The NBA restarts in Florida with a night that started with Rudy Gobert and ended with LeBron James

Interested in the rousing debate over whether the New Orleans Pelicans are proceeding too cautiously when it comes to their rookie sensation Zion Williamson? As the first game of the night, before the Lakers edged the Clippers 103-101 in the second, the Pelicans were happy to oblige. They lost their tightly contested season reopener to the Utah Jazz, 106-104, and Coach Alvin Gentry kept Williamson on the bench for the crucial final few minutes of the game.

Williamson, who didn’t play in any of his team’s three scrimmages after having to leave the NBA bubble due to a family matter, racked up 13 points in 15 minutes. The former No. 1 pick only played the first three or four minutes of every quarter, but there’s a strong argument that the Pelicans (28-37) needed him down the stretch. (There’s also a strong argument that he and the rest of New Orleans’ defense wore down.) The Pelicans are battling to force a play-in tournament to the playoffs, meaning they need to be within four games of the eighth-place team in the West. They need every win.

This time around, it was Brandon Ingram who led the way with 23 points.

Then again, perhaps Williamson-centric discourse doesn’t wet the whistle. For the sports fan who lives for a touch of kismet, allow Jazz center Rudy Gobert to step in.

Gobert will always be remembered as the NBA’s “Patient Zero” after he tested positive for the novel coronavirus and was the impetus for the league shutting down in March. On Thursday, he scored the first points of the first official game back and hit the free throws that sealed the Jazz’s comeback win with less than seven seconds to play.

Perhaps more significantly for the Jazz (42-23), Gobert and teammate Donovan Mitchell, who also tested positive on March 11, looked great working together against New Orleans. Reports of their frosty relationship swirled after the shutdown — Mitchell told “Good Morning America” he didn’t speak to Gobert after assuming the big man had exposed his teammates to the virus — but Thursday, the pair played in tandem smoothly. Gobert had 14 points and 12 rebounds; Mitchell scored 20 points. Guard Jordan Clarkson led the team with 23 points off the bench.

If their local rivalry a possible preview of the postseason that piques interest most, the Lakers and the Clippers took things across the country and made it seem as though neither team had taken any time off.

The second game of the night looked like every other juicy matchup these teams have played this season, the first two of which were won by the Clippers, with the Lakers taking the past two. While the Clippers appeared more energetic and dynamic early on as the Lakers struggled to find their shots, Anthony Davis helped lift his team and LeBron James sealed the win. The Lakers center dominated with 34 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Guard Alex Caruso proved pivotal on defense late. But in the end, the victory came down to James.

The game felt like a shootout late in the fourth quarter with both teams trading three’s Paul George tied the score at 101 with less than 29 seconds left. But James drove in the lane and tossed up a too-strong floater, caught his own rebound and tipped in a layup with 12.8 seconds to go, giving the Lakers the lead. He wasn’t done yet — the 35-year-old then charged back on defense to both stop Kawhi Leonard from driving and keep George from getting one last good shot off.

James finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. George led the Clippers with 30 points including six three-pointers. Leonard scored 28 points in the second thriller of the night.

As for the broadcasts themselves, the games looked great on TV. With virtual fans and masked sideline reporters conducting interviews at a distance, the viewing experience wasn’t all that different. The quality gameplay and the league’s varied story lines stood out above all else — even Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and the “Inside the NBA” crew on TNT brought their signature loopy banter that made the restart feel something akin to a normal night of basketball, at least for a few hours.

Welcome back, NBA. It’s good to see you again.

Complete highlights and coverage below:

July 31, 2020 at 12:16 AM EDT

Lakers hold off Clippers, 103-101

The NBA’s first night of regular season action since March 11 was an entertaining one, with two closely contested games, the second of which was won by the Los Angeles Lakers over the rival Clippers, 103-101.

The Lakers’ Anthony Davis led all scorers with 34 points and LeBron James hit the game-wining shot, but it was the team’s bench that was the deciding factor.

The Clippers were without two key reserves, Lou Williams (quarantine) and Montrezl Harrell (personal issue). On the other hand, the Lakers are having to forge ahead without an important duo of their own in Rajon Rondo (broken hand) and Avery Bradley (opted out), thrusting the likes of Alex Caruso and Dion Waters into prominent roles.

For one night, at least, Caruso and Waiters came through, as did Kyle Kuzma, who chipped in with 16 points off the bench. That helped offset solid performances by Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard (28 points) and Paul George (30 points).

In the first game of the night, the Jazz nipped the Pelicans, 106-104.

By Des Bieler

July 30, 2020 at 11:43 PM EDT

Lakers, Clippers trade runs in the second half

It hasn’t always been the prettiest basketball between the Lakers and Clippers, but it has been entertaining, in no small part because each team has proved resilient in the face of a major surge.

After the Lakers took a 10-point lead with just over five minutes left in the second quarter, the Clippers went on a 26-5 run to gain an 11-point edge, 66-55, midway through the third. The Lakers then battled back with a 36-14 run of their own, giving them an 91-80 lead with less than eight minutes to play.

