What we saw and heard during opening night in the NBA bubble

It’s not easy to recall the storylines and themes that dominated the 2019-20 NBA season prior to its suspension, which seems like eons ago. But the battle for supremacy between the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers in their home market — and more largely the Western Conference — was a highlight. 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. Arms interlocked along the entire length of the sideline, players and staff from both teams knelt on the court during the national anthem. This scene of sober solidarity in a sparsely populated gym of masked onlookers captured the two stories that have upended the nation — and the NBA.

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. Despite the relatively quiet confines of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, the Lakers and Clippers delivered all the intensity of a Staples Center showdown, with the Lakers scoring a 103-101 victory.

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 one another in the lower bowl of Staples Center. No Steve Ballmer convulsing in glee under the home basket. No celebrity sightings courtside. Like much of life in 2020, the faces that appeared in the stands were just digital renderings.

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. George looked like his best, healthiest self. Both he and Leonard controlled their share of possessions. 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 in a tie game. He also played the role of defensive stopper in the final possession.

In competitive terms, the Lakers’ win held little relevance. The Lakers have plenty of cushion atop the Western Conference, while the Clippers are less concerned with seeding and standings than cohesion and health. 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. It was the first trial of the NBA’s bold experiment. — Kevin Arnovitz


Our NBA experts’ biggest takeaways from opening night

A powerful pregame message

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 three game referees knelt, too.

The protest wasn’t unexpected: Players had been talking about using games to amplify their social justice message for months. Still, the symbolism was powerful. Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, wiped away tears. Several NBA personnel members clapped for the players after the anthem ended. And following the game, players made it clear that they plan to continue kneeling.

“The ‘stick to sports’ crowd, ‘keep politics out of sports’ — all those things, they’re meaningless now,” Pelicans guard JJ Redick said. “You can’t. Politics and sports coexist now. And the league has recognized that.” — Malika Andrews


Utah’s early attempt at reinvention

Donovan Mitchell‘s playmaking isn’t quite where it needs to be. His defense comes and goes; he got hung up on several screens Thursday. 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. He put the Jazz ahead with a double crisscross against Holiday, and a dump-off to Rudy Gobertpoetic on about five different levels.

The drive started with Mitchell’s back foot perilously close to half court. So did two other stutter-stepping forays in crunch time — one that ended with a foul on Brandon Ingram, and a pick-and-roll Mitchell punctuated with a step-back. They were basketball stripped to its bones: retreat as far as rules permit, and have a big guy screen for you.

Utah will default to simplicity in reinventing itself without Bojan Bogdanovic — its only true off-ball gunner. On Thursday, the Jazz plugged different players into Bogdanovic’s spots in some of their fast-moving, complex set pieces. Royce O’Neale jacked seven 3s, an encouraging example of Bogdanovic mimicry.

But no remaining Jazz man approximates Bogdanovic’s game. What many of them — Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, the always-burrowing Jordan Clarkson — can do is get where they want to go off the bounce. That doesn’t make for as pretty of an offense. Utah dished only 17 dimes on 37 baskets. The Jazz scored 103.9 points per 100 possessions — a mark that would rank dead last overall for the season. They might well have lost if Zion Williamson played longer, though Williamson was minus-16 with zero rebounds.

Utah did not play with its normal flow. The Jazz leaned on their remaining bedrock skill — ballhandling everywhere, Gobert the screen machine — to manufacture enough buckets. If Utah can find the right balance between system and individual creation, it will be a tough first-round out. — Zach Lowe

Zion back

He’s the kind of player who’s already on a first-name basis with the world, whose bouncing, bruising, bubbly vibe prompts you to instinctively add an exclamation point to his moniker.

Zion!

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.”

The rookie appeared to take his coach literally. The moment he entered the game, he exploded to the basket with the brute force of a locomotive barreling down a mountain. No wonder conspiracy theorists believe the league expanded the bubble to 22 teams just so the Pelicans and their wunderkind could have a chance at the postseason.

Williamson left the bubble on July 16 for an “urgent family medical matter,” putting his availability — and conditioning — in question. Thus, he rarely spent longer than three or four eventful minutes on the court Thursday evening before he retreated back to the bench to catch his breath.

He made the most of his cameos, efficiently sniffing out buckets, eschewing open looks in favor of feeding his New Orleans teammates. His unorthodox gait and physique are mesmerizing. There has never been anyone who has quite looked like him before, this curious combination of bulk and agility.

