LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- The Spalding basketball embossed with the name Adam Silver officially bounced again for the first time in 140 days, 21 hours and 30 minutes.
The first basket since March 11 was scored by Rudy Gobert, an inescapable coincidence since Gobert's positive test for the coronavirus caused the NBA to shut down on that date. Gobert's jersey features the word "Equality" on its back, a social justice message now allowed by the league.
When the NBA resumed play Thursday, other changes were also vibrantly noticeable. The 2019-20 season moved to a pair of compact gyms on Walt Disney World property. Along with Gobert, the majority of players wore social justice messages stitched on the back of their jerseys, a reflection of a collective concern for a national uptick in racial incidents. Players and coaches for the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts, locked arms and knelt in solidarity during the national anthem and were joined by the three referees. The same scene played out hours later when the Lakers and Clippers resumed their crosstown rivalry 2,500 miles away from Los Angeles.
That was the start. The finish was just as dramatic. Shortly after midnight Eastern time, LeBron James locked up Kawhi Leonard and Paul George while hitting the eventual game-winning basket in the Lakers’ comeback victory. And so: A pair of two-point reopening night thrillers was only the appetizer; there’s now basketball tomorrow and next week and the next two months, science willing.
“Basketball is back,” said George. “Fans wanted it, we wanted it.”
Yes, but basketball returned only on certain, inflexible terms: No fans were allowed of course, daily Covid-19 testing on the restricted Disney campus to ensure protection for all, and players could voice and display their social justice messages.
The early reviews are extremely positive and encouraging for an experiment projected to last until mid-October. No player has tested positive since the Disney campus opened three weeks ago. And Silver, the NBA Commissioner, eagerly and understandably made a concession to an NBA rule that normally would restrict a manner of protest.
“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice,” he said. “And under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem.”
The cosmetics are getting retouched, too. Players who choose social messages will have those words stitched above the numbers; those who stick with their normal names have them below the numbers. Also, the coaching staffs are not required to wear suits and many will go with polo shirts.
The creative ways the NBA is trying to replicate an atmosphere were unveiled for the re-opening games, and inside the arena felt very Playstation-like. Video boards surrounded the court on three sides and fans “attended” while being superimposed in 4K. Whenever the “road team” Clippers went to the free-throw line, fans waved. Lawrence Tantor, the long-time Laker public address announcer, pre-recorded the player intros for the “home team” Lakers.
But technology can only do so much. Without 18,000 strong inside the building, the genuine sounds of a basketball game, normally muffled by crowd noise, came to life. Coaches shouting instructions were heard clearly. Players on the floor talked trash; Kawhi telling LeBron he got “all ball.” Same for players on the bench; when George drew a foul from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Patrick Beverley jumped from his chair and screamed: “He cannot guard you,” a message perhaps intended more for KCP than George.
Both Los Angeles teams are now battling to be kings of Orlando, a curious civic switch made necessary by coronavirus. Before the season reboot, the Clippers owned the head-to-head record but that’s now tied 2-2 and LeBron and friends just put more distance between themselves and the second-place Clippers in the West standings.
Since there’s no advantage from a home-court standpoint, the pecking order in either conference carries little weight other than strategical matchups. Therefore, the latest version of Lakers-Clippers was strictly for show, nothing more, until they possibly meet again in the next several weeks for higher stakes.
LeBron’s re-debut was memorable for his work on both ends. His basket with 12.8 seconds left capped a rally from 11 points down. He made the game-saving defensive stop on George at the buzzer. He also prevented Kawhi from releasing a shot on consecutive late-game possessions.
LeBron’s late-game heroics, along with 34 points from Anthony Davis, were too much for a Clippers’ team missing twin bench terrors Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, one in quarantine, the other tending to family matters.
“I’m only worried about one team,” said Davis, “and that’s the Lakers.”
The game with the heavier meaning Thursday was Pelicans-Jazz with the burden squarely on New Orleans because the Pelicans are fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. And here’s what we can deduce after Thursday’s game, a two-point Utah win: New Orleans is putting a higher premium on Zion Williamson’s fitness and health than that spot.
Otherwise, why keep Williamson on a minutes restriction (he played only 15) and confine him to the bench during the fourth-quarter moment of truth?
Williamson did leave the Disney campus due to a family matter and just returned a few days prior to tip. Also, he missed the first three months of the season after arthroscopic knee surgery, and obviously there was the four-month pandemic layoff. Essentially, then, Williamson has been a rare sighting in practices and games in this, a most inactive rookie season.
Without Williamson the Pelicans had few answers and options when the Jazz rallied for a comeback and pulled away in the final seconds.
"Of course we wish we could've played him down the stretch, but we used the minutes that were given to us and that's the way it is,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “The medical people said we played them in the minutes that we’re allowed for us to play him, and just move on.”
This might be an issue as the Pelicans progress through the eight-game seeded segment of the schedule; they need to be at least four games behind the eighth-place team -- that the Memphis Grizzlies at the moment -- to have any chance at staying in Orlando. At stake is a potential Zion-LeBron ratings-busting first-round matchup.
“Yeah, I wanted to be out there,” said Williamson, “but I was just working my way back into my flow. That's all it is. Every competitor wants to win every game. But it's just a learning curve, and we're gonna get past it. It is frustrating, but it's not so frustrating because they could probably not even let me play.”
In the big picture, all things considered, there isn’t any legitimate reason for frustration, not for Williamson or anyone else in the hermetically-sealed Disney campus or among basketball fans. Coaches are coaching again, players are playing again, fans are cheering again, at least online in the comfort of their homes.
Here in the midst of a global health crisis, and inside a state where it rages, the NBA has set up a safe space to get back to business. The ball has bounce again, and so does the 35-year-old legs on LeBron, and same for the interrupted 2019-20 season.