31 July 2020 10:42
As much as Thursday night was a celebration of basketball's return, it was also a showcase of two of the NBA's most charismatic teams and four of its most dynamic players, lest we forget. The game's introduction was a collective expression of protest and unity, with players wearing black T-shirts with "Black Lives Matter" etched in white across their chests. Thursday night's production felt more like a minimalist Las Vegas Summer League affair than the pyrotechnics and buzz that have come to define an NBA arena on a big night. Though the Lakers were the nominal "home team" on Thursday night in Florida, none of the hallmarks of the recent intracity matchups were present 2,200 miles from Los Angeles: There were no competing fan bases yelling over each other in the lower bowl of Staples Center. The action was predictably craggy given the length of the suspension--and the 65 free throw attempts--but LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George provided a reminder that however adverse the restrictions and conditions, even rusty superstars propel the NBA product.
That Davis shook off an eye injury when the Lakers have all but sewed up the top seed in the West suggests that after a hiatus of more than four months, meaningful games conjure up the competitive spirit of those stars. Davis looked the best of the bunch, scoring 34 points--inside, from the short corners and the stripe. James struggled through much of the evening but notched two of the biggest buckets when he rumbled to the rim against the Clippers' late help defense inside of two minutes, then converted an aggressive putback off his own miss with 12.8 seconds with the score tied. But Thursday night wasn't about the power balance of the West, bragging rights in a city neither team will step foot in for months or even a celebration of sport. Before the virtual American flags began to ripple and the first notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" rang out, Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans players and coaches were already getting down on a bent knee.
The protest wasn't unexpected: Players had been talking about using games to amplify their social justice message for months. But from the moment he walked into the NBA, he has had that something--bravado, fearlessness, guts--any team with serious ambitions needs from its star. Mitchell scored eight points in the game's final 4 minutes, 9 seconds Thursday after having spent most of the first three quarters fending off very rude defense from Jrue Holiday. On Thursday, the Jazz plugged different players into Bogdanovic's spots in some of their fast-moving, complex set pieces. Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry cautioned on the eve of this NBA restart that Zion Williamson's minutes against the Jazz would be limited to a series of "short bursts." During Williamson's short NBA career, he has managed to generate at least one moment in each game that prompts those unscripted squeals of "Zion!" On Thursday night, it was his flawless no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass in transition to Lonzo Ball for a layup. Williamson finished with a tidy 13 points in 15 minutes, though he was strangely unimpactful on the glass and clearly needs to get in better shape if he plans on contributing NBA-caliber defense. This is the NBA, this is the best players in the world, and you want to feel comfortable. Caruso figured to see his role increase more than any other Lakers player, and his 27:50 of action Thursday was the fourth-most playing time he has had all season. Caruso finished the game alongside LeBron James in the backcourt and came up with a pair of key scores down the stretch. In his Lakers debut, Waiters looked capable of contributing after playing only three games for the Miami Heat before being waived by the Memphis Grizzlies following a deadline trade. Waiters' shot creation was important for the Lakers' second unit, and though he missed five of his six 3-point attempts, he was a perfect 4-for-4 inside the arc. The Lakers outscored the Clippers by a team-best 17 points during Waiters' 21 minutes. Having no fans in the stands was a necessary condition for the NBA to restart, with the league recognizing just how untenable it would be to try to shield its players from the coronavirus if thousands of people came through the gates each game. However, Lakers-Clippers ended up providing a fan element that, while much smaller (and quieter) than the 20,000 spectators an NBA matchup like this one normally attracts, still enhanced the experience. In the weeks spent in Orlando, Florida, leading up to the seeding games, players comparing the bubble life to their childhood AAU memories became a common refrain. The best sequence involving the All-Star fans might have come when LeBron James was off on a 3 as Patrick Beverley crowded him with a contest late in the first quarter, the ball barely grazing the rim. An unforgettable Lakers-Clippers game The fact that Thursday night's game between the Lakers and Clippers was effectively the replay of that game is staggering. But this fourth game in the season series--going down to the wire, inside a Florida bubble, featuring numerous acts of players demanding social justice--was unforgettable in ways we might never be able to fully process. LeBron James, the king of efficiency, has made just 37% of his shots in four games against the Clippers this season. The thing that stood out the most from watching Jazz-Pelicans inside HP Field House was how normal the game itself seemed, yet how truly strange everything around it was at the same time. If you kept your eyes focused on the court, the play looked just like any other NBA game. That isn't something that would be heard during a typical NBA game. It's been more than four months since we last played NBA basketball. Tonight we restart the season with 22 teams in Orlando and attempt to establish our new normal. We're introducing several elements to improve the live game viewing experience, including multiple, new camera angles, enhanced audio of players and coaches, a feature on our NBA app that allows for virtual crowd reactions, customized alternative streams on NBA League Pass with statistical overlays and influencers calling the action, and video boards surrounding the court featuring hundreds of fans watching from home. It's an opportunity for NBA players and teams to continue a longstanding tradition of addressing important issues around social justice. These are difficult and challenging times, but the NBA is coming back because sports matter in society.