Previewing Opening Night of the NBA Bubble

Mar 8, 2020; Los Angeles, California, USA; Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James (23) is defended by LA Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) in the second half at Staples Center. The Lakers defeated the Clippers 112-100. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Against the odds, the NBA has successfully completed its training camp and scrimmages in the bubble in Orlando, Fla. On Thursday night, the Association will resume its regular season as the Pelicans take on the Jazz and the Lakers face off against the Clippers. All eyes will be on basketball’s best as MLB attempts to deal with COVID-19 complications and the NFL weighs its options for its upcoming season.

Game 1: New Orleans Pelicans vs. Utah Jazz | 6:30 p.m. EST | TNT

Opening Night’s first matchup will pit a seasoned Jazz team against the upstart Pelicans, who will begin their battle for the West’s eighth seed. New Orleans is 3.5 games back of the playoffs, and they’ll likely need to win most of their games in the bubble to reach the postseason.

The biggest question mark for the Pelicans is the status of rookie Zion Williamson, who just returned to the bubble after leaving to tend to a family matter. He’s expected to practice with the team on Wednesday but was only able to do limited workouts during the week in which he was gone. Williamson was averaging 23.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game when the season was suspended, and his presence could determine whether the Pelicans win this game.

The Jazz should garner at least as much scrutiny as their opponent on Thursday night due to the chemistry issues that arose after Rudy Gobert made light of COVID-19 in March. Star guard Donovan Mitchell ended up contracting the virus soon after Gobert tested positive, and the pair seemed to be at odds with each other. They reportedly didn’t speak for two weeks before finally mending the relationship over a phone call.

If Mitchell and the rest of the Jazz have truly forgiven Gobert and reconciled the team’s locker room, Utah could be a force to be reckoned with in the 2020 playoffs. But first, they’ll have to take on Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram, and the rest of the Pelicans. New Jazz players like Mike Conley, Ed Davis, and Jordan Clarkson will finally have an opportunity to justify their contracts this week.

Game 2: Los Angeles Lakers vs. Los Angeles Clippers | 9:00 p.m. EST | TNT

This is the game that basketball fans have been anticipating since the NBA released its restructured schedule. The top two teams in the West will have another opportunity to go at each other in what could be a preview of this year’s Western Conference Finals. The Clippers have won two of the teams’ three meetings so far this season, so the Lakers will be out for revenge on Thursday night.

Superstar forward Anthony Davis suffered a minor eye injury in the Lakers’ scrimmage on Saturday, and his status is currently day-to-day. Head coach Frank Vogel is hopeful Davis will be able to play in the team’s first game, but his availability may not be determined until right before tip-off. Davis was putting up 26.7 points and 9.4 rebounds per game for the Lakers, so losing him now would be a considerable blow.

In addition, the Lakers will not have shooting guard Avery Bradley in Orlando because he chose to opt out of the rest of the season. New signees like J.R. Smith and Dion Waiters may receive some of Bradley’s minutes, but it will be up to core Lakers like LeBron James, Danny Green, Kyle Kuzma, and Dwight Howard to carry the team’s scoring load, especially if Davis sits.

The Clippers will definitively be without their best bench player in Lou Williams, who will miss the team’s first two games after leaving the bubble to attend a funeral and subsequently visiting a gentleman’s club in Atlanta, Ga. Williams, who is once again a favorite to win the Sixth Man of the Year award, was averaging 18.7 points per game this season.

Not only will the Clippers have to sit Williams, but they may not have electric young big man Montrezl Harrell either. He returned to the bubble on Tuesday after leaving to deal with a family emergency, but the league is unlikely to clear him in time to play the Lakers due to a mandatory quarantine period. Harrell was averaging 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds for the year.

Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet are currently finishing up mandatory quarantine periods and should be ready to play Thursday. Though the Clippers will be short-handed, the presence of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George alone makes them one of the most dangerous teams in the NBA. They will also have the opportunity to showcase mid-season additions like Marcus Morris Sr. and Reggie Jackson, who could be asked to play bigger roles in the absence of Williams and Harrell.

Both of these teams are banged up, and it may be in their best interest to err on the side of caution considering both have already secured postseason berths. This game may not matter much in itself, but it could provide a sneak peek into the upcoming playoff atmosphere in the bubble.

The NBA needs to have a successful opening night, especially considering the recent struggles of the United States’ other major sports leagues. A virus-free conclusion to the rest of the season would be an enormous step toward returning to normal conditions next year.

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