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The Biggest Takeaways From the NBA’s Opening Night

The Celtics recover from Gordon Hayward’s injury, LeBron and Kyrie meet again, the Rockets’ new backcourt gets its first test run, and more from the first slate of games

NBA: Houston Rockets at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The unbridled excitement of a new NBA season lasted less than one quarter. Gordon Hayward’s shocking leg injury put a grim spin on the start of 2017–18, and instantly shook up everyone’s preseason predictions. But despite the dark moment, the games went on. Here’s what we learned—other than to never watch the video of Hayward’s injury—from the marquee matchups between the Celtics and Cavaliers, and the Rockets and Warriors.

Cavaliers 102, Celtics 99

Marcus Smart Steps Into Gordon Hayward’s Big Shadow

Paolo Uggetti: Hayward’s consistent scoring was supposed to be key to a Celtics team thinned out by a flurry of offseason moves. A horrific injury just minutes into his debut not only cast a pall on what should have been a big moment in his career, it also left a huge void on the court. On Tuesday night, Marcus Smart was the first player to try to fill it.

The Celtics received a burst of energy from their young core, and Kyrie Irving contributed 22 points, but it was Smart’s defense and scrappy play that led the charge back from 18 points down. Smart finished with nine rebounds, 12 points, three assists, two blocks, and two steals off the bench. In our NBA staff predictions, I picked Marcus Smart as my “Sixth Man of the Year,” but he may become one of the Celtics’ key starters.

LeBron and Kyrie Seem Cool

Uggetti: Though boos rained down from Quicken Loans Arena as Irving, resplendent in green, was introduced to his former crowd, the reunion between former running mates was warmer than expected. Both dapped each other before tip and seemed cordial throughout.

Then, as if the basketball gods had scripted it, Kyrie had a chance at a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to tie the game in front of LeBron’s grill. The shot fell short as the buzzer sounded, and there was nothing left to do but to dap it up.

LeBron Can Still Pass

O’Shaughnessy: To no one’s surprise, James is still an excellent passer. The King finished the game with a team-high nine assists, sending two nearly identical bounce passes into the paint on separate occasions to two of his new teammates (though, to be fair, Dwyane Wade is also a former teammate).

And while we expected the former Heatles to click like they never left Miami, this dish to Jae Crowder showed instant chemistry:

James’s new point guard, Derrick Rose, was as effective a facilitator as Irving was in his Cavs days—which is to say, not much of one. Rose finished with just two assists in 31 minutes. Luckily, he’s playing alongside a forward who managed the fifth-most dimes in the league last season.

The Celtics’ Future Is Bright

Uggetti: The Celtics’ youth movement began in earnest Tuesday night. With Hayward out, rookie Jayson Tatum and sophomore Jaylen Brown took command of the game in the third quarter and were fearless throughout.

Brown, primarily a defense-first player last season, was particularly impressive, pouring in 25 points on 11-of-23 shooting from the field. Last season, his game high was 20 points. Brown also grabbed six rebounds, and his length and athleticism on defense earned him two steals. Tatum, meanwhile, vindicated the organization’s over-the-top love for him with a display of his offensive polish and potential. The Duke product became the first Celtics rookie since Larry Bird to put up a double-double in his debut.

The rookie regression will come for Tatum, but for one night, the Jay & Jay Show was a promising sign for how the Celtics could recover from losing Hayward—and a glimpse into an even brighter future.

A Sixth-Man Role Might Not Be So Bad for J.R. Smith

O’Shaughnessy: J.R. Smith might not be happy about it, but having him and Tristan Thompson come off the bench makes for a tough second unit. When Cavs coach Tyronn Lue told Smith in camp that Wade would being starting at the 2-spot, Smith said he was “absolutely” frustrated and that it was difficult to have been “working hard all summer and then coming in and not even really having a chance to earn my spot.”

But the setup seemed to work. Smith played 22 minutes to Wade’s 29, and those figures will likely even out as the season progresses and wears on the latter’s knees.

Smith isn’t the player that Cleveland most needs to keep happy (that will always be LeBron for as long as LeBron stays in The Land), but the team will certainly appreciate his shooting this season. Against the Celtics, the Cavs collectively shot 5-for-22 (22.7 percent) from deep. Smith made just one 3-pointer, but ended up an efficient 4-for-7 overall.

Rockets 122, Warriors 121

The Old Rockets Are Still Good. The New Ones … Well, TBD

Uggetti: Time after time during Tuesday night’s matchup against the Rockets, it felt like the Warriors were on the brink of pulling away. Yet time after time, Houston kept pace. In a game that felt faster than a Fast & Furious heist, the Rockets came back from a 17-point deficit to down the reigning champs, and they did so largely by tapping into their team from last season.

There was some early awkwardness between Chris Paul and James Harden. Paul struggled to get into a rhythm in part because of foul trouble. But with 4:47 left in the game and the Rockets down five, Paul was subbed out for Eric Gordon and the Rockets operated like the team that shocked the league last season: spread the floor with shooters; iso Harden. Aside from a few errant shots from the Beard, the strategy worked.

Paul might have been a bit banged up. Whatever it was, the Rockets looked like a team still figuring things out. But at worst, they now have the option of falling back to the framework of a 55-win team. Mike D’Antoni’s lineups are going to be fascinating to track as the season develops. On Tuesday night, at least, he made the right move.

KD Almost Saved the Day

O’Shaughnessy: Kevin Durant hit a near buzzer-beater jumper to end the game — 

—that would have won it for the Warriors. But the ball did not leave Durant’s (extremely long) fingers in time, and the shot didn’t count. As a result, the Warriors, as The Ringer’s Jason Gallagher pointed out, are now the worst team in the West. For what it’s worth, Golden State started last season with the same result, and that seemed to turn out just fine for it.

Draymond Green Is Still Extremely Valuable

Uggetti: Green landed awkwardly on his knee in the final minutes of the third quarter, limped, and eventually exited the game with what the Warriors are calling a left knee strain. Green, who was one point shy of a triple-double — nine points, 13 assists, 11 rebounds — in just 28 minutes, didn’t play in the fourth quarter. The Warriors proceeded to squander a double-digit lead.

It was a reminder of how valuable Green’s versatility is to making the Warriors’ small-ish, switchy approach work on both sides of the ball. Tonight, he was the MVP.

Eric Gordon Had the Game of His Life

Uggetti: To properly communicate how impressive a game Gordon had, I could tell you about how he baptized Jordan Bell into the league with this dunk. Or I could tell you about how he scored 24 points off the bench, or how he shot 56 percent from the field, with two blocks and a steal. But the most important thing he did came late in the fourth quarter, when he turned into Kawhi Leonard and ripped the ball away from a rising, about-to-shoot-a-dagger Durant with just over a minute left and the Rockets down a point. Gordon turned the tide, and eventually the game.

It’s never too early to start (another) Sixth Man of the Year campaign.

Jordan Bell Got the Rookie Treatment

O’Shaughnessy: A rookie on one of the best rosters in history might not expect to get substantial playing time. Of the Warriors’ two first-year players last season, only Patrick McCaw managed over a quarter’s worth of minutes (finishing with an average of 15.1 per game). But Bell, the 6-foot-9 Draymond Green apprentice, kicked off the season playing 12 minutes against perhaps the Warriors’ toughest competitors. He got introduced to the NBA real fast:

Welcome to the league, Jordan.

Golden Swaggy

O’Shaughnessy: Nick Young hit seven of his eight shots by halftime of his Warriors debut. Five of those makes were 3-pointers. Swaggy had 20 first-half points — the most of any player at that point, and nine more than anyone else on Golden State — in just 14 minutes.

During the between-quarters interview heading to the fourth, Steve Kerr joked that Young “made like one shot in training camp.” But when the Rockets closed in on Golden State in the fourth, the Warriors needed those buckets from Young. His last 3-pointer came with 10 minutes left, and he was yanked at the end for Durant.