LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — After 141 days, the NBA returned inside of the bubble with a doubleheader at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort on Thursday night.
LeBron James closed the show by following his own miss and hitting the go-ahead tip-in basket with 12.8 seconds remaining, then pressured Paul George into an errant shot to give the Los Angeles Lakers a 103-101 win over the LA Clippers.
In the first matchup of the night, Rudy Gobert sank two free throws with 6.9 seconds left to cap a 14-point, 12-rebound and three-block performance, giving the Utah Jazz a 106-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans.
Here’s the latest on the standings, the games to watch Thursday and Friday, plus everything you need to know. Check back here for highlights and updates throughout the day.
NBA puts social messaging above player names
While the backs of the uniforms of players such as Alex Caruso (“Black Lives Matter”) and Marcus Morris Sr. (“Education Reform”) looked different, so, too, did uniforms worn by players who chose to keep their last names rather than swap them out with a social justice message. LeBron James‘ surname appeared below the No. 23 on his gold Lakers jersey, rather than above it. As did Kawhi Leonard‘s last name, appearing underneath No. 2 on his white Clippers kit.
The messages being placed above the uniform number, where the player name would typically appear, was requested by players to show that the message is more important than their name, a source with knowledge of the league’s plans for the restart told ESPN. For the players who chose no message and just their name, it is placed below for consistency. For the restart, above the number is reserved for messages and below for names.
King James takes flight in the bubble
LeBron James struggled to score in his first game back after 141 days off, but the Lakers’ star hasn’t forgotten how to finish big in traffic.
— NBA (@NBA) July 31, 2020
NBA players are fans, too
Who said NBA games were being played without fans?
With 22 teams in the bubble and only four in action Thursday night, players who had the day off took the opportunity to watch Clippers-Lakers live in The Arena at ESPN Wide World of Sports.
A group of NBA players have arrived about 20 minutes before tipoff to watch Lakers-Clippers and are sitting near midcourt. The group includes Dame Lillard, CJ McCollum, DeMar DeRozan, Carmelo Anthony and a couple others so far.
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) July 31, 2020
Lonzo with the alley, Zion with the oop
Before Thursday, Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson had played only 19 games together, but they formed an instant on-court connection in that short time. Ball averaged 3.0 assists per game to Williamson, the third-most for any duo in the NBA. And even though Williamson didn’t play in any of the Pelicans’ scrimmages, they didn’t show any rust in connecting again.
— NBA (@NBA) July 30, 2020
Williamson is playing in “short bursts” against the Jazz. In his first two stints, lasting a total of seven minutes, he was 4-for-4 from the field for nine points.
Gobert throws a block party
Rudy Gobert might have scored the first points of the NBA restart, but the Jazz center is still best known for his defense, and he showed why Thursday night.
— NBA (@NBA) July 31, 2020
Unfortunately for Gobert, this block won’t help his case to win a third consecutive Defensive Player of the Year Award. The NBA ruled that this year’s awards will include only games through March 11, excluding anything that happens in each team’s eight seeding games.
Jazz-Pelicans, Lakers-Clippers kneel for national anthem
Standing along the sideline with the “Black Lives Matter” message in front of them, players, coaches and referees from both games took a knee.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) July 31, 2020
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) July 30, 2020
What Zion’s return means for New Orleans
Getting Zion Williamson back for the start of seeding games, even in limited minutes, is important for the Pelicans’ chances of reaching and winning the play-in matchup for the eighth seed in the Western Conference. While New Orleans will have an opportunity to face Memphis (the current eighth seed) in the third game, these first two will make a substantial difference in their playoff odds.
In my simulations of the seeding games, the Pelicans eventually go on to reach the playoffs an even 50% of the time when they start 2-0 with wins over the Jazz and Clippers. They reach the playoffs 41% of the time when they split their first two games, but that drops to just 19% when they start 0-2.
