That wasn’t a lucid dream or a vivid hallucination — NBA games that count were actually played on Thursday night for the first time in 20 weeks (141 days), and they were everything we hoped they would be. The Utah Jazz began the night by defeating the New Orleans Pelicans, 106-104, and the Los Angeles Lakers pulled out a 103-101 win over the Clippers in the nightcap. Both games went down to the wire, and the intensity was evident despite there being no fans in the arena.
On top of the great games, the stars came out to play. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Anthony Davis all scored 28 points or more, while LeBron James battled through a rough scoring night to come up clutch in the fourth quarter. We also got a brief look at Zion Williamson, who was great in limited bursts of minutes (three or four at a time to start each quarter) as he continues to get his conditioning back up to speed.
Here’s a look at the best moments from the NBA‘s re-opening night, and here’s to a complete and healthy rest of the season.
Everyone kneels for the anthem
There were reports that players and coaches from both teams would kneel before the first game of the NBA season, and that’s exactly what we saw from the Jazz and Pelicans. Everyone on the court took a knee during Jon Batiste’s rousing rendition to create a powerful image.
The Lakers and Clippers followed suit in the second game of the evening, locking arms while taking a knee as the anthem played.
Social justice takes center stage
Before both games, a montage of NBA players and coaches standing up for justice played in the arena. The video featured players such as Celtics wing Jaylen Brown, Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard and Pelicans guard JJ Redick discussing the events of the last several months.
LeBron plays hero … twice
James got off to a bit of a slow start, at least in terms of scoring, but more than made up for it in the end. First, he made the game-winning shot by following up his own miss with just under 13 seconds left to play.
The King wasn’t done, however, as he guarded both Kawhi Leonard AND Paul George to help the Lakers get a stop on the final possession to lock up the win.
James finished with 16 points on 6-of-19 shooting to go along with 11 rebounds, seven assists and five turnovers, but he once again displayed his greatness by coming up clutch in what was an otherwise subpar game.
Gobert gets first and last buckets
It’s only fitting that the player whose positive COVID-19 test shut down the league in March scored the first basket of the restart on Thursday. Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who apologized for his cavalier attitude in the early days of the pandemic, executed a nice drop step to score a layup over Derrick Favors for the first points in the bubble.
Interestingly enough, Gobert also hit the game-winning free throws with 6.9 seconds left — the final points of the first game of the NBA restart. The big man finished with 14 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in the win.
Are those virtual fans?
The NBA unveiled an interesting way to keep fans connected and things looking (somewhat) normal in the arena — virtual fans! Video feeds of dozens of home team fans watching remotely were displayed on the large monitors around the arena. Unfortunately for the Pelicans and Lakers, there were still some empty seats.
Zion’s noticeably quiet first bubble dunk
The chemistry between Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson returned immediately, with Ball throwing a perfect lob that resulted in Zion’s first dunk of the NBA restart. The aftermath, however, was somewhat underwhelming. There was a brief moment of near-silence following the dunk before the artificial crowd noise kicked in, quickly reminding us that these are not the NBA games we’re used to.
Zion can pass, too
Lest you think Zion Williamson is nothing but a dunker, he showcased his feathery passing touch and agility by dropping a sweet behind-the-back assist to Lonzo Ball for a layup early in the third quarter.
There’s really nothing this kid can’t do on a basketball court. He finished with 13 points in 15 minutes on 6-of-8 shooting.
Davis cleans the glass
Anthony Davis had a tremendous return, putting up 14 points in the first quarter for the Lakers en route to a game-high 34 points. The highlight was this putback, two-handed dunk that would have gotten the crowd going … if there was a crowd.
Warm welcome for Waiters
The Lakers were a little thin at guard with Avery Bradley opting out of the restart but on Thursday Dion Waiters got his first crack at filling some of those minutes. He looked comfortable on the court and dazzled with a quick spin move and layup in the lane.
He also received quite a reaction from teammate JaVale McGee, who couldn’t contain his excitement on the bench.
Waiters finished with 11 points, three rebounds and two assists in 21 minutes in his first action with the Lakers.