Neither team really needs to win this game but both of the crosstown rivals surely would love to send a strong message with a win.

By Des Bieler

July 30, 2020 at 11:15 PM EDT

Idle Steph Curry sends his ‘love’ to NBA players in action

Steph Curry and the Warriors are not in the NBA bubble, but the Golden State superstar sent warm wishes to players getting the NBA return underway in Kissimee, Fla.

“I love every one of my NBA brothers out there! Welcome back,” Curry tweeted as a game between the Lakers and Clippers got underway, following a close win by the Jazz over the Pelicans that kicked off the league’s restart to its 2019-20 season.

The Warriors were among the eight worst teams in the league and thus not invited to the bubble. There was talk earlier this month of the NBA setting up a second bubble for that unfortunate octet, but Curry indicated then that he likely would not participate.

Curry missed almost all of this season with a broken hand, returning just as the NBA paused its season in March to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Warriors, also missing Klay Thompson, had by then notched the league’s worst record at 15-50.

By Des Bieler

July 30, 2020 at 10:46 PM EDT

Clippers cut it close by halftime, Lakers lead, 54-52

The Clippers were behind by a dozen points early in the second quarter, but by the end of it they cut the Lakers’ lead down to just two, 54-52.

Clippers star Kawhi Leonard scored 14 of his team-high 19 points over that span and Paul George chipped in with 11 points in the first half. The Lakers’ Anthony Davis, who shook off an eye injury to score 14 points in the first quarter, had a total of 20 by halftime, while Kyle Kuzma had 10.

The Lakers’ LeBron James had just six points in the first half on 2-of-9 shooting, but he filled the stat sheet with game-leading totals in rebounds (six) and assists (five). Both teams shot poorly from three-point range, with the Lakers hitting three of 15 such attempts while the Clippers made four of 15.

By Des Bieler

July 30, 2020 at 10:14 PM EDT

Anthony Davis gets off to hot start despite eye injury

An eye injury that raised concerns earlier in the week of whether Anthony Davis might even play in Thursday’s restart debut for his Lakers proved to be no impediment to a hot start.

Davis led all scorers in the first quarter with 14 points. He hit three of eight shots from the field and made all eight of his free throws, as the Lakers ended the opening frame with a 35-23 lead on the Clippers. Davis’s fellow superstar on the Lakers, LeBron James, did not score at all in the first quarter, but he dished out five assists.

Davis was poked in the eye during a scrimmage game Saturday. Davis missed a scrimmage game Monday and then a Lakers practice on Tuesday, but he said he was feeling better on Wednesday, when he returned to practice.

Davis wore a protective mask for that practice, but he apparently felt so well on Thursday that he went mask-less, and proceeded to torch the Clippers in the early going.

By Des Bieler

July 30, 2020 at 10:10 PM EDT

You’re going to hear the words ‘seeding games.’ What are they?

Twenty-two of the league’s 32 teams were invited to the bubble for the season’s restart and they will play “seeding games” before the playoffs begin. With these games, teams can improve their playoff positions.

Each team will play eight seeding games, as selected from its remaining regular season matchups.

The first round of the playoffs begins Aug. 17, with conference semifinals starting Aug. 31. Conference finals start Sept. 15, with the NBA Finals getting underway Sept. 30.

By Cindy Boren

July 30, 2020 at 9:53 PM EDT

NBA reportedly stocked lake at players’ complex with fish

It probably hasn’t been like shooting fish in a barrel, but if some NBA players have been enjoying unexpected success of late at reeling in a few catches, there appears to be a reason. Early in the Thursday’s Lakers-Clippers game, TNT reported that the league actually made sure to stock up a lake at the Disney complex near Orlando where the league’s restart is taking place.

The Clippers’ Paul George has been among the players who have shared their fishing exploits on social media. The Mavericks’ Luka Doncic has also been among those angling (ahem) for a reputation as an all-around sportsman.

It’s not like there is a whole lot else to do there, apart from golfing, or, if you are Clippers star Lou Williams — who is sitting out Thursday’s game because he is back in quarantine — using some time away from the bubble to get chicken wings.

By Des Bieler

July 30, 2020 at 9:49 PM EDT

Pelicans keep Zion Williamson on the bench down the stretch of close loss

The Pelicans were apparently very serious about keeping Zion Williamson on a minutes restriction.

The team’s superstar rookie, who started the game but was expected to play in “short bursts,” according to TNT, remained glued to the bench down the stretch of a 106-104 loss to the Jazz. That was the case despite the fact that his New Orleans squad was nip-and-tuck with Utah in the final few minutes of a game the Pelicans desperately needed to win to help their playoff chances.

The Jazz grabbed the win in the NBA’s first game of its restart to the 2019-20 season. Last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick scored 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting over 15 total minutes on the court.

