The N.B.A. is finally back in action, with games featuring some of the stars fans have missed the most: LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers; Kawhi Leonard and Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers; and Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans.
More than four months after the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, the N.B.A. is kicking off with a doubleheader from its so-called bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla. Each of the 22 teams participating in the restart will play in eight seeding games before the playoffs.
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Hoping to hear trash talk? You’re out of luck.
There was some, uh, hope from N.B.A. fans that the lack of people in the seats at the Disney World arenas would allow those of us on our couches to hear trash talk and cursing on the floor. Truthfully, in part because of some fake crowd noise, music being piped in during gameplay and copious bleeping from the TNT censors, there hasn’t been much of that. But a fan can hope!
End of the 3rd Quarter: Anthony Davis is on fire.
Not the expected comeback game for what was described as a potential preview of the Western Conference finals, with a third quarter bogged down by turnovers and fouls. The Clippers stole the lead by 1 point after a slow first half, starting the final quarter 77-76.
Anthony Davis, consistently leading in game points, goes into the fourth with 32 points.
LeBron James hasn’t had an assist since the first quarter, simply tallying 7 rebounds, just ahead of Clippers guard Reggie Jackson, who has 6.
The third was for 3-pointers: The Lakers made 6; the Clippers have made 11 all game.
Today is the day of the turnover for the Los Angeles teams. The Clippers managed to come back at the beginning of the third quarter, up by 11 — with 16 turnovers, many of them in the first several minutes of this quarter. The Lakers have 12 turnovers.
The Lakers ended the first half just 2 points ahead, 54-52.
After a rough first quarter, Clippers guard Kawhi Leonard came back with a fury, landing a strong 3-pointer in the first few minutes, rocketing himself to an impressive 19 points in 16 minutes. Leonard, who helped lead the Toronto Raptors to their first championship last season, ranks eighth in the league for points per game.
The Lakers’ Anthony Davis had 20 points in 16 minutes. Forward Kyle Kuzma also locked in a couple of threes. But LeBron James only scored 6 points on 2-of-9 shooting (22 percent), with 6 rebounds.
Strong defense prevented success on both sides: The Clippers ended with a 56 percent sink rate. The Lakers, 51 percent.
Another new face on the floor tonight: Dion Waiters for the Lakers. Waiters, who entered the league as a rookie in 2012, can be a bit of an adventure. He’s always been a trigger-happy scorer. He likes to shoot, even though he’s not a particularly good shooter. But he’s known for scoring in bunches. When he gets hot, he’s dangerous. His best year was in 2014, when he averaged a career-high 15.9 points a game.
Waiters’s last stop in the league was with the Miami Heat. This season, he was suspended three times by the team for failing to adhere to team policies. He was eventually traded to the Grizzlies and waived, before signing as a free agent with the Lakers.
But the Lakers need depth, especially without Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley. Waiters, at his best, can help take the scoring load off LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Let’s check in on LeBron James. (He’s great.)
End of the 1st Quarter: Anthony Davis makes his mark.
The two titans of the West tipped off with Lakers center JaVale McGee landing a clean shot with help from league-assist-leader LeBron James, who had two assists within the first couple of minutes and five by the end of the first quarter. The Lakers ended the first quarter ahead, 35-23.
Paul George, a six-time All-Star, scored the Clippers’ first points and led the team with 8 points out the gate.
Lakers forward Anthony Davis — who almost didn’t play because of an eye injury — had 14 points in the first quarter. Davis got into a tit-for-tat dunk battle with Clippers center Joakim Noah, who smacked what should’ve been a clear shot for Davis out of his hands only to have Davis come back and dunk on him minutes later. Both secured three rebounds in the first quarter.
The Lakers’ success near the board put them over in the end. They went 2-for-8 on 3-point shots; the Clippers missed all seven of their 3-point attempts.
One more thing …
The end-of-quarter interviews with coaches look much different. The broadcasts have been taking advantage of wide shots to show that the TNT sideline reporters are socially distant from the coaches, creating a bit of a jarring visual.
Joakim Noah makes his debut with the Clippers.
Something else worth noting: For the Clippers, Joakim Noah is making his debut, which also means the return of the strangest free-throw form in history.
Noah, a former defensive player of the year, has battled injuries for the last five years, but he put together a productive run with the Memphis Grizzlies last year. In his prime, Noah was an energetic, frenzied presence on the defensive end — and a frequent LeBron James antagonizer — and helped the Chicago Bulls get to the Eastern Conference finals.
Some key players from the Lakers and Clippers are not here.
Worth mentioning here: This game, in addition to lacking fans, also does not have several key players. The Lakers do not have Rajon Rondo, who broke his thumb while in the bubble, or Avery Bradley, who opted to skip the Disney World restart.
The Clippers are missing Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, both of whom left the campus. Williams has since returned and is still in quarantine, while Harrell’s status is unknown.
Lakers/Clippers opens with an emotional national anthem.
As the Compton Kidz Club sang the national anthem on a video screen before the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers tipped off, both teams knelt. Several players on both teams, including LeBron James, wore T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” Commissioner Adam Silver had released a statement earlier in the night saying that the N.B.A.’s longstanding rule, which prohibits players from kneeling, would not be enforced.
The N.B.A.’s first game amid the coronavirus pandemic ended with a gripping back and forth for a Jazz victory over the Pelicans, fitting for the novel atmosphere the game was played in. Tied with 7 seconds left, the win was decided by Rudy Gobert’s two successful free throws, putting Utah over New Orleans for good when Brandon Ingram missed a last-chance 3-pointer for the Pelicans. The final score was 106-104.
Utah’s Mitchell scored 8 points in the last 8 minutes of the game, which initially lifted the Jazz over the Pelicans. He hit a layup and a 3-pointer to overtake the lead in the last 4 minutes. Still, Utah’s Jordan Clarkson and Ingram were the top scorers with 23 points each.
5 Stats of the Game
1. Both teams, as expected, were sloppy in their first game since March. The Jazz and Pelicans each had 20 turnovers, well above their season averages.
2. Zion Williamson: once again impressive: 6-of-8 from the field for 13 points in 15 minutes.
3. Lonzo Ball: 2-of-13 from the field. Missed all four of his 3-point attempts.
4. The Jazz shot 8-of-34 (23.5 percent) from 3-point land and still managed to win.
5. Jordan Clarkson was the top scorer for the Jazz, and he didn’t even start. He scored 23 points off the bench.
The Jazz take the lead late.
With less than 4 minutes to go, the Pelicans are running out of time to recapture the rhythm that had them cooking in the first half. New Orleans is pushing for the eighth seed in the West, meaning every game counts.
The Pelicans’ lead tightened, 87-79, as the Jazz upped their offensive game in the third with help from a few 3-pointers — with Utah’s Royce O’Neale coming in hot toward the last three minutes of the quarter. But Utah’s success in the paint really sealed its comeback.
Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson and the Pelicans’ Ingram led the board with 18 points a piece. Lonzo Ball, the Pelicans point guard, leads the game in assists. And Gobert — despite being benched with a little over two minutes left on the clock after taking a foul from JJ Redick — still led in rebounds. New Orleans had 20 fouls by the quarter’s end.
Zion Williamson tossed clear assists to both Jrue Holiday in a dunk and Lonzo Ball for a layup early in the third, proving the 20-year-old’s chemistry is intact in his 20th career game. Redick also landed two 3s, holding the Pelicans’ lead.
A considerable concern for many teams after just three weeks of full-speed practices was their readiness for games that count and how ugly the product might look early. Utah was shooting 24.1 percent from the 3-point line through three quarters (7-of-29) and had committed 15 turnovers, with Donovan Mitchell shooting just 4-of-11 from the field for 12 points. The Jazz, though, entered the final period trailing by just 8 points, despite their up-and-down offense.
Halftime: New Orleans is clicking.
Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry vowed to use Zion Williamson in “short bursts” after Williamson missed so much practice time recently tending to an urgent family matter. But New Orleans’ other stars have clicked quickly to compensate for the limited minutes. Brandon Ingram (15 points) and Jrue Holiday (12 points) have complemented Williamson’s 9 points on 4-for-4 shooting in just seven minutes. It’s been sharp offensive start for the Pelicans in building a 60-48 lead, as they seek to build early momentum in their quest to wrest the West’s No. 8 seed away from Memphis.
Ah, one point of familiar comfort in an N.B.A. broadcast: the TNT analysts Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith bantering with host Ernie Johnson at halftime. They sat socially distanced, with dividers between one another on set at a very long table.
“They could have the Last Supper on this table,” Barkley joked.
Barkley said that normally, the group would be watching the game together in the same room. Now, they had to watch by themselves in individual rooms. They all acknowledged the awkwardness.
“I’m not used to watching games like this,” O’Neal said. He added, “I really have to concentrate.”
How this game is different: It’s too quiet.
On television, the broadcast has looked mostly the same as any N.B.A. game that aired before the pandemic. That there is no crowd is not apparent right away, in part because of the digital fans on videoboards in the arena.
Where it is apparent: the lack of crowd noise. In the N.B.A., the loudness of a crowd can shift the momentum of a game. It might cause a coach to call timeout. It might amp up a player more than usual. So far, for example, Zion Williamson has had some nice plays, but it doesn’t feel as eye popping because the crowd noise isn’t there. In a typical N.B.A. game, you can tell who is winning simply by listening to the crowd noise. You can’t now. That might be an adjustment for players.
Rudy Gobert, the first N.B.A. player known to have tested positive for the coronavirus, snagged the first points of the restart, swooping in with a shot from near under the basket after grabbing the ball from the tipoff.
Despite an early Jazz lead, the Pelicans took control in the last minutes of the first quarter, going into the second quarter up 26-23. Pelicans guard JJ Redick put in the work that pushed the Pelicans ahead, shining with his notorious 90 percent sink rate and a clean assist to guard Jrue Holiday to close the gap.
Zion Williamson got going with a few buckets in the quarter. He averaged 23.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in 19 games this season.
The highly anticipated N.B.A. restart tipped off with a symbol of solidarity, rather than rivalry. Pelicans and Jazz players, coaches and staff knelt together in front of a Black Lives Matter floor mural painted on the edge of the court as a wordless rendition of the national anthem by the musician Jon Batiste played.
It was the first of many demonstrations for social justice causes expected this season. The players across the 22 teams participating in the restart were allowed to replace their names on the backs of their jerseys with phrases related to social justice. On the floor today were “peace,” “equality” and “listen to me” among others.
“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our longstanding rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem,” N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said later during the game in a statement.
Restarting the season so quickly has raised injury concerns.
The standard N.B.A. off-season is filled with weeks of off-games. The forced break of play and practice has meant that this pandemic pause may have been the longest time many N.B.A. players have gone without playing and practicing at a high level.
That has some coaches worried about the quick ramp up in Florida. Players only had three weeks after they exited quarantine to reacclimate their bodies to the demands of the N.B.A. That may leave more players susceptible to injury.
“This is a different, unique ramp-up,” Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said. “The physical demand of playing basketball is different than running on a treadmill, doing Peloton, doing workouts in your garage on Zoom. We’ll have basically two weeks to really get to five-on-five.”
Players are still pushing for social justice.
In early June, LeBron James and a group of prominent Black athletes and entertainers — including Trae Young, Draymond Green, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jalen Rose — announced that they would be starting a new group aimed at protecting African-Americans’ voting rights.
“Yes, we want you to go out and vote, but we’re also going to give you the tutorial,” James said of the organization, called More Than a Vote. “We’re going to give you the background of how to vote and what they’re trying to do, the other side, to stop you from voting.