuel Quickley has shown chops at both ends, beyond what a No. 25 pick typically shows so early.RJ Barrett and Julius Randle have developed nicely for the Knicks.
But the Knicks’ biggest improvement has come on the sideline, where coach Tom Thibodeau is having a palate-cleansing, culture-changing impact. The famously gruff, demanding Thibodeau has seemed more even-handed, while getting a quick bump like he did in Chicago and, arguably, Minnesota. The Knicks have bought into his defensive lessons to rank near the top in opponents’ field-goal percentages, with a leap in defensive rating.
Presumably, as the season grinds on, critics will start parsing minutes to see if Thibs is relying too heavily on Randle, Barrett or anyone else. But for now, a young roster without many changes has been listening and believing.
Honorable mention to the Atlanta Hawks, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers and Phoenix Suns, all of whom are also off to unexpectedly upbeat starts.
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