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Five Takeaways From Opening Night of the 2021-22 NBA Season

Giannis: still really good. As for Russell Westbrook, there’s a lot that needs to be figured out.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA season is underway, and while there’s a long way to go before someone hoists the Larry O’Brien Trophy next summer, there’s still a lot to glean from the early returns. The Ringer’s Dan Devine and Jonathan Tjarks break down five takeaways from the Bucks’ 127-104 win over the Nets and the Warriors’ 121-114 win over the Lakers.

Russell Westbrook Has a Lot to Figure Out

Jonathan Tjarks: It’s never a great sign when your key offseason acquisition spends his debut channeling the “what would you say you do here?” meme from Office Space. But what Westbrook is supposed to do on the Lakers isn’t any more clear after Tuesday’s game than it was when they traded for him in July. His numbers against the Warriors were ugly: eight points on 4-of-13 shooting and minus-23 in 35 minutes. No one else on the Lakers was worse than minus-10. For all Westbrook’s flaws as a player, he’s always been able to count on putting up outrageous box scores. Now he has to figure out a new way to play.

It was jarring to watch him spend so much time spotting up in the corner. Westbrook spent 13 seasons in the NBA dominating the ball and being a primary option on offense. Now he’s the third option behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis while also splitting time at point guard with Rajon Rondo. That’s not a great use of his skills. Frank Vogel will have to find creative ways to keep Westbrook engaged on offense.

The biggest key will be spacing the floor better. LeBron and Davis are dominant enough that they can score even with defenses packing the paint against them. Westbrook needs driving lanes to function. The Lakers can’t afford for him to shrug his shoulders and fire pull-up jumpers if he can’t get to the rim. They have to find some shooters and play Davis more at the 5. It’s too easy to defend lineups with their Big Three plus a traditional big man like DeAndre Jordan or Dwight Howard. The Warriors won’t be the only team to use a zone against that group.

Giannis Antetokounmpo: Still Really Friggin’ Good!

Dan Devine: Perhaps you thought that, after winning his first championship and then receiving a championship ring loaded with enough ice to sink the Titanic twice—a ring that also apparently becomes a pendant, because switchability is everything in today’s NBA—the reigning Finals MVP might relax a bit, rest on his laurels, and take his foot off the gas, if only for like a second. Oh, you. Silly, stupid, ridiculous you. You make me laugh.

You see, much like Rich Homie Quan, Giannis will never stop going in, and on opening night, he began the 2021-22 NBA season just like he ended the ’20-’21 campaign: by doing pretty much whatever the hell he wanted, and leading the Bucks to a convincing victory.

The Nets loaded up their roster with all sorts of big men this summer, and just about all of them (and James Harden, too!) got a shot at Antetokounmpo on Tuesday. The problem: None of them—not Blake Griffin, not Nic Claxton, not LaMarcus Aldridge, not James Johnson, not Kevin Durant—could do a damn thing with him. Giannis rampaged his way to 32 points, 14 rebounds, and seven assists with two blocks and a steal in just 31 minutes of work as Milwaukee started its title defense off by blitzing Brooklyn, 127-104.

After a hyper-adrenalized, somewhat rickety start that saw him miss six of his first eight shots in the game’s opening three minutes, the two-time MVP settled down and dismantled Brooklyn. He attacked the glass, pulling down five offensive rebounds to help the Bucks dominate the possession battle. Milwaukee finished with eight more offensive boards than Brooklyn, five fewer turnovers, and 21 more field goal attempts—including 13 more 3-point tries—creating the kind of math problem that even high-octane offensive engines like Durant and Harden will struggle to solve.

He attacked the basket, going 9-for-14 inside the restricted area, and drawing enough defensive help to create opportunities for basket cuts or kickout passes; five of his seven dimes set up 3-pointers. (Grayson Allen, who started for the still-rehabbing Donte DiVincenzo and went 3-for-10 from deep in 28 minutes in his first game as a Buck, looks like he’s going to feast playing alongside Giannis.) He attacked every Net defender in front of him, earning nine free throws and making seven, with a streamlined and smoother-looking routine and stroke at the stripe.

This is what Giannis has become: He batters you until you break, and then the game does, and then, more often than not, the Bucks win. For everything that winning a championship has changed for Milwaukee, it sure as hell doesn’t seem to have changed that.

Jordan Poole Is the Key to the Warriors’ Season

Tjarks: Golden State took control of the game when Steph Curry was sitting at the start of the fourth quarter, something that rarely happened last season. They ran their offense through third-year guard Jordan Poole, who would be one of the front-runners for Sixth Man of the Year if he weren’t starting in place of the still-injured Klay Thompson. Poole, who finished with 20 points and three assists, could have a breakout season as the Warriors’ second option.

