Sports

The NBA Is Back and Nothing Is Normal

Photos of fans on screens beside the court at the first NBA bubble game between the Pelicans and Jazz
Photos of fans on screens during the second half of the NBA game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Utah Jazz at HP Field House at ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on Thursday, in Reunion, Florida. Pool/Getty Images

The NBA is back, baby, and so are all the things you love about the league: virtual fans displayed on giant screens above the court, plexiglass-shielded sideline areas, and aerial shots of empty conference complexes in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. There were also basketball games. The Utah Jazz beat the New Orleans Pelicans 106–104 , and the Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Clippers in the second contest of Thursday’s doubleheader, 103–101.

The NBA’s summer restart was never going to be a return to normalcy. This was immediately noticeable when TNT’s Inside the NBA opened to reveal an extra-long desk that ensured there would be sufficient distance between hosts Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith, and Shaquille O’Neal.

Shaq got stuck in traffic en route to the Atlanta studio and was late to the broadcast. The fact that there was traffic at all is a worrying indicator of mass population movement during a deadly, uncontrolled pandemic, but most of the country doesn’t have the luxury of hermetically sealing themselves inside Walt Disney World like the NBA does.

Before both tip-offs, players, coaches, and officials knelt during pre-recorded performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Many players opted to wear league-approved messages of social justice on the backs of their jerseys, including Donovan Mitchell (“Say Her Name”), Mike Conley (“I Am A Man”), and Danny Green (“How Many More”).

The NBA suspended operations on March 11 after Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and so it was an uncanny bit of coincidence when he scored the very first points of the restart. You needn’t be a spiritual person to understand that this was a sign (that Derrick Favors had bad positioning and gave up the baseline to Gobert).

Gobert also scored the go-ahead free throws for Utah with seven seconds remaining. He now leads the league in plays that can be interpreted as vague metaphors about the restart.

The Pelicans are one of five Western Conference teams (and six teams total) invited to the “bubble” in central Florida who were not in playoff position when the season was suspended in March. Did the NBA expand its field so as to ensure exciting New Orleans rookie Zion Williamson would feature in its restart? You can make cynical presumptions, or you can enjoy the fact that we get to watch Zion play for at least a couple more weeks. (Actually, go ahead and do both!)

Thursday’s second game between the Lakers and Clippers was a possible Western Conference Finals preview, assuming there aren’t any catastrophic bubble breaches that result in the cancellation of the Western Conference Finals. In related news, the Clippers were without sixth man Lou Williams, who is in a mandatory 10-day quarantine after the NBA discovered evidence that he had visited an Atlanta strip club last week while on an excused absence from the Walt Disney World campus. These truly are unprecedented times.

Considering there have been 142 days since the last competitive NBA games, play was not as sloppy on Thurday as one may have imagined it would be. In fact, it was a pretty great game! Turns out Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard are still good at basketball.

Davis finished the game with 34 points, while Leonard had 28. LeBron James had a rougher night shooting the ball (6-for-19 from the field), but still finished the game with 16 points, 11 rebounds, 7 assists, and the Lakers’ go-ahead bucket.

If you got up real close to your TV, you could see that the choppy digital fan avatars enjoyed every second of Thursday’s action. It’s so great to be back.

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