The last time we saw LeBron James and Stephen Curry facing off in a meaningful game at Staples Center, the longtime friendly rivals were duking it out for a chance to be in the playoffs. It was a close game, but nowhere close to the main stage these two have played on over the course of their careers.
In their heydays, you could almost book NBA Finals appearances for James and Curry each year. But James and Curry have some work to do to get back there this year.
Curry and the Golden State Warriors won 121-114 in Tuesday’s season opener, but mostly because his supporting cast has had a bit longer to come together than James’. The 2021-22 NBA season kicked off Tuesday night with a rematch from the Eastern Conference semifinals as the Milwaukee Bucks once again defeated the Brooklyn Nets, 127-104.
Curry led the Warriors with a 21-point, 10-assist, 10-rebound triple-double, but he hit just 5-of-21 shots from the floor. His saving grace was a perfect 9-of-9 at the free-throw line and strong games from Jordan Poole (20 points), Damion Lee (15 points), Nemanja Bjelica (15 points, 11 rebounds), Andrew Wiggins (12 points) and Andre Iguodala (12 points).
James looked as good as he did before the ankle injury that cost him 27 games last season — hitting his first six field goals on the way to 34 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. According to ESPN Stats and Information, it was James’ most makes without a miss to start a season in his career.
The problem is, no one on the Lakers but Anthony Davis (33 points) looked very good at all. James and Davis combined to score 67 points and shoot 57%. The rest of the team mustered just 47 points on 37% shooting.
No other Laker even scored in double figures Tuesday night, with newcomer Carmelo Anthony (9 points) coming the closest.
Russell Westbrook‘s homecoming was underwhelming at best. The LA native didn’t score until four minutes before halftime, missed nine of his 13 shots and ended with a game-worst plus/minus of -23.
The Lakers have been treating this early part of the season as something of a dress rehearsal, preaching patience and understanding as they try to integrate a new supporting cast around their two superstars.
But for a team with aspirations of getting back to the main stage, this would’ve been better as a closed performance.
Draymond Green, two seasons removed from last making the NBA Finals, knows the challenge of getting the Warriors back to championship contention won’t be easy.
“It’s very hard,” Green said Tuesday following the win. “The teams that have done that. Or -guy, LeBron James — that has done that have been very taken for granted. It’s nearly impossible to do, which is why you don’t see it often. It’s a tough thing. But both teams are trying to get back there. That’s the goal.”
— Ramona Shelburne
Russell Westbrook’s rough debut
LOS ANGELES — After a shaky preseason when it seemed like the only consistency to Russell Westbrook‘s game was his penchant for turning the ball over and missing open shots, the Lakers’ star offseason acquisition struggled much the same in the season opener. While LeBron James and Anthony Davis locked back into their championship form — combining for 64 points — Westbrook undid much of their production on his own, as the Lakers were outscored by 23 points in the 35 minutes he was on the floor.
It was such a rough debut — shooting 4-for-13 from the field with 4 turnovers, 4 fouls and a handful of blow bys on the perimeter — that Lakers coach Frank Vogel threw Avery Bradley in to try to change up the energy in the fourth quarter with L.A. sputtering. Bradley had just signed with the Lakers on Monday and had only participated in a pregame walk-through with the team prior to getting those crunch time minutes with Westbrook on the bench.
At best, it was a soft launch for these new-look Lakers. At worst, a sign that this team will have its fair share of growing pains before making the pieces fit.
— Dave McMenamin
Warriors fix biggest flaw for one night
LOS ANGELES — The Golden State Warriors never found a way to fix their biggest flaw last season.
Stephen Curry had one of the best seasons of his career a year ago, almost winning his third career MVP, but when he wasn’t on the floor or didn’t carry the offensive load, the Warriors struggled due to a lack of depth.