New Orleans’s Brandon Ingram and Utah’s Jordan Clarkson led all scorers with 23 points each. The Pelicans shot better from three-point range (11-31) than the Jazz (8-34), Utah got to the line 10 more times and ended up hitting 11 more free throws.

By Des Bieler

July 30, 2020 at 9:32 PM EDT

Lakers, Clippers kneel for anthem

The Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers repeated the scene from earlier in the evening, kneeling with arms linked and heads bowed during the national anthem.

The Compton Kids Club sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and players, like those from the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans earlier, wore “Black Lives Matter” shirts. They were joined in their demonstration by coaches and referees.

By Cindy Boren

July 30, 2020 at 9:16 PM EDT

Lakers-Clippers: What you need to know

How to watch Clippers-Lakers:

  • Time: 9 p.m. Eastern
  • Location: the Arena (Wide World of Sports) in Orlando
  • TV: TNT

Kawhi Leonard has been off in scrimmages in Florida, and Montrezl Harrell has yet to return to the bubble after getting permission to leave to attend to a personal matter.

Patrick Beverley has returned after being excused to leave the bubble because of a family emergency and Coach Doc Rivers said Beverley is a “maybe” to play against the Lakers.

Los Angeles Lakers (49-14): There couldn’t really be a season opener without LeBron James, but, like the Clippers, there are a couple of personnel issues.

Lakers Coach Frank Vogel said Anthony Davis, who was poked in the eye during a scrimmage earlier in the week, will play but he wasn’t sure whether Davis would go with the goggles look.

By Cindy Boren

July 30, 2020 at 9:01 PM EDT

Jazz fight back from double-digit deficit, grab fourth-quarter lead

As NBA games go, the Pelicans-Jazz game that kicked the season back into gear looked like what it was: the first competitive game for teams who had only a couple of weeks of scrimmages after a four-month layoff.

The play in HP Arena inside the league’s coronavirus bubble was ragged at times, but it tightened down the stretch, with the Jazz taking a 98-97 lead with just over 4 minutes left in the game. It was Utah’s first lead since a 23-21 edge in the first quarter. That basket, by Donovan Mitchell, capped a 9-1 run.

Zion Williamson, the No. 1 draft pick in 2019, had a sweet, behind-the-back bounce pass to Lonzo Ball was one of his best moments and might have been enough to satisfy fans thirsty for the resumption of sports.

By Cindy Boren

July 30, 2020 at 8:04 PM EDT

Adam Silver says players won’t be punished for anthem protest

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Thursday night that members of the Pelicans and Jazz would face not punishment for taking a knee during the playing of the national anthem.

“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice,” Silver said, “and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem.”

That “long-standing rule,” which has existed since 1981, requires players, trainers and coaches to stand “in a dignified posture” during the playing of the anthem. The NBA opted not to change that in 2018, when it sent a memo shortly after training camps that reinforced that players would still be required to stand for the anthem. But it also offered several ways that teams could continue to create dialogue with players and their communities about the protest movement.

“None of us operates in a vacuum,” Silver and NBPA head Michelle Roberts said in the letter at that time. “Critical issues that affect our society also impact you directly. Fortunately, you are not only the world’s greatest basketball players — you have real power to make a difference in the world, and we want you know that the Players Association and the League are always available to help you figure out the most meaningful way to make that difference.”

By Cindy Boren

July 30, 2020 at 8:02 PM EDT

Jazz lead Pelicans by 12 at halftime

The first basket of the NBA’s restarted season went, perhaps fittingly, to Rudy Gobert, whose positive coronavirus test spurred the league to shut down the season in March.

Also fitting, given that the league’s decision to expand its rejiggered field to 22 teams enabled Zion Williamson to extend his rookie season, the NBA’s most marketable young star made the second basket.

After an emotional national anthem, the teams looked a little ragged from the months off and were playing without fans on a neutral court. But, with Williamson starting, New Orleans went on an 18-4 burst at the end of the first quarter for a 26-23 lead as the second quarter began.

Utah fell behind early in the second but cut its deficit back to three before the young Pelicans went on another run, and they went to halftime with a 60-48 lead.

New Orleans’s Brandon Ingram led all scorers with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, while Williamson hit all four of his field goals en route to nine points. Mike Conley led the Jazz over the first two quarters with 14 points.

By Cindy Boren and Des Bieler

July 30, 2020 at 7:26 PM EDT

During the restart, players use their jerseys to push for social justice

The NBA is allowing players to put social justice messages on the backs of their jerseys during its restart in Florida.

Utah guard Mike Conley said he chose “I am a man,” in honor of a 1968 strike by Black sanitation workers in Memphis.

“It was something I consulted my family on,” Conley, who played his career before this season with the Memphis Grizzlies, said recently. “It’s something we thought was powerful, especially because that came from Memphis. … It means a lot to put that on the back of my jersey and be able to represent everyone behind me.”

The Washington Post compiled a list of the messages players have picked during the restart. Read it here.

By Des Bieler