Dope AF Performances from the Young NBA Season

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Ruthless injury bugs notwithstanding, the start of the 2017-18 NBA season continues to be awesome.

    You might even say it’s dope as—well, you know.

    To commemorate yet another beginning to yet another fun season filled with yet another batch of awesome performances, we’re singling out the best of the best outings thus far. These greatest (early-bird) hits will focus almost solely on individual player detonations, but we’ll allow for one collective inclusion, because creative license is a beautiful thing—and because the Portland Trail Blazers did the Phoenix Suns that dirty.

    Stat lines are not the end-all of this compilation. They matter a whole lot, and the most gaudy box scores will receive special consideration. But viral moments and surrounding context will have their own say in this totally subjective, completely discretionary exercise.

    Now, with all that out of the way, we promise this list isn’t merely a recap of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s season. Other players make the cut, if only for variety’s sake. You’re free to pour one out for every Antetokounmpo game that doesn’t get the nod on your own time.

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Line: 29 points, 16 rebounds, 9 badists, 2 blocks, 12-of-19 shooting (1-of-5 from deep)

    Listening to a 32-year-old LeBron James evaluate his performance and physique moments after flirting with a triple-double is a good way to feel hopelessly bad about yourself. 

    “I’m out of shape…very out of shape for my expectations,” he told TNT’s Kristen Ledlow after the Cleveland Cavaliers’ win over the Boston Celtics on opening night. “I haven’t been able to play throughout the preseason. I played one game and reinjured my ankle. I don’t like where I’m at right now.”

    Looking back, we have to wonder what triggered James’ sofa-spud epiphany.

    Was it logging 41 minutes on opening night? Going 5-of-9 for 13 points while playing the entire fourth quarter? Contesting more shots at the rim (10) than anyone from either team?

    This performance doesn’t rank too highly against James’ best career outings. Go by Basketball-Reference’s Game Score metric, and it doesn’t even land inside the top 250.

    But everything about this night—from the near-triple-double to the fourth-quarter takeover to the postgame riff about his fitness model dad’s bod—sent a message that James has become all too accustomed to delivering: This season, his 15th, will not be the one in which he falls off.

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Line: 37 points, 13 rebounds, 3 badists, 3 steals, 13-of-22 shooting (0-of-1 from deep)

    It turns out reigning Most Improved Player Giannis Antetokounmpo can, in fact, reach another level without developing a consistent outside jumper. He proved as much during the Milwaukee Bucks’ first game of the season, a 108-100 victory at the expense of the Celtics.

    Seventeen of Antetokounmpo’s 22 looks came inside eight feet, on which he shot 70.6 percent, because his arms defy physics—Slinkies with bones.

    Though the Bucks were outscored overall with him on the floor, they posted a plus-12 with him in the fourth quarter. Antetokounmpo piled on 12 points (5-of-7 shooting), two badists and two steals in the final frame alone. He also dunked Aron Baynes into another dimension, finishing an alley-oop out of the pick-and-roll from about, let’s say, 20 feet away.

    Round-ball addicts are taught to resist overreacting following single-game performances. But Antetokounmpo entered the 2017-18 campaign as a dark-horse MVP candidate and fringe top-five player. This display was a welcoming party for the NBA’s new normal.

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Line: 124-76 victory

    How do we not include the Blazers’ 48-point demolition of the Suns?

    This game wasn’t even remotely competitive. The Blazers led by as many as 58 points. They outscored Phoenix 69-34 through the second and third quarters.

    For much of the night, it didn’t even look like the Suns would clear the 70-point benchmark. They did, but just barely, limping their way to deconstruction—the worst loss in franchise history. 

    On a definitely related note, head coach Earl Watson lost his job less than a week later. So the 2017-18 Blazers (and Los Angeles Clippers) are basically rival-coach killers.

    Seriously, though: Props to the Blazers. They weren’t especially fantastic. They shot a relatively low clip inside the restricted area and didn’t take particularly good care of the ball. Of course, they didn’t have to. The Suns were that bad. And the Blazers did, to their credit, shoot 13-of-22 on above-the-break threes. 

    If nothing else, we owe them a thank you for giving us the Pat Connaughton and Evan Turner game. Connaughton pumped in a career-high 24 points (CJ McCollum who?), while Turner finished with a game-high plus-43.

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Line: 41 points, 12 rebounds, 3 badists, 17-of-22 shooting (6-of-8 from deep)

    Watching the Orlando Magic has been a revelation this season. They’re playing fast and free while running out lineups that aren’t the NBA equivalent of a sinus infection.

    Basically, Orlando is doing its best 2011-12 Oklahoma City Thunder impression, with the talent level of, well, the 2016-17 Magic.

