LOS ANGELES -- Nearly five months after Rudy Gobert’s positive Coronavirus test shuttered the NBA, the association re-opened its season Thursday night (Friday, Manila time), with the Urah Jazz center fittingly scoring the first and last points of the league’s initial contest.
While the games may not have featured the cleanest basketball played on the year, there’s no denying the night was a success, after nearly losing the season a few short months before. Here are five takeaways from the night’s action:
1. The court looks tiny
While the courts at the Orlando bubble bear the same dimensions as those that fill arenas around the league, there’s no denying that the lack of stands around them make it look significantly smaller on television.
Obviously, not true for the players on the court. What may end up being an issue is the lack of space behind the basket affecting their depth-perception on jump shots. While it may sound non-sensical at first, every year we get a round of stories from the NCAA Final Four in which players complain about the size of the football stadiums that host the semifinal, adding a dimension to their vision that can be distracting at best.
That the four teams shot a combined 28% from 3 may be an early sign of this, or merely the result of players still getting their sea-legs.
2. The Pelicans playoff hopes took a major hit
Up 60-44 late in the second quarter, the New Orleans Pelicans looked every bit the offensive juggernaut many envisioned them becoming as the league gathered in Orlando. Despite only intermittent appearances by Zion Williamson, following his return from quarantine only the day before, the Pelicans were keyed by Brandon Ingram, the fourth-year forward whose performance pre-pandemic has played its way into the “most-improved player” conversation.
Controlling the flow of the game, Ingram was only too willing to show off his improved offensive-repertoire: driving hard to the basket for an emphatic dunk thanks to the driving-lanes created by New Orleans’ spacing, shooting from long-distance the moment defenses went under on picks, and taking Gobert off the dribble for a step-back 2.
Following some half-time adjustments by the Utah Jazz, however, Ingram and the Pelicans quickly turned into pumpkins, being outscored by 18 points the rest of the contest.
Trailing the Memphis Grizzlies by 3.5 games coming into the restart, the Pelicans held a 49% chance to force a playoff with the Grizzlies for the final spot in the playoffs, according to fivethirtyeight.com. After this debacle, though, the Pelicans experienced an 11% drop in those odds and fell behind the Trailblazers and Kings in the race for eighth. With seven games to play, New Orleans can’t afford another second-half meltdown like the one they played.
3. Turnovers ruled the night
Despite playing in three shortened scrimmages before the official start of the season, the Jazz, Pelicans, Clippers and Lakers clearly exhibited some aftereffects from the NBA’s layoff. Combining for a mind-boggling 76 turnovers, the four-teams were out of sync early and often, missing reads, and unable to anticipate where their teammates were going to place the ball. While the miscues slowed the games down at times, they also, oddly enough, helped ensure two close contests, as none of them were able to get past themselves and build a durable lead. Turns out, starting the playoffs right away in Orlando, wouldn’t have been a good idea after all.
4. Virtual fans are a good idea, but no substitute for the real thing
A partnership with Yahoo! Sports, the NBA and the virtual reality company RYOT allows for a select number of fans to virtually occupy a “seat” on the sidelines of the league’s facilities in Orlando. An attempt to emulate the sound and feel of a regular game, the hope is that the presence of a team’s fans will give somewhat of an advantage to the designated home team. While the league should be applauded for trying such an out-of-the-box approach, the initial results were a bit underwhelming. Not nearly loud enough to drown out some of the more colorful banter on the court, the virtual fans were also largely ignored by the TNT camera crew and didn’t seem to have a discernible reaction when the home team did succeed. Whether they continue merely as background noise, or adjustments are made remains to be seen, but we can at least hope that a creative fan does something interesting to make them go viral.
5. The restart saved what should be the most interesting postseason in years
Amid the intervening five months, the coronavirus pandemic, and the economic fallout that followed, it must have been easy to forget that the NBA was heading towards one of the most competitive playoff runs in recent memory. Having largely been dominated by the Warriors following their acquisition of Kevin Durant, the 2020 season featured three prime contenders—the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks—with an array of second-tier teams capable of breaking into that conversation.
While it looked for a time that the season would be lost, the league’s resourcefulness in gathering its players in a single location seems that much more prescient given the struggles of Major League Baseball. No matter who ends up walking away with the Larry O’Brien trophy, the fact that we will get a definitive answer to the 2019-2020 NBA season, is a win in-it-of-itself.