The NBA is back, but with all the news coming out of the bubble there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out into the afternoon — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.
1) The games started with players kneeling during the anthem…
NBA players went to Orlando saying they would not let the return of games become a distraction to the Black Lives Matter and social justice movements. They would keep the message in front of people.
They did that on opening night, kneeling during the national anthem before both games. Before the first game, Jazz and Pelicans players, wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, locked arms and taking a knee. It was a powerful moment.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) July 30, 2020
The Lakers and Clippers did the same thing before their opening night game.
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) July 31, 2020
The team coaches and referees also kneeled.
“[We] played for something. We stood up for something. We kneeled for something,” the Clippers Paul George said after the game. “This league is all about unity. Can’t say it enough. I love being a part of it because of the brotherhood of this league. At the same time, we know that we can change things as well.”
“There’s been progress, but in the past when we’ve seen progress we’ve let our foot off the gas a little bit,” LeBron James said of social justice movements around the NBA (after hitting the game-winner against the Clippers). “We can’t do that. We want to continue to keep our foot on the gas, push forward, continue to spread love throughout America. We’re dealing with a lot of racism, a lot of social injustice, a lot of police brutality, not only in my neighborhoods, not only with Black people, but with people of color. It’s something we want to continue to have people’s ears open to. And we have ears now.”
More than just words, players are taking concrete steps big and small to further that cause. The NBA and players union are helping with that. It was a good look for everyone.
2) … Then the first game ended with everyone asking, “where is Zion?”
The Utah Jazz are a good team trying to find a rhythm, but the New Orleans Pelicans needed this game — they are the ones in a sprint to make the play-in game against Memphis. New Orleans simply cannot afford to lose winnable games, yet the Pelicans — who led 96-89 with 7:00 left — did just that. They blew another fourth-qarter lead, a season-long trend. This come-from-ahead loss was a punch to the gut.
In what had been a sloppy-at-times back-and-forth game, Rudy Gobert sank two free throws — giving him 14 points on the night — to put the Jazz up 106-104 with seven seconds left. New Orleans had one last shot to force overtime, or maybe even get the win.
New Orleans needed its closer and, rookie or not, Zion Williamson is that guy. He had 13 points on the night in 15 minutes of action, seemed an obvious substitution here — New Orleans needed a bucket and the rookie gets buckets.
However, Zion reached his minutes limit (one coach Alvin Gentry refused to discuss pregame but owned up to after), and he wouldn’t put his rookie star in for that last play. For seven seconds.
Should Zion have been on the court?
Yes, for the final shot he should have been. Having Derrick Favors on the court instead allowed the Jazz to switch out and stop the original plan for the Pelicans’ final shot, a red-hot J.J. Redick coming off a triple pin down (although it was open enough, Ingram didn’t try to get him the ball). The backup plan was Brandon Ingram in isolation. He didn’t get off a bad shot, it just missed.
But the gravity of Zion in that setting might well have opened up something better. We’ll never know.
Overall this was a game where two teams played unimpressive defense. Both teams need to tighten up on that end if they are going to make any noise in Orlando.
Despite missing the game-winner, Brandon Ingram led the Pelicans with 23 points, but another impressive night from him caught the eye of Kevin Durant.
#14 is a different breed..
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) July 30, 2020
Utah got 23 points off the bench from Jordan Clarkson, plus 20 each from Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell.
Gobert scored the NBA’s first points in its return and had the game-winner at the end.
“Life works in mysterious ways,” Gobert said after the game.
3) Would the NBA be back without a LeBron James game-winner?
It just seemed scripted.
Paul George had tied the game with a three, and things were poised to go to overtime.
LeBron James just knows how to make plays when it matters — he missed his first attempt but followed up his own shot and his second attempt proved to be the game-winner in a dramatic 103-101 win. LeBron wasn’t done, made a great read and switch on the other end — the Clippers tried to run something similar to what got George a three, but LeBron read it and jumped out to blow it up — to preserve the win.
The end of this Lakers-Clippers game was wild 😱 pic.twitter.com/j4OEGE7vpb
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) July 31, 2020
It was a perfect end for Lakers’ nation — and just NBA fans looking for drama. The league brought that opening night.
This game started out looking like a preseason game — 21 fouls in the first quarter while the teams combined to shoot 2-of-15 from three. Scott Foster wanted everyone to know he was there in the bubble. Both teams also struggled with turnovers. It wasn’t pretty but it was to be expected on the first real game after four months off.
With two top-five defenses, these Los Angeles showdowns turn into gritty, grinding games.
Davis said afterward he thrives in those kinds of games — and he did again. His 34 points came on 19 shots, but he got to the free-throw line 17 times. He was a beast on the defensive end as well. The Lakers also got 16 points from Kyle Kuzma and 11 on a strong night from Dion Waiters. The Lakers were +17 in the 21 minutes these two shared the court.
The Clippers got 30 points from Paul George, who looked healthy and rested, and 28 from Kawhi Leonard. The problem is the other Clippers shot 14-of-41 (34.2%). The Clippers missed having Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell coming off the bench to spark that unit, and without them the team’s execution was off all night. Doc Rivers can live with that, the Clipper games that matter against the Lakers will not come for more than a month.
Bonus Thing to Know: It’s official: Tom Thibodeau is the coach of the New York Knicks.
We’d known for five days — and, frankly, for a lot longer than that — Tom Thibodeau would be the next coach of the New York Knicks. Thursday, it became official.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) July 30, 2020
And it’s a great story.
— NEW YORK KNICKS (@nyknicks) July 30, 2020
The Knicks got their man. Thibodeau is as good a coach as was available, someone capable of building a culture of hard work, player development (even if his record there is uneven), and personal responsibility — top to bottom — that the franchise needs.
But it means Thibodeau needs to make changes from what we have seen before. He has in the past run players into the ground with short rotations and heavy minutes for the few guys he trusts — in his last full season in Minnesota, both Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns were in the top 10 in total minutes played, and both played a full 82-games schedule. The Knicks have promising young players in Mitchell Robinson and RJ Barrett, but they shouldn’t be playing 38 minutes a night.
Beyond that, the Knicks front office needs to draft better, but then Thibodeau needs to trust his young players, let them play through some mistakes, and coach them up. He needs to show patience, something not considered a Thibodeau strength in the back. Thibs needs to hire development-minded assistant coaches and giving them room to operate (sources around the league have told NBC Sports Thibodeau likes to control everything, designing every practice and game plan, down to the writing on the whiteboard before games and more).
This is a good hire. It can work. But if both Thibodeau and the Knicks organization don’t evolve, it will just be more of the same in Madison Square Garden.