The N.B.A. is finally back in action, with games featuring some of the stars fans have missed the most: LeBron James and Anthony Davis of the Los Angeles Lakers; Kawhi Leonard and Paul George of the Los Angeles Clippers; and Zion Williamson of the New Orleans Pelicans.
More than four months after the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, the N.B.A. is kicking off with a doubleheader from its so-called bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla. Each of the 22 teams participating in the restart will play in eight seeding games before the playoffs.
The Jazz and Pelicans have tipped off on TNT.
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Halftime: New Orleans is clicking.
Pelicans Coach Alvin Gentry vowed to use Zion Williamson in “short bursts” after Williamson missed so much practice time recently tending to an urgent family matter. But New Orleans’ other stars have clicked quickly to compensate for the limited minutes. Brandon Ingram (15 points) and Jrue Holiday (12 points) have complemented Williamson’s 9 points on 4-for-4 shooting in just seven minutes. It’s been sharp offensive start for the Pelicans in building a 60-48 lead, as they seek to build early momentum in their quest to wrest the West’s No. 8 seed away from Memphis.
Ah, one point of familiar comfort in an N.B.A. broadcast: the TNT analysts Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal and Kenny Smith bantering with host Ernie Johnson at halftime. They sat socially distanced, with dividers between one another on set at a very long table.
“They could have the Last Supper on this table,” Barkley joked.
Barkley said that normally, the group would be watching the game together in the same room. Now, they had to watch by themselves in individual rooms. They all acknowledged the awkwardness.
“I’m not used to watching games like this,” O’Neal said. He added, “I really have to concentrate.”
How this game is different: It’s too quiet.
On television, the broadcast has looked mostly the same as any N.B.A. game that aired before the pandemic. That there is no crowd is not apparent right away, in part because of the digital fans on videoboards in the arena.
Where it is apparent: the lack of crowd noise. In the N.B.A., the loudness of a crowd can shift the momentum of a game. It might cause a coach to call timeout. It might amp up a player more than usual. So far, for example, Zion Williamson has had some nice plays, but it doesn’t feel as eye popping because the crowd noise isn’t there. In a typical N.B.A. game, you can tell who is winning simply by listening to the crowd noise. You can’t now. That might be an adjustment for players.
End of the 1st Quarter: The Pelicans close strong to take the lead.
Rudy Gobert, the first N.B.A. player known to have tested positive for the coronavirus, snagged the first points of the restart, swooping in with a shot from near under the basket after grabbing the ball from the tipoff.
Despite an early Jazz lead, the Pelicans took control in the last minutes of the first quarter, going into the second quarter up 26-23. Pelicans guard JJ Redick put in the work that pushed the Pelicans ahead, shining with his notorious 90 percent sink rate and a clean assist to guard Jrue Holiday to close the gap.
Zion Williamson got going with a few buckets in the quarter. He averaged 23.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in 19 games this season.
The highly anticipated N.B.A. restart tipped off with a symbol of solidarity, rather than rivalry. Pelicans and Jazz players, coaches and staff knelt together in front of a Black Lives Matter floor mural painted on the edge of the court as a wordless rendition of the national anthem by the musician Jon Batiste played.
It was the first of many demonstrations for social justice causes expected this season. The players across the 22 teams participating in the restart were allowed to replace their names on the backs of their jerseys with phrases related to social justice. On the floor today were “peace,” “equality” and “listen to me” among others.
“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our longstanding rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem,” N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver said later during the game in a statement.
Restarting the season so quickly has raised injury concerns.
The standard N.B.A. off-season is filled with weeks of off-games. The forced break of play and practice has meant that this pandemic pause may have been the longest time many N.B.A. players have gone without playing and practicing at a high level.
That has some coaches worried about the quick ramp up in Florida. Players only had three weeks after they exited quarantine to reacclimate their bodies to the demands of the N.B.A. That may leave more players susceptible to injury.
“This is a different, unique ramp-up,” Washington Wizards General Manager Tommy Sheppard said. “The physical demand of playing basketball is different than running on a treadmill, doing Peloton, doing workouts in your garage on Zoom. We’ll have basically two weeks to really get to five-on-five.”
Players are still pushing for social justice.
Many N.B.A. players have been active in various social justice initiatives this summer.
In early June, LeBron James and a group of prominent Black athletes and entertainers — including Trae Young, Draymond Green, Skylar Diggins-Smith and Jalen Rose — announced that they would be starting a new group aimed at protecting African-Americans’ voting rights.
“Yes, we want you to go out and vote, but we’re also going to give you the tutorial,” James said of the organization, called More Than a Vote. “We’re going to give you the background of how to vote and what they’re trying to do, the other side, to stop you from voting.