Interested in the rousing debate over whether the New Orleans Pelicans are proceeding too cautiously when it comes to their rookie sensation Zion Williamson? As the first game of the night, before the Lakers edged the Clippers 103-101 in the second, the Pelicans were happy to oblige. They lost their tightly contested season reopener to the Utah Jazz, 106-104, and Coach Alvin Gentry kept Williamson on the bench for the crucial final few minutes of the game.
Williamson, who didn’t play in any of his team’s three scrimmages after having to leave the NBA bubble due to a family matter, racked up 13 points in 15 minutes. The former No. 1 pick only played the first three or four minutes of every quarter, but there’s a strong argument that the Pelicans (28-37) needed him down the stretch. (There’s also a strong argument that he and the rest of New Orleans’ defense wore down.) The Pelicans are battling to force a play-in tournament to the playoffs, meaning they need to be within four games of the eighth-place team in the West. They need every win.
This time around, it was Brandon Ingram who led the way with 23 points.
Then again, perhaps Williamson-centric discourse doesn’t wet the whistle. For the sports fan who lives for a touch of kismet, allow Jazz center Rudy Gobert to step in.
Gobert will always be remembered as the NBA’s “Patient Zero” after he tested positive for the novel coronavirus and was the impetus for the league shutting down in March. On Thursday, he scored the first points of the first official game back and hit the free throws that sealed the Jazz’s comeback win with less than seven seconds to play.
Perhaps more significantly for the Jazz (42-23), Gobert and teammate Donovan Mitchell, who also tested positive on March 11, looked great working together against New Orleans. Reports of their frosty relationship swirled after the shutdown — Mitchell told “Good Morning America” he didn’t speak to Gobert after assuming the big man had exposed his teammates to the virus — but Thursday, the pair played in tandem smoothly. Gobert had 14 points and 12 rebounds; Mitchell scored 20 points. Guard Jordan Clarkson led the team with 23 points off the bench.
If their local rivalry a possible preview of the postseason that piques interest most, the Lakers and the Clippers took things across the country and made it seem as though neither team had taken any time off.
The second game of the night looked like every other juicy matchup these teams have played this season, the first two of which were won by the Clippers, with the Lakers taking the past two. While the Clippers appeared more energetic and dynamic early on as the Lakers struggled to find their shots, Anthony Davis helped lift his team and LeBron James sealed the win. The Lakers center dominated with 34 points, eight rebounds and four assists. Guard Alex Caruso proved pivotal on defense late. But in the end, the victory came down to James.
The game felt like a shootout late in the fourth quarter with both teams trading three’s Paul George tied the score at 101 with less than 29 seconds left. But James drove in the lane and tossed up a too-strong floater, caught his own rebound and tipped in a layup with 12.8 seconds to go, giving the Lakers the lead. He wasn’t done yet — the 35-year-old then charged back on defense to both stop Kawhi Leonard from driving and keep George from getting one last good shot off.
James finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. George led the Clippers with 30 points including six three-pointers. Leonard scored 28 points in the second thriller of the night.
As for the broadcasts themselves, the games looked great on TV. With virtual fans and masked sideline reporters conducting interviews at a distance, the viewing experience wasn’t all that different. The quality gameplay and the league’s varied story lines stood out above all else — even Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley and the “Inside the NBA” crew on TNT brought their signature loopy banter that made the restart feel something akin to a normal night of basketball, at least for a few hours.
Welcome back, NBA. It’s good to see you again.
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