LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Virtual fans and piped in crowd noise. A head-to-head between two ex-Finals MVPs played in front of a smattering of real faces. A battle for Los Angeles some 3,000 miles from Staples Center.
The NBA is back.
Opening night in the NBA’s resumed season was finally upon us Thursday, and what a strange experience. A late-season Lakers-Clippers game would be a near impossible ticket in Los Angeles. Fans would pack LA Live hours before tipoff. Scalpers would have a field day. In the bubble, witnesses to this marquee matchup were a dozen or so media members, a few more NBA staffers and a handful of players who bussed over to watch from socially distanced seats.
Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers legendary public address announcer, provided the introductions, pre-recorded.
During timeouts, the Lakers' usual in-game entertainment played on a courtside screen.
For who, exactly, is a little unclear.
The social justice movement sweeping America has been emphasized during the NBA’s restart, and continued on Thursday. Players took to the floor in black T-shirts, with BLACK LIVES MATTER imprinted on the front. Social justice messages replaced names on the backs of jerseys. A two-minute video highlighting the movement played after warmups. Hours earlier, in a gym a football field away, the Pelicans and Jazz kneeled for the national anthem. The Lakers and Clippers did the same, linking arms while a pre-taped rendition by the Compton Kid’s Club boomed through speakers hanging from the rafters.
As he kneeled, his 58-year old knee aching, Clippers coach Doc Rivers mind drifted to George Floyd, whose death at the knee of a Minnesota police officer ignited the movement.
“The hardest thing that happened to me in the game today was kneeling for two minutes,” Rivers said. “My knee would hurt. In the middle of it, I’m thinking in two minutes my knee is hurting, yet there was a guy who had a knee to someone’s neck for eight minutes. There were guys that needed towels and things to get onto their knee. And someone kneeled on another human being's neck for eight minutes. That’s nuts when you think about it.”
The game, predictably, wasn’t pretty. No one expected a three-week training camp and three scrimmages to wipe away the corrosive effects of a four-month hiatus. And it didn’t. The first quarter was abysmal. The two teams combined for 21 fouls. The Lakers made two of eight three-point attempts. That’s sharp shooting compared to the Clippers, who missed all seven. Anthony Davis scored 14 points in the first quarter. The Lakers ended it with a 12-point lead.
The Clippers could have folded. It has been a tough month for L.A.’s other team. The roster has been ravaged by illness and outside issues. Two of the NBA’s top sixth men—Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell—didn’t play. Marcus Morris was a late arrival. Ivica Zubac, diagnosed with COVID-19 in late June, just returned to practice this week. Patrick Beverley is still working his way back into game shape.
The Clippers didn’t quit. They sliced ten points off the Lakers lead in the second quarter. They built an 11-point lead in the third quarter. They held a lead entering the fourth. Paul George (30 points) and Kawhi Leonard (28) took over, raining threes, nine of them, over Lakers defenders.
A George triple evened the game with 28 seconds left, and that’s when, again, you felt the bizarreness of the moment. Tie game, two of the Western Conference elite, and in normal times a crowd of 20,000-plus would be roaring. Instead, the hoarse voice of Rivers could be heard over the music. Beverley barked out defensive instructions. When James tipped in his own miss with 13 seconds left, the only sound came from the Lakers bench.
James wasn’t done, either. On the Clippers' final possession, James glued himself to Leonard. Bottled up, Leonard flipped the ball to George. James switched out on him. With James on his hip, George attempted an off-balance three-pointer that rimmed off.
One defensive possession, two elite defensive plays.
Not bad for a 35-year-old in his 17th season.
“Rhythm, as far as offensively, making shots, those things are going to take a little bit longer to get back,” James said. “But the one thing you can do is defend. You can always communicate … you can have teammates who back you up when you make a mistake. Communication on the defensive side is something that should always be on point.”
One game down, seven to go before the playoffs and both teams know there is work to do. “To me, we have a long way to go to reach the habits and discipline we were playing with when we entered the hiatus,” said Frank Vogel. Conditioning remains a factor. Three-point shooting percentages will rise. The in-game experience will continue to be an adjustment—some 300 Lakers fans video conferenced in to watch the game—as will playing without the energy of a crowd.
“When we’re out there playing, we don’t really notice there are no fans at the game,” Davis said. “We just go out there and compete and just try to get the win. They do a good job with the crowd noise … but when we’re out there competing, it’s just the five of us … the more we use this arena, the easier it will be.”
The games won’t be pretty. The environment will be strange. But four-plus months after a global pandemic halted its season, the NBA is back. For the players, for the league, that’s all that matters.