After four-and-a-half months, extensive research, countless Zoom calls and mostly crossing fingers, the NBA will return to attempt to finish off the season Thursday.
The first game of the eight-game seeding schedule will tip-off at 6:30 p.m. Thursday with the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans providing the league with the jump start of a Zion Williamson appearance to kick off the action. The Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers, among the favorites to win this championship conducted in a bubble-like campus at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
Making it to the starting line is no assurance that the league will get to the end, as evidenced by the missteps already by Major League Baseball. But the NBA and the Players Association released the latest test results and announced that of the 344 players tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus since test results were last announced on July 20, zero have returned confirmed positive tests.
While the virus rages across the nation outside of the NBA’s bubble, this small community created by the league has managed to make it this far, surviving positive tests that sidelined players before they arrived, including stars like Russell Westbrook. From the first positive test disclosed that shut down the season - Rudy Gobert on March 11 - there were at least 40 positive tests among players, coaches and even Madison Square Garden chairman James Dolan.
It seems like years ago that the season already was filled with highlights and heartbreak - the ascension of some stars and the tragic death of Kobe Bryant. It all seemed to fade away when the season was suspended after the games of March 11 and there was a question of whether they would ever be able to come up with a way to get back to resume the season.
Now, after a few weeks of practice, they will take the tentative steps with no fans in the arena and every sneaker squeak audible for a television audience.
“I have no idea,” LeBron James said in an interview Tuesday when asked what it will feel like to start up again. “Obviously, it’s a different circumstance. It’s different. It’s 2020. People have been asking me, ‘How’s the bubble?’ It’s 2020. Everything is different. You have to be able to adjust to it. So I don’t know as far as if it was like a home game at Staples Center. We won’t have that feeling.”
What it will be like is uncertain and also unknown is how much the bubble will weigh on crowing a champion. The latest tests may indicate that the virus has not penetrated the bubble, but it takes just one trip for chicken wings to spoil that. And it is not just infection, but injury, too, that may be a result of the quick start after such a long layoff with little access to gyms.
Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic was nearly run over by a robotic camera on the sideline Tuesday. Houston’s Eric Gordon suffered an ankle injury which will sideline him for an expected one to two weeks. James’ Lakers teammate Anthony Davis suffered an eye injury this week in scrimmages. In a short run to the playoffs any missing piece could make a difference.
“It’s definitely a different mindset. I won’t be turning my phone off during this run,” James said. “I can’t afford to. I have to continue to check in with my family every single day. Check in with my mom, making sure everything is still going well, especially in the uncertainty of what 2020 has brought to all of us, so I can’t afford to do that just lose direct contact with everybody. I’ll be as locked in as I can be under the circumstances. I won’t cheat my teammates, I won’t cheat our fans and I won’t cheat myself. So I’ll be ready to go.”