The basketball gods must love irony.
It’s the only way to explain how Rudy Gobert – the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19 – could wind up being the same person to score the first, and last, points of the opening game to the league’s restart on Thursday night. Gobert literally opened and closed the box score, as the Utah Jazz defeated the New Orleans Pelicans 106-104 from The Bubble in Orlando.
“I’m just grateful,” Gobert told ESPN. “Just grateful to be able to do what I love to do. After everything that I’ve personally and everything the world is going through right now, to be able to keep inspiring millions of kids around the world and keep spreading positivity is just a blessing.”
“And it’s great to start with a win, of course.”
But while Gobert may be the poster child for how the coronavirus has affected the NBA, LeBron is still the king. James hit the winning basket and made the final defensive stop to give the Lakers a 103-101 victory over the Clippers.
Before each game, teams came together to kneel in peaceful protest during the national anthem. And when I say everybody kneeled, I mean everybody, including players, coaches, referees, and league personnel.
“There’s been progress. But in the past when we’ve seen progress, we’ve let our foot off the glass a little bit,” James told TNT after the game. “We can’t do that. We want to continue to keep our foot on the gas. Continue to 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 and people of color. It’s something we want to continue to have people’s ears open to. And we have ears now, but we cannot stop with our foot on the gas with what we’ve been doing over the last few months.”
The players were challenging a rule that came into play in 1981, stating that “players, coaches and trainers are to stand and line up in a dignified posture along the sidelines or on the foul line