New Orleans has had success without Zion this season so long as Derrick Favors is in the lineup. The Pelicans are 12-13 when Favors plays and Williamson does not, as compared to 6-14 with both big men unavailable. Still, New Orleans is undoubtedly at its best with Zion, and even “short bursts” of playing time from him will be a boon for the Pelicans. — Kevin Pelton
Zion Williamson gets loose prior to Jazz vs. Pelicans and is active for the NBA bubble restart.
Patrick Beverley will play for Clippers
The LA Clippers will still be without Lou Williams (mandatory quarantine) and Montrezl Harrell (away from team), but they’ll have point guard Patrick Beverley on Thursday night when they face the Los Angeles Lakers. Beverley had left the bubble on July 21 to deal with the death of a close friend, and he returned on Sunday.
Beverley is averaging 7.9 points and 5.4 rebounds in 48 games for the Clippers this season. On Christmas Day, he sealed the Clippers’ win over the Lakers with a block of LeBron James in the final seconds.
Game day ‘fits are back!
When the NBA first announced its bubble protocols, it was unclear if players would be forced to dress at the hotels and arrive for games in uniform. Then the league said players would in fact be able to dress at the arena, keeping the growing trend of “arrival runways” in play. And with the first official games of the NBA restart, we can confirm that players can still arrive in style.
LeBron and Kawhi arrive for their first NBA restart game in the bubble 😎
— NBA on ESPN (@ESPNNBA) July 30, 2020
LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard were both wearing masks, as per NBA protocol, and also both wearing shorts — because it’s the middle of summer in Orlando and the high temperature today was 93 degrees.
The Pelicans loss to the Jazz puts them 4.0 games back of the Grizzlies for the 8-seed in the West. New Orleans is now in 11th place behind the Trail Blazers and the Kings. As a reminder, the winning percentage matters, as that will determine who is able qualify for a play-in round.
To force a play-in round, any of the other four teams chasing the Grizzlies need to finish within four games of the 8-seed and ahead of all the other teams chasing that playoff spot. The only teams involved in a potential play-in round would be the 8- and 9-seeds, even if teams lower in the standings are also within four games of eighth.
8. Memphis Grizzlies | 32-33 (0.492)
9. Portland Trail Blazers | 29-37 (0.439) | 3.5 GB
10. Sacramento Kings | 28-36 (0.438) | 3.5 GB
11. New Orleans Pelicans | 28-37 (0.431) | 4.0 GB
12. San Antonio Spurs | 27-36 (0.429) | 4 GB
13. Phoenix Suns | 26-39 (0.4) | 6 GB
Friday’s must-see games
The Bucks enter the restart 6.5 games up on the Raptors for the top seed in the East, meaning Milwaukee doesn’t have much to play for. Still, these next eight games will give Mike Budenholzer’s squad a chance to warm up for the playoffs. It’s hard to remember now, but the Bucks went into the hiatus in something of a slump, having lost four of five games to fall off a 70-win pace. But Giannis Antetokounmpo was banged up then. The reigning and likely repeat MVP is healthy and ready to go.
The Rockets’ small-ball experiment remains one of the most fascinating storylines to watch in the bubble. Houston has only two players taller than 6-foot-8 on its roster and those two — Tyson Chandler and Bruno Caboclo — have combined to play only 31 games for the Rockets this season. Houston saw some early success with its small lineup, but had lost four of five before the season was suspended. Two of those losses came without Eric Gordon, who could miss the next two weeks after spraining his ankle in the Rockets’ final scrimmage.
Rockets guard Eric Gordon lands awkwardly on his left foot while making a pass and needs help from teammates to get off of the court.
Analysis and intel
Teams are adapting to the bubble. Those who don’t have to adjust between the lines could have a distinct advantage.
How will every race play out? We run the simulations, crunch the numbers and hone in on the most important games to watch.
Will LeBron get title No. 4? Will he be foiled by his Staples Center rivals? Or will Giannis & Co. finally break through?