Over a thrilling two hours, the Lakers and Clippers squelched one of the biggest concerns about the bubble: Would games without fans be as intense and interesting?
There weren't 19,00 fans screaming. There weren't deafening cheers. Or wild boos.
But after Paul George made a three-pointer with 28.7 seconds left to tie the score at 101-101, the suspense was thick. And when LeBron James responded by shooting a jumper that clanked off the rim -- then flew through the lane to grab his own rebound and make a tip layup with 12.8 seconds remaining, the thrill was palpable.
The Lakers' 103-101 win over their Western Conference rivals in the teams' bubble opener at Walt Disney World on Thursday was a relief. Basketball is back. And it's just as good.
"No matter what the cause is, no matter what the bubble is, no fans or fans, basketball is basketball and competitive spirit is competitive spirit, so we got right back to where we left off," James said.
The night began with all players and coaches on the Lakers and Clippers linking arms and kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial injustice.
"I hope we made Kaep proud," James said of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled in protest of police brutality and racism in 2016. "...When he talked about why he was kneeling, it had absolutely nothing to do about the flag, had absolutely nothing to do about the soldiers, the men and women that keep our land free. He explained that and the ears were uncomfortable. People never listened. They refused to listen and I did. And a lot of my people in the Black community did listen. And we just thank him for sacrificing everything that he did to put us in a [situation where] today, even years later, to be able to have that moment like we did tonight."
The Lakers and Clippers then played in their first game in 142 days since the season was suspended March 11 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a lot of rust, with the teams combining for 36 turnovers. And there were some kinks, with each team going through stretches where they couldn't make a shot.
But overall, it was just what fans had hoped it would be.
It was fun.
"It felt like a real game to me -- two teams battling," Anthony Davis said.
James had a slow night offensively, making only six of his 19 shots (31.6 percent). But he impacted the game in other ways, finishing with 11 rebounds and seven assists -- and went on to make the biggest shot of the night followed by a brilliant defensive play in which he forced the ball out of Kawhi Leonard's hands and then defended George as he missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.
"I love having the ball in my hands late in the game, tie game, being down, being up," James said. "We had a three-point game with like 40 seconds to go, we got a great look for Danny [Green], he missed it. Paul George came back and hit a three to tie the game. And for me just to try to be aggressive. I felt like I got some contact at the elbow by Marcus Morris. They didn’t call it. But like you was told when you was a kid when you start playing basketball, if there’s no whistle you keep playing on. I was able to follow my shot and put us up and put us up for good."
But it was Davis who kept the Lakers alive.
He had 14 points in the first quarter and 32 points through three quarters, helping the Lakers overcome a period spanning late in the second quarter to the top of the third where they went 1-for-19 from the field. Davis made back-to-back three-pointers over a 32-second period late in the third quarter.
"AD down the stretch of the third quarter really carried us, carried the bulk of the scoring load and defensively," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. "And we were able to get back in the game despite the early run by the Clippers."
The Clippers, who were without Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell, were led by Paul George's 30 points on 11-for-17 shooting and Kawhi Leonard's 28 points.
The Lakers are one win away from securing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference and improved to 50-14, taking a 6 1/2 game lead over the second-seeded Clippers (44-21).
James said that it felt great to compete again.
And the rest of us were assured that even though things are very different, they are still very much the same.
"We are in the land of the unknown and things are happening for the first time, so you just take it for what it is," James said. "Don’t take the moment for granted because we’re still living and we’re alive and we’re back to doing what we love."