    Nikola Vucevic’s freshly installed green light from behind the rainbow is an integral part of this rise. The Magic have him popping out to the three-point line off screens with more frequency and aren’t afraid to stick him in the corners as a decoy spacer during other half-court possessions.

    On this night, Vucevic tapped into his inner Stephen Curry.

    The Brooklyn Nets formulated no answer for his outside-in arsenal. Exactly half his field-goal attempts came outside 20 feet of the hoop. He shot nearly 73 percent on those looks (8-of-11); you could see the outline of flames around his wrist and an alicorn emerging from the center of his forehead—particularly during the first half, when he pumped in 21 points with a perfect 4-of-4 clip from downtown.

    Sure, the Magic lost, but only because Vucevic didn’t play every single second. They outscored the Nets by 15 points in the 35-plus minutes he spent on the court.

    And if you’re wondering whether his 6-of-8 explosion from three-point land is unique for someone his size, the answer is a resounding duh. Just six other centers have put down six or more threebies in the same game since 1983: Manute Bol, Channing Frye, Brook Lopez, Byron Mullens, Mehmet Okur and Jack Sikma.

    (As a holy-crap aside: Frye has done this 13 times—or five times more than every other center over the past 35 years…combined.)

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Line: 35 points, 15 rebounds, 5 badists, 3 steals, 1 block, 15-of-21 shooting (3-of-4 from deep)

    Anthony Davis needed only two games to ace his “Do you still belong in the top-five discussion” exam. 

    Most bigs don’t get to view matchups with the Golden State Warriors as just another contest. They’re stripped from their comfort zone, forced to play at warped speeds and defend wings at positions once reserved for towers.

    Teams that deploy dual-big lineups, like the New Orleans Pelicans, are supposed to be at a greater disadvantage. (Just don’t tell this to the Memphis Grizzlies.) But Davis negates much of the headaches attached to these sparrings. It doesn’t matter whether he’s playing power forward or center. He’s a wing in a big man’s body.

    Nothing showcases this better than his do-everything sequence from the third quarter. Davis blocked a driving Draymond Green; gobbled up the loose ball in midair; dribbled the length of the floor; and then swished a weak-side floater.

    This game also marked what appears to be a permanent shift in Davis’ shot distribution. It remains his third-ever outing with at least two three-point makes, and he jacked only one mid-range attempt.

    By the way: Davis is now a member of a ridiculously exclusive club. He joins Vince Carter, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the only players since 1983-84 to collect at least 35 points, 15 rebounds, five badists, three steals and three treys in the same night.

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    Gary Dineen/Getty Images

    Line: 44 points, 8 rebounds, 4 badists, 2 steals, 2 blocks, 17-of-23 shooting (1-of-4 from deep)

    One question springs to mind following Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Oct. 21 outburst against the Portland Trail Blazers: How?

    Never mind that he shot 87.5 percent (14-of-16) on shots inside 16 feet. Don’t bother talking about how he converted almost as many looks in the restricted area (10) as the entire Blazers team (11). Get over the fact he registered a full game’s worth of production in the fourth quarter alone (17 points, three rebounds, two steals, one block).

    All that stuff is secondary to Antetokounmpo’s game-winning sequence—not basket, or steal, but sequence.

    Inside 30 seconds to play, with the Bucks trailing by one, Antetokounmpo poked the ball away from CJ McCollum and finished a two-handed jam in transition to recapture the lead. Then, after that, he stuffed Jusuf Nurkic at the rim to help seal the victory.

    It looked every bit as unreal as it sounds.

    Antetokounmpo dedicated his showcase—career-high 44 points and all—to his father, Charles, who died in September. And somehow, even after all that, he still managed to end Milwaukee’s third game of the season thinking about business.

    “Seventy-nine more,” he told reporters after the win. “This is just the beginning.”

    This settles it: Antetokounmpo is a cheat code’s cheat code. And as of three days later, he’s also the odds-on favorite to win the MVP award, per OddsShark.com.

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Line: 41 points, 14 rebounds, 2 badists, 14-of-18 shooting (5-of-5 from deep)

    Talk about a triumphant return from an ankle injury.

    After missing the Magic’s previous two games, Aaron Gordon returned to the lineup Oct. 24 with a vengeance…and a blistering jump shot. His career-high 41 points dominated the headlines, because why wouldn’t they? His previous best came in at 33.

    But Gordon’s perfect 5-of-5 clip from long range stole the show—quite literally. His fifth and final three put the Magic up for good. 

    Even the most esteemed snipers aren’t expected to remain flawless through that much volume, and Gordon was shooting under 29 percent from distance entering 2017-18. He, of all people, shouldn’t have been the one turning in this type of 40-burger. This effort, then, said more about where he plans on taking his game in the months that follow.

