On the eve of preseason, I wrote about how fun this Hornets team was going to be and how many questions this preseason would answer for us. Preseason is meaningless, but wait, nope, not this time. And then the games started. For seven contests, the Hornets proceeded to perplex the snot out of us, barely making it inside the three point line on some nights and tripping over the injured bodies of teammates when they did.
It was a mess. It was not fun. The questions ostensibly ready to be answered were instead tossed back in our faces. So when I described the Hornets as "an extremely fun team with no expectations" in my season preview Thursday, it was with far less conviction than it might have been a couple weeks ago.
Tonight? Back where we started. This team could still be really, really, REALLY fun. We've got one hell of a season ahead of us.
- We have to begin with Anthony Davis because he was just phenomenal. His line (11 for 18, 24 points, 11 rebounds, 4 offensive rebounds, 3 steals, 1 emphatic block) is impressive enough, but he was even better by the eye test. He dunked whenever he could, he followed his own misses with confidence, he dribbled through two defenders for a 1 on 2 fastbreak that he finished with a reverse layup, he hit a fadeaway jumper over two defenders, he elevated over two players holding him down to finish a ridiculous left handed tip, and he had a tremendous lefty layup through traffic that George Gervin would have been proud of.
He flashed the entire arsenal, and it's an arsenal as diverse as any we've seen from a rookie in recent years. And offense is supposed to be the weaker half of his game! On defense, he held his own against Chris Bosh on a pair of isolation possessions, allaying some early fears about his lack of strength. His lack of good, fundamental rebounding positioning was still apparent, but just as he did at Kentucky, he was able to reach over and around his opposition for boards. The ferocious rotations that made him famous in college are yet to appear in full force, but that's literally the only thing we didn't see tonight.
Anthony Davis legitimately looked like he belonged on the floor with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, which, sheesh.
- Ryan Anderson was great too (17 points on 6 of 10, 5 of 8 on threes), and in a way we hadn't seen much of so far. Miami repeatedly ran him off the three point line and outside of his wide open dagger in the final minute, they did a great job closing out on him. But Anderson repeatedly thwarted good closeouts with neat sidesteps or by simply drilling tough jumpers with a hand in his face.
The quick release on his shot and his height combine to make him about as difficult to block as Peja Stojakovic. He's not quite on that level as a shooter, but his ability to effectively put the ball on the floor expands his game quite a bit. David predicted yesterday that Anderson would be New Orleans' most productive player on the season, and if he's right, it'll be due to nights like this one.
- The most surprising aspect of this game for me was the play of Al-Farouq Aminu. Two things - (a) I've never seen him get to the rim off the dribble this much in a single game. He put a slick crossover on LeBron James in the third quarter, which floored me. And on a pair of occasions, he passed up a three against an onrushing defender to get to the rim. Again: not a very Aminu-y (Aminui? Aminui) maneuver, at least from what we saw last season.
His final line from the floor (3 of 10) was poor, but his 8 free throws attempted (7 made) really underscores his aggressiveness.
I watched this game with Brian, who repeatedly insists these days that "Aminu can dribble now." I don't know if I really believe it still, and it's not the greatest thing in the universe if your starting small forward being "able to dribble now" is cause for huge celebration, but that's where we're at with him. If he can indeed now dribble, huge progress has been made.
Defensively, Aminu's rotations to cover ground in the post were probably the best of anyone on the team (including Davis). We've seen him in at the power forward for quite a few minutes in the preseason (including as a part of the especially weird Roberts - Miller - Thomas - Aminu - Anderson lineup) and his post rotations have been encouraging.
More than anything, I think we've seen a shift from Aminu falling back on his athleticism defensively to relying on his intelligence. It's very apparent in the way he anticipates perimeter drivers shifting directions and especially so in the way he closes out shooters. If you get a chance, watch how he deals with the closeout at the end of the first half; he anticipates a higher percentage shot being created on the kick, so instead of closing hard, he feints at the ball handler and continues towards the higher percentage shooter in the corner. Clever.
- After an atrocious preseason to date, Greivis Vasquez really cemented his starting role tonight (inasmuch as a "starting role" at point guard on this team is worth anything). The five turnovers were ugly, but he was very aggressive taking the ball to the hoop, and the 10 assists were good to see as well.
The Brian Roberts/Vasquez backcourt was interesting too. Roberts does the one thing everyone (including me) claimed Rivers could do - break down defenders and get to the rim. Rivers himself has proved wholly incapable of it, which is unfortunate. We'll see how his ankle responds to treatment, but for now, he's essentially Jimmer Fredette without the jump shot, and that's as damning as it sounds. He's still only 20 years old so I'm not writing him off completely (or anything close to it). His half floater from midrange is probably the one positive we've seen so far. At the same time, my assessment of Rivers today remains the same as it was back in June.
- Just a great atmosphere all around. Both teams played their big guys almost all the way through (with the exception of James, who left after getting kicked in the face by Robin Lopez), and Jeff Van Gundy noted that it was the most amped up preseason game he's ever seen.
The "don't take preseason serious, guys!" brigade will be along shortly, probably. But the Hornets had gotten absolutely destroyed their last three times out, and they easily could have been run out the building here -- on the road against LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Didn't happen. The win itself means nothing, but the way the team worked together, executed set plays, and tightened things up in the second half showed just a tremendous amount of improvement from the start of preseason.
- I'm really sleepy so I probably missed some other things. What did y'all think of the game?