Opening Night Preview: The NBA has returned

Cameron Fields

July 30 isn't nearly a typical opening night for hoops.

But the situation the NBA and rest of the country has gone through since March isn't even close to typical.

After there was doubt the NBA would return, the league has made it to its opening night. The Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans will kick the restart off Thursday with their game at 6:30 p.m. ET. Then, the Battle of Los Angeles will ensue. The Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers, the top two teams in the Western Conference, will play at 9 p.m. 

The eight seeding games will be a chance for teams with playoff berths to regain momentum. But for teams like the Pelicans, every game will matter as they look to push into the postseason.

Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans

The Pelicans are the 10th seed in the West and are 3.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. But as they begin their road to a possible playoff spot, they could be without one of their best players. 

According to Mark Medina of USA TODAY, coach Alvin Gentry said Wednesday that Zion Williamson will be a game-time decision. 

Williamson had to leave the bubble to tend to an "urgent family medical matter," per ESPN's Andrew Lopez. Williamson didn't participate in any of the scrimmages, and he returned to practice Tuesday. 

The Pelicans are a fast team, as they were ranked second in pace before the shutdown. But Williamson is a huge reason for that. His ability to streak down the floor and score in transition is one of his best attributes. 

And with a point guard like Lonzo Ball at the helm, Williamson can receive a bevy of alley oops and touches. 

The Jazz have arguably the best interior defender in the league in Rudy Gobert, though. A two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert is a strong candidate to win the award this season. He has swatted 2.0 blocks per game this season, and he is second in the NBA for contested shots per game (16.4). 

With Gobert in the middle, shots at the rim will be difficult for New Orleans -- especially if Williamson, an athletic slasher, doesn't play. Williamson played 19 games before the restart, and he leads New Orleans in points in the paint (17.3).

Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers

What more could a hoops fan want than seeing LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard battle? 

James and Leonard have produced one of the league's most intriguing marquee matchups this season. The Lakers lost their first two meetings against the Clippers, but snagged the one in March shortly before the shutdown. 

Both teams looked like they were prepared for the restart in the scrimmages. For Thursday, though, the Lakers may have the upper hand. 

The Clippers won't have Lou Williams or Montrezl Harrell. Williams must quarantine for 10 days. He had an excused absence to go to the viewing of a family friend's late father, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne. But he also went to gentleman's club Magic City to get food. 

Harrell left to attend to a family emergency, and he has not returned. When Harrell will return to the bubble is unknown, according to Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports. Patrick Beverley came back to the bubble Sunday, but his status is questionable because he is still quarantining, according to Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times. 

Since the Lakers and Clippers are locked for the playoffs, this game doesn't mean a whole lot. It's the first seeding game -- it's a chance for playoff teams to feel things out. 

Still, rebuilding chemistry and momentum will be key with not much time before the postseason begins. The playoffs are set to start Aug. 17. 

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