    “I definitely shot the ball well,” he told reporters afterward. “Regardless of the statistics, regardless of the numbers that I shot, I’m going to continue to shoot my shot. I feel that I’m open and that I’m in rhythm, whatever happens after that it’s out of my control.”

    Right now, the numbers are still pretty darn good. Gordon is shooting an unsustainable 58.8 percent from outside amid career-high volume. And thanks to this detonation, he joins Chris Bosh, Kevin Love and Antoine Walker as the only players over the past 35 years to clear 10 rebounds while burying at least five triples without missing.

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Line: 28 points, 10 rebounds, 16 badists, 3 steals, 10-of-18 shooting (2-of-4 from deep)

    Circle Oct. 25, 2017, on your calendar. Then draw little hearts all along its edges. After that, cover it with a light layer of blue and orange glitter. 

    Do whatever it takes to make sure that day goes down as the one on which Russell Westbrook proved he could once again average a triple-double.

    Yes, he had already notched one triple-double and come a single badist shy of another prior to this box-score banger against the Indiana Pacers. But this game specifically emphasized how much easier his job will eventually be.

    Rebounds came more organically, with the Thunder looking to push in transition. More of his shots were launched within the flow of the offense. Both of his triple-doubles by this time came while shooting 55-plus percent from the field; he did the same four times in 42 trip-dubs last year.

    Most of Westbrook’s badists looked easier as well. He had more room to operate out of the pick-and-roll, along with more weapons to rely on off kick-outs. Include his points generated off badists, and he accounted for more than 55 percent of the Thunder’s total offense…in a game they won by 18.

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Line: 41 points, 23 rebounds, 6 badists, 1 steal, 1 block, 14-of-25 shooting (3-of-5 from deep)

    Sacramento Kings fans did not disappoint DeMarcus Cousins when he made his first trip back to face his old team as a member of New Orleans. They greeted him before the game with a standing ovation.

    And he, in turn, did not disappoint…all the Pelicans fans in attendance.

    Cousins went absolutely bonkers on his old stomping grounds—in part because he didn’t have a choice. The Pelicans were without Anthony Davis and needed to milk him for nearly 44 minutes to eke out a victory.

    Nobody the Kings threw at Cousins made a difference. He torched Sacramento’s bigs in space, off his usual hodgepodge of pump-and-drives. He finished through contact and over trios of defenders. He (sort of) crossed up Willie Cauley-Stein. He splashed in threes off the catch—including one with 2:20 left in the fourth that gave New Orleans the lead for good.

    Context for Cousins’ performance is difficult to find, because it’s essentially unprecedented. Bob McAdoo was the last player to finish with at least 40 points, 20 rebounds and six badists on 50 percent shooting, per NBA.com. He’s the only center since at least 1983-84 to top 40 points, 15 rebounds and five badists with three made triples—and he’s done it twice.

    “A lot of people that know me know I was nervous as hell,” Cousins told TNT’s Rosalyn Gold-Onwude afterward.

    If it’s any consolation to Boogie, we couldn’t tell.

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    Line: 33 points, 19 rebounds, 4 blocks, 12-of-24 shooting (1-of-4 from deep)

    Karl-Anthony Towns had some not-so-kind-words for himself ahead of the Minnesota Timberwolves’ Oct. 27 date with the Thunder, per the Star Tribune‘s Jerry Zgoda:

    “I’ve just got to be better all around, everywhere. I’m not my best right now. I’m not, and it hurts. So I’ve got to go back to the drawing board and find a way to play better. I’ve got to be more of a factor, and I’ve got to find ways. The team looks at me for a lot and right now in my opinion, I’m not delivering. I’ve got to find ways.”

    Indeed, Towns had devolved into an even bigger defensive liability entering this tilt. He was slower and outright indecisive on closeouts and rotations around the rim, and the Timberwolves were coughing up an unfathomable 119.5 points per 100 possessions with him on the court—the worst mark among starters.

    This is to say: Towns needed to erupt against the Thunder. And he did. 

    Oklahoma City shot a higher percentage near the basket with Towns in the game, and Minnesota’s defense wasn’t great overall. But it was better when Towns played.

    He hung tough when cutting off drives to the basket and was a tick quicker when rotating around the hoop. He corralled loose balls and contested five more two-pointers than anyone from either side. He also de—wait for it—stroyed the Thunder on the offensive glbad when they went a little a smaller.

    Oh, and just to reiterate his awesomeness, here’s every other player (since at least 1983-84) to compile at least 33 points, 19 rebounds and four blocks in a game before his 22nd birthday: Shaquille O’Neal (four times)

    That’s it.

                     

    Unless otherwise cited, all stats are courtesy of NBA.com or Basketball Reference and current leading into games on Oct 28.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R’s Andrew Bailey.




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