LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Basketball is back. Finally.
After 141 days, the NBA will return inside of the bubble at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort on Thursday night.
It feels as if the world has changed a dozen times since the night of March 11 when the league came to a sudden halt. But now the season resumes in what is a truly unique moment in basketball history.
Part of that will be because there won’t be any fans in attendance. But it will also be because of the league’s focus on social justice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer more than two months ago. “Black Lives Matter” is written on each court and many players will have messages promoting various causes on their jerseys in place of their names.
There also are expected to be protests during the national anthem throughout this restart. The causes of social justice and ending racial inequality have been front-and-center over the past several weeks. They aren’t going to go away just because the games matter again.
And these games do matter. Thursday’s action will tip off the first of 88 seeding games, leading into potential play-in series and then the start of the playoffs.
The Pelicans, who face the Jazz in the opener, are hoping to be one of those playoff teams. That will largely depend on how much they can get from rookie phenom Zion Williamson, whose status remains uncertain. Williamson was ramping up to play before having to leave for a family emergency. While he came back last Friday, he had to spend four days in quarantine before returning to practice Wednesday.
Some doubt also lingers about the status of Lakers star Anthony Davis, who sat out a scrimmage and a practice after being poked in the eye. Still, he and LeBron James are expected to square off against the Clippers in a potential conference finals preview. However, both sides have expressed caution about putting too much stock into this game. These franchises are firmly ensconced in the postseason, and are preparing for being in the bubble for close to three months.
“I don’t want to overdo [James and Davis’] minutes,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “We’ll get into that environment and see how the game is playing out. But I certainly don’t want to take those guys’ minutes too high in Thursday’s game, understanding that it’s still a marathon.” — Tim Bontemps
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.
The latest buzz
Celtics unveil social justice jerseys
When the NBA restart tips off Thursday, teams will be wearing jerseys with social justice messaging on the back. Players were allowed to choose from a list of 29 phrases the NBA and NBPA agreed on, though some players chose to forgo the special messages and will continue to wear their own names.
Though each team played three scrimmage games, they did not wear the new look during those. The first game with the social justice jerseys will take place Thursday night, and though the Boston Celtics don’t play until Friday, they unveiled a glimpse at those new jerseys via Twitter on Wednesday afternoon.
Black Lives Matter.
— Boston Celtics (@celtics) July 29, 2020
Thursday’s must-see games
Anthony Davis and Frank Vogel provide an update on Davis’ eye injury and whether he’ll be able to play against the Clippers.
The entire NBA world will be watching this game, in part for reasons that have nothing to do with basketball. This will be the first time teams will have a chance to express organized protest actions during the national anthem (which wasn’t played before scrimmage games). Meanwhile, magnifying glasses will be on Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert, as their icy relationship became a focal point after Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test led to the NBA shutting down the season on March 11.
This is the game that has been postponed twice: first in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death, then again when the entire season was put on hold. The Clippers won’t be at full strength, but this will still be an incredible matchup between two potential title contenders facing off more than 2,500 miles from the home they share.
The Pelicans enter Thursday 3.5 games back of the Grizzlies for the 8-seed in the West. New Orleans is tied with the Kings and one percentage point behind the Trail Blazers for ninth — and that percentage point matters, because if the Blazers and Pelicans end up tied in games back, Portland would finish ahead of New Orleans.
To force a play-in round, the Pelicans (or 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
t-10. New Orleans Pelicans | 28-36 (0.438) | 3.5 GB
t-10. Sacramento Kings | 28-36 (0.438) | 3.5 GB
12. San Antonio Spurs | 27-36 (0.429) | 4 GB
13. Phoenix Suns | 26-39 (0.4) | 6 GB
Zion Williamson explains that he and the Pelicans will do what is best in regard to his playing status for Thursday’s game against the Jazz.
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.
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?