One game into the new year, it appears Curry and the Warriors have turned over a new leaf. The positive signs for the Warriors were written all over the back half of a solid 121-114 comeback win over the Los Angeles Lakers in Tuesday night’s opener. With Curry going just 5-for-21 from the field, the Warriors found an answer in the form of a variety of bench pieces that will be key to their season. Third-year guard Jordan Poole, who figures to stay in the starting lineup as Klay Thompson continues his ACL and Achilles rehab, bounced back after a rough first half and finished with 20 points. Veteran Andre Iguodala made solid plays all over the floor while giving Steve Kerr 22 minutes off the bench. Nemanja Bjelica had a terrific debut while racking up 15 points and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.
After a year where the Warriors repeatedly struggled to win without Curry’s brilliance, it’s a nice sign of things to come if Golden State can rely on what appears to be a deeper, more talented roster to pick up the slack.
— Nick Friedell
An NBA preseason consumed by off-court machinations kindly gave way on Tuesday night to basketball. In resounding fashion, the reigning champion Milwaukee Bucks reminded the league that whatever storms brew off the floor, they still dominate on it.
Opening nights feature marquee matchups, and the Eastern Conference opener did not disappoint. The Bucks and Brooklyn Nets have developed an interesting rivalry, after facing off in five of the postseason’s most consequential minutes in a Game 7 overtime of their conference semifinals battle last season.
Brooklyn is a big-market squad stacked with a slew of All-Stars, past and present, acquired on the open market. Milwaukee is more of a home-grown team in one of the league’s smaller outposts, headlined by Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton, a tandem who have grown up together with the Bucks since 2013. The Bucks squeaked by in their meeting last June, but the Nets enter the season as a consensus favorite in the East, with the Bucks as, decisively, their stiffest competition.
Antetokounmpo might have relinquished the regular-season MVP award to Denver’s Nikola Jokic, but launched his reclamation campaign with a fury with 32 points and 14 rebounds. Kevin Durant was similarly productive in the Nets’ loss, with 32 points of his own.
Neither Brooklyn nor Milwaukee are without its worries. The Kyrie Irving situation will hover over the Nets until it’s resolved, while the Bucks will have to find some bench depth and, more immediately, lost floor general Jrue Holiday to a heel contusion in the first half.
But for a night, two contenders took to the court and renewed their clash for conference supremacy — and possibly a claim as a title favorite.
— Kevin Arnovitz
Dealing with injuries, Bucks lean on creative lineups
MILWAUKEE — The Bucks were already a bit shorthanded heading into the game, with Bobby Portis, Semi Ojeleye, Donte DiVincenzo all sidelined because of injuries, but the team’s depth was pushed even further after Jrue Holiday suffered a bruised heel in the second quarter and did not return to the game. Holiday’s absence forced coach Mike Budenholzer into some unusual lineup combinations out of the gate for the Bucks’ season opener.
The lineup changes worked out, thanks to some strong contributions from the end of Milwaukee’s bench to hold off Brooklyn’s charge in the third quarter and complement another dominant performance from Antetokounmpo.
Jordan Nwora, a second-round draft pick in 2020, scored 15 points on 6-of-13 shooting and grabbed six rebounds while playing a surprising 26 minutes. He even blocked Kevin Durant going to the rim at one point, leading to a fast break and 3-pointer on the other end by Grayson Allen.
The Bucks next kick off a three-game road swing, starting Thursday at the Miami Heat.
— Jamal Collier
Missing Kyrie Irving, Nets lack cohesion in opener
MILWAUKEE — The banner night in Milwaukee started off with Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks gawking at their championship rings that actually transform into a necklace pendant.
Then the Brooklyn Nets came onto the floor as the favorites to acquire what Giannis now has. But, Brooklyn opened the season looking like they were opening training camp in San Diego.
And unlike when they were in Southern California for a week, the Nets didn’t have All-Star guard Kyrie Irving. The Nets fell behind 31-12, got within five just before the half before eventually losing by 23. Patty Mills did his best to fill Irving’s big shoes, burying seven-for-seven 3’s in his Nets’ debut. But Antetokounmpo bullied the Nets with a dominant performance and the defending champs looked like the more cohesive team.
Relax, though, Nets fans. Statements can be made but championships aren’t won on opening night. Kevin Durant and James Harden will find their groove. They just know that the path to their ring might be harder than expected, especially without Irving.
— Ohm Youngmisuk