Poole is a well-rounded combo guard with 3-point range who can also create his own shot off the dribble and find open shooters all over the floor. That offensive versatility makes him a great fit for Steve Kerr’s system because he can slide between playing on and off the ball, much like Curry. The Warriors moved Poole around in this game, using him as a spot-up threat when Curry was in and then featuring him on the second unit.

He’s already proved that he can score at the NBA level, with nine games of 20 or more points last season. But he averaged only 12 points per game because he had 20 games in single digits. The Warriors need Poole to be more consistent this season in order to avoid the play-in game. They have no one besides Steph who can create their own offense. It was clear what the Lakers’ game plan was: Throw as many bodies as possible at Curry, and dare someone else to beat them. Poole did on opening night. If he can keep doing that, it will significantly raise Golden State’s ceiling.

The Nets Have Some Work to Do

Devine: While the Bucks looked like a team that knows exactly what it is—Giannis pounding the paint, Brook Lopez protecting the rim, a fusillade of 3-pointers—the Nets looked like one still very much figuring itself out.

With Kyrie Irving away from the team for the time being, head coach Steve Nash shuffled his starting lineup, pairing Durant and Harden with Claxton, Griffin, and swingman Joe Harris—a fivesome that hadn’t played a single possession together in a real game, regular season or playoffs, before Tuesday. It didn’t go so hot: That group got outscored by 11 points in nine minutes, helping stake Milwaukee to an early lead it would never relinquish. (Also notable: Griffin, who played almost exclusively as a center during the 2021 postseason, spent 19 of his 23 minutes on Tuesday as a 4 alongside either Claxton or Aldridge. Not that more traditional two-big lineups helped Brooklyn rebound or keep Giannis away from the rim.)

Nash went 10 deep before garbage time, giving some of Brooklyn’s many new faces a spin. Patty Mills looked like precisely the hand-in-glove fit so many projected, going a perfect 7-for-7 from deep en route to 21 points in 29 minutes off the bench, but the rest of the reserve corps left plenty to be desired. Paul Millsap didn’t muster much in his five minutes of burn; Aldridge, too, looked fairly rusty in his first action since last season’s abrupt health-related retirement. As Nash explored his new roster, he skipped over Bruce Brown until the final few minutes, when Milwaukee already had the game well in hand. Maybe that omission came only in the spirit of experimentation, since Nash already knows what kind of jolt the combo guard turned small-ball center can provide when he checks in; still, it was notable on a night when the Bucks got big performances from Pat Connaughton and intriguing forward Jordan Nwora while the non-Mills Nets offered next to nothing.

One rough night against the defending champs isn’t worth fretting over; as Harden told reporters after the game, “It’s Game 1—this might’ve made us even more excited, because it let us know that we’re not even close.” And there were glimpses of the damage the Nets can do: Durant wheeling and dealing his way to 21 points after halftime, Mills sprinting off screens and raining quick-trigger fire, Harden repeatedly finding Claxton in the two-man game and torching rookie big man Sandro Mamukelashvili on switches with stepback 3s. They were fleeting, though—drowned out by the static of a team that, with a bunch of new pieces now in place and one massive one now out of place, has a long way to go to discover and define itself.

The Lakers Desperately Need Shooting

Tjarks: LeBron and Davis were as dominant as ever, with each going for 30-plus points and 10-plus rebounds. But Los Angeles lost anyway because of how little they got from their supporting cast. The best illustration of that problem is that Avery Bradley closed the game for them even though he had just lost the battle for the 15th roster spot in Golden State.

The Lakers’ most glaring need is outside shooting. They played seven role players on Tuesday and only two (Carmelo Anthony and Malik Monk) really threaten the defense from the 3-point line. Kent Bazemore is the best shooter in their starting lineup and he went 2-for-8 from 3. He shot 40.8 percent from deep for the Warriors last season but took only 2.7 per game. He’s not the kind of volume shooter who will open up the floor for the Lakers’ stars.

The good news is that three of their best shooters (Kendrick Nunn, Wayne Ellington, and Trevor Ariza) were in street clothes. Nunn (26) and Ellington (33) are particularly important, because their returns from minor injuries will reduce the average age of the rotation, which is too reliant on players who peaked more than a decade ago. The Lakers should also be active on the buyout market this season. Their rotation in the playoffs could be very different from the one they had on opening night, which, considering how uneven they looked, is a good thing.