Kawhi Leonard of the Los Angeles Clippers was the first player on the floor Wednesday afternoon, lining up for the NBA’s first jump ball in more than four months — without waiting for the public-address announcer to begin introducing the starting lineups.
The improvisation was one of many aspects of the NBA’s long-awaited return that could be classified as untraditional. With no fans to be found in the stands, hockey-style plexiglass encasing the scorer’s table and the Orlando Magic operating as the visiting team just 23 miles from their home arena, Leonard’s Clippers posted a 99-90 victory in a game that was predictably scruffy after such a long layoff. The game also did not count, but it was a significant occasion nonetheless.
It was the first time two NBA teams had shared the same floor since the abrupt suspension of the season March 11 after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus shortly before a game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. After months of negotiations, preparations and debate about the feasibility of resuming and sustaining an indoor contact sport during a pandemic, the league took what it regards as a significant step in its comeback by holding four scrimmages, 15 days after teams began arriving at the Walt Disney World campus.
Twenty-two teams were invited to live, practice and play in a so-called bubble with greatly restricted access at Disney World near Orlando, Florida, to try to complete a season some within the league initially feared would not be salvaged. Each team will take part in three of these scrimmages before the New Orleans Pelicans face the Jazz on July 30 to begin an 88-game schedule leading into the playoffs. Wednesday, then, was a test run for the NBA as much as for the players in what many regard as the most ambitious undertaking in league history.
“Once you get in between the lines, you can make a case that that’s probably as comfortable as the players will ever be,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “You can see the rust and all that, but for them, they were back in their natural habitat.”
Quirks were plentiful in the NBA’s return, with 10-minute quarters instead of the usual 12, extended bursts of quiet during free throws, and music and synthesized arena sounds piped in to fill the noise void. A vibe reminiscent of the NBA’s annual summer league in Las Vegas was unmistakable, but the first competitive basketball played in the bubble also appeared to play out without incident, with Lou Williams (22 points) and Paul George (18) combining for 40 points to lead the Clippers. Nikola Vucevic had 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Magic.
The NBA has leaned into its starting-over reality, judging by the numerous signs all over the building that display its #WholeNewGame slogan. Without the clamor of fans, chatter among the players was frequently audible during lulls in the sounds playing over arena speakers and the occasional recorded chants of “de-fense, de-fense.”
“There’s no crowd energy, so the energy is going to have to come from the players,” said Joakim Noah, the Clippers’ starting center Wednesday. (The Clippers were without big men Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac and guards Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet; Harrell and Beverley both left the team in recent days to attend to personal matters.)
About 200 people were in attendance, including both teams, game operations personnel, league representatives, three human camera operators to complement an array of robotic cameras and the small contingent of reporters permitted to watch.
The main game venue of the three being used for the restart in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex is an 8,000-capacity building known simply as the Arena. The bland name belies the varied safety measures and technological enhancements the league has installed in its attempt to protect the participants from the coronavirus and, with any luck, compensate for the atmosphere lost in the absence of fans.
Video boards are plentiful on the three sides of the arena visible to a television audience, most notably behind both baskets. Team benches have been replaced by three rows of socially distanced chairs on risers — with specific seating assignments for each player. Seats at the scorer’s table, between the two benches and inside the plexiglass, are also spaced out to encourage social distancing, as they are in the press section for reporters.
No national anthem was played before Wednesday’s scrimmage, but Black Lives Matter is a feature at all three game sites, emblazoned on the court in large lettering just in front of the scorer’s table.
Count Orlando’s Evan Fournier as a fan of the aesthetics. After warming up for the scrimmage, with those video boards constantly flashing messages like “AND 1” and “AIRBALL” in the players’ sight lines, Fournier tweeted in French that he felt as if he had been deposited into the NBA 2K video game. He also included “tres lourd” in his tweet, which, in this context, is a slang term meant to convey high praise.
The Clippers arrived at noon for the 3 p.m. tipoff to get in some extra shooting and then hung around until game time. The Magic were about an hour behind them, choosing to first conduct a team walk-through in the morning at their team hotel. Magic coach Steve Clifford said the conditions were “not that different than a regular game on the road.”
Players were instructed by the league to be “clean and neat in appearance” upon arriving at the arena, with postgame showers taking place back at team hotels.
Clifford and Rivers conferred multiple times before the game about some of the concepts they hoped to work on during the scrimmage; both agreed, for example, to play some zone defense. Head coaches and their three front-row assistant coaches did not wear masks in this game, but all other team staff members behind them did.
A scrimmage between the Washington Wizards and the Denver Nuggets, at the smaller HP Field House nearby, began a half-hour after the Magic and the Clippers tipped off. Because of multiple injuries and player absences, Denver coach Mike Malone listed his All-Star center Nikola Jokic as a starting guard in a supersize lineup that featured only forwards (Paul Millsap) and centers (Mason Plumlee and Bol Bol).
In this small-ball era, Malone would likely never take “tall ball” to such an extreme in a game that counted, but players did find some normalcy amid all of Wednesday’s novelty.
“It feels like the season again,” Washington guard Ish Smith said. “I think guys are now getting into a flow and knowing this is the real thing.”