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. It would have been a nifty play for a veteran point guard. For a 20-year-old, 280-pound forward, it was a marvel.

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. Afterward, he conceded, “It’s not even just conditioning, it’s just getting my flow to the game back. This is the NBA, this is the best players in the world, and you want to feel comfortable. I don’t want to hurt my team more than I helped them in a sense, if you understand me.”

We do, but no matter. Zion is back in the bubble, where he belongs, cinching the Pelicans as must-see TV. — Jackie MacMullan


The Lakers’ new backcourt comes through

Any questions about the Lakers entering the restart of the season revolved around the backcourt, where they saw starter Avery Bradley decide against participating and backup Rajon Rondo suffer a thumb fracture in practice that is expected to sideline him six to eight weeks.

In their opener, the Lakers got along just fine without Bradley and Rondo thanks to the contributions of reserves Alex Caruso and Dion Waiters. 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’s seen 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 just 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 of action.

The Lakers didn’t get as much from their other newcomer, JR Smith, who was scoreless in eight minutes of playing time. Still, they have to feel good about how they were able to fill in for Bradley and Rondo on Night 1 of the restart. — Kevin Pelton


All-Star fandom

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.

About a dozen players on other teams in the bubble — including Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony of the Portland Trail Blazers; Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder; DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay of the San Antonio Spurs; and Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors — used their off night to watch some of their peers perform.

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. And seeing that collection of accomplished players show up to the game in casual gear — hoodies, sweats, shorts and baseball hats — conjured up thoughts of a group of teenagers in it for the sport, rather than the polished image that professional athletes often project as part of their brand.

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. Beverley first shot James an indignant look of disbelief as if to say, “You missed that bad?” and then turned to share that same quizzical glance in the direction of the players, causing several of them to double over in laughter. — Dave McMenamin


An unforgettable Lakers-Clippers game

Every time I looked at the TNT studio crew, extra socially distanced on their Atlanta set on Thursday night, I kept thinking of the night they all sat extra close together, on the Staples Center court, grieving after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash.

That was Jan. 28, two nights after the crash. The game between the Clippers and Lakers had been cancelled to allow the Lakers space to mourn. It was supposed to be replayed April 9, at the end of the regular season, when both teams were ramping up for the playoffs. I remember how strange we all felt that night. How surreal it was.

The fact that Thursday night’s game between the Lakers and Clippers was effectively the replay of that game is staggering.

This season has been defined by the rivalry between the Lakers and Clippers since last July, when Paul George and Kawhi Leonard spurned the Lakers to join forces on the Clippers. Each game between them has been memorable. 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. — Ramona Shelburne


The player of the night

Man, Anthony Davis did exactly what the Lakers needed him to do in this one.

LeBron James, the king of efficiency, has made just 37% of his shots in four games against the Clippers this season. But while the Clips’ incredible wing defenders might be able to slow down James, their bigs don’t have any answers for Davis — and it showed.

The Brow punished the undersized Clippers and gave the Lakers 34 huge points on 19 shots. Davis owned the paint, drawing foul after foul and ending the game with 16 points at the line. If Davis can consistently overpower smaller bigs, the Lakers are in great shape.

— Kirk Goldsberry


Getting used to the weird

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. There were benches cheering good plays and booing bad calls. There were the usual pleas with the referees for assistance, lots of sneaker squeaking and the game generally playing out in pretty entertaining, high-quality fashion.

Look or listen anywhere else, though, and things quickly got weird. The cheering crowd noise that was pumped into the building was off-putting at best and simply didn’t fit with the proceedings. Often it sounded like just white noise. And, without fans yelling, it was fascinating to hear actual chatter on the court. With four minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Jazz forward Joe Ingles was imploring his teammates to push the pace.

“Go! Go! Go!” he shouted. “They are all tired. Go!”

That isn’t something that would be heard during a typical NBA game. The players noticed the differences, too.

“It’s still weird,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said postgame. “That’s never not going to be weird. There was one play out there where you can hear the [ball] slap. Usually with the crowd, you can’t hear that slap down, because it is so subtle. But when you don’t have people out there it seems like it’s super loud.”

Meanwhile, the virtual fan boards rimming the court are a cool idea, but struggled in the execution. They were glitchy, more of a distraction than an aid to the viewing experience. Most of the time, the people didn’t seem to be reacting to the action.

Of course, there’s a learning curve here for everyone. The league will surely make changes as things go along to try to improve the viewing and playing experience. But it’s definitely going to take some getting used to. — Tim Bontemps

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