Basketball is back! The 2022-2023 kicks off tomorrow night with three of the winningest franchises in NBA history and the Philadelphia 76ers. If you were hoping for a Finals rematch from June or an Opening Night tilt to break the tie between both 17-time NBA champs (for what it’s worth, Boston leads LA 206-164 in head-to-head matchups), you’ll have to wait later into the regular season for that.
Out west on Ring Night, the defending champion Golden State Warriors take on the Los Angeles Lakers who didn't even make the playoffs last year. After a tumultuous training camp, GSW signed both Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins to considerable contract extensions last week and have embraced their youth movement moving forward that also includes their cadre of recent draftees: James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody. Of course, they’re still buoyed by their championship trio Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, and Steph Curry (and don’t forget the retiring Andre Iguodala!). If there’s a team and coach that can weather internal strife on the level of The Punch, it’s the four-time dynasty up in the Bay.
Four hundred miles south down I-5, LA has drama of their own. A trade involving Russell Westbrook never materialized and after "realigning" him to the bench, he suffered a hamstring in the final game of the preseason. General manager Rob Pelinka shuffled the deck last summer, opting to not surround LeBron James and Anthony Davis with older contemporaries, but young up-and-comers like Lonnie Walker IV and former Warrior, Juan Toscano-Anderson. It’s not exactly a favorable position for first-time head coach Darvin Ham, but until Pelinka can figure out the Westbrook of it all, it’s difficult to know what the Lakers will look like.
The new year tips off with former Celtics head coach Doc Rivers coming back to Boston with Joel Embiid, James Harden, and a revamped Sixers roster. Philly made key additions in the offseason after bowing out in the playoffs in a 4-2 defeat at the hands of the Miami Heat. Embiid will again be an MVP candidate, it’s Year 2 of the Harden Experiment, and DeAnthony Melton and P.J. Tucker add a toughness that the City of Brotherly Love has been lacking for the last few seasons.
Your defending Eastern Conference champs limp into the regular season opener, but had successful enough of an offseason to still be the favorites to repeat in the East. The Celtics will start without 2nd Team All-Defender Robert Williams, their big free agent signing, Danilo Gallinari, and former head coach Ime Udoka.
To make up for the difference, insert Malcolm Brogdon. The former Milwaukee Buck and Indiana Pacer has been hand in glove in Boston’s four preseason games as their super sub 6th man. Joe Mazzulla has embraced small ball (more on that below) and will utilize a cadre of skill players to outdefend and outshoot opposing teams. The head of the snake is MVP candidate Jayson Tatum, but don’t get it twisted. Jaylen Brown is not a sidekick. He’s 1B and part of the most dynamic wing duo in the league. Mix in the defending Defensive Player of the Year, Marcus Smart, Derrick White with a full training camp under his belt, the ageless Al Horford, and Grant Williams in a contract year (at the time of this article’s publishing) and you get a squad looking to repeat as the best defensive team in the league.
The Lakers are six-point dogs according to our friends at DrafktKings heading up north to face the Warriors, but let’s talk 76ers-Celtics. Boston is just a three-point favorite hosting Philadelphia and if you’re a Celtics fan, there’s a lot to be worried about.
Joel Embiid is currently a -105 to hit the over (-115 on the under) on points total (26.5). Last season, The Process averaged over 33 points per game against the C’s. In a late December tilt in TD Garden, he dropped 41 in a five-point win...but Boston was without Horford and Timelord. Against Big Al, Embiid had his troubles. Horford will most likely draw the toughest assignment of the night and he’s held him in check; in over 16 minutes matched up against Embiid, Embiid only hit five of his sixteen shots for a total of 17 points.
Throughout the preseason, the Celtics have embraced playing small. They lead the league in scoring, often playing Tatum or Grant Williams at the 4 or 5. In their final warmup in Toronto, Mazzulla elected to continue starting Derrick White. Earlier in training camp, Luke Kornet played a bunch with Smart/Brown/Tatum/Horford, but was a healthy scratch against the Raptors. After Sunday’s practice, Mazzulla played it cagey and wouldn’t commit to a starting lineup for Tuesday.
“The matchup is a huge issue with (the starting 5),” Mazzulla said. “Do I feel like we match up well on both ends of the floor? I think last year we thought defense first, and that, obviously, you have to do that. Now, I think, with our skill, we can kind of think offensively as well. We’re just a little more balanced with what gives our team the best opportunity to win.”
Reading between the lines, Opening Night could be a replay of that 41-point, early Christmas gift from Embiid. Out of necessity, Boston will go small with Horford and Blake Griffin muscling Embiid down low. Horford has held his own in the past, but with the Celtics defense shutting down the perimeter, look for the Philly big man to get up 20+ shots and double-digit free throws on Tuesday. That should put him well over 26.5 points in the opener.
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