HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — You waited all summer for this.
And now it’s here.
We get a monster three-game appetizer tonight to kick off the NBA season, Wednesday’s 13-game slate is the outlandish first course and we’ll have eight months worth of goods to work through before a champion is crowned.
Thankfully, the powers that be in the scheduling department decided to give us an opening-night preview, with three NBA Finals favorites on display.
Miami at Boston, 7:30 p.m. ET on TNT
Phoenix at Portland, 10 p.m. ET
Houston at Lakers, 10:30 p.m. ET on TNT
It’s show and prove time for all of them, too, not just those cats in Miami (who obviously enter this season with unprecedented hype for a team that’s been together for mere months).
All six teams taking the floor tonight have questions that need answering, things that we need to know right now, before they dive in and pledge allegiance to a team they think is the real deal:
Who cracks first, the Heat or the competition? Erik Spoelstra‘s team (we can call them that, at least for now, right?) has already adopted the “us-against-the-world” mantra needed to chase a title. In fact, I can’t remember a team preparing itself better for a theoretical championship run than the Heat has done since July, which started with the LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade mega-merger. But now the theory must be applied in an ultra-competitive environment where the Heat will be the hunted team every single night.
That said, you have to give them credit for making all the right moves. Mike Miller goes down with a hand injury that will sideline for months, so the Heat quickly snag veteran swingman Jerry Stackhouse to fill the void (same way he did for the Bucks last year). There have been no major missteps up to this point … but now it’s time to play the games. And we’re going to see if the Heat can hold up to the pressure, internal and beyond.
With five players 32 or older, everybody is wondering the same thing: can the Celtics will hold up to the rigors of the 82-game regular season and a second straight extended playoff run? Their championship window is clearly much smaller than the one those young whippersnappers in Miami are working with, which will no doubt fuel the Celtics’ fire all season. Can the old men hold up?
That’s also where the Celtics’ improved depth has to come into play. A much deeper supporting cast — including much-needed big men Shaquille O’Neal and Jermaine O’Neal — is the key to Doc Rivers‘ team being able to sustain the level of play we saw from them in the playoffs last season. Glen “Big Baby” Davis, Nate Robinson and eventually Delonte West will all be critical to the cause as well.
Steve Nash is the last man standing from the Phoenix revival that began with his arrival in the Valley of The Sun in the summer of 2004. Amar’e Stoudemire was the last man off the island, following Quentin Richardson, Joe Johnson, Shawn Marion, the Colangelos and even their successor, Steve Kerr (who has returned to his TNT family). This is a totally new look for the Suns. But is it one capable of making a return to the Western Conference finals?
Some people don’t even have the Suns in the playoff mix. That’s brazen, to assume that Nash won’t be able to guide his group to the postseason — something that’s happened only once since his return to Arizona in ’04. Few players in the league have shown the ability to adapt to new faces the way Nash has. Still, the onus in Phoenix is on the new additions, namely Hedo Turkoglu, to show us all that he’s still a factor in this league.
We all want the same things from this team. Show us you are as good on the floor as you are on paper. Prove to us that we are wrong to doubt your championship fiber the way we have since injuries ravaged your team last season and left you as a shell of the outfit that had the potential to challenge the Lakers at the start of the 2009-10 season. Nate McMillan’s team is the picture of show and prove.
It all starts in the middle for the Blazers. Marcus Camby played like a guy 10 years younger last season, holding down the starting center position while Greg Oden and Joel Pryzbilla nursed knee injuries. But Camby 36 and asking him to grind all season without adequate help (sorry, Fabricio Oberto) is a daunting task.
The Rockets have already shown their cards, making it clear that Yao Ming will play just 24 minutes a game, no matter the circumstance. Proving that you can compete for a playoff spot and ultimately a championship with your best player on the floor for just a fraction of every game will be the interesting part for Rick Adelman’s club. We understand that the metrics suggest we should trust the Rockets on this one, but we’re struggling with that one.
The key player in this entire affair is veteran center Brad Miller. If he and Yao both stay healthy all season, they could form the most devastating center combination in the league. Neither will have the responsibility of carrying the load alone, yet they’re both capable of causing major problems for opposing teams in Adelman’s offensive scheme. The (24-minute) clock is ticking, though.
What does the two-time defending NBA champ have to show? What in the name of Naismith could the most successful coach in NBA history have to prove to us or anyone else in this galaxy? They have to show and prove that they can do it all over again, in Phil Jackson’s farewell season and as an underdog (Miami is the favorite of many).
Kobe Bryant‘s never needed any added incentive, he’s always been locked in on his one main goal. The interesting twist is that Pau Gasol, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom and even Ron Artest have their own Lakers legacies to think about now. A healthy Andrew Bynum certainly helps the cause. But in the meantime, the Lakers have to get used to working in the shadow of Miami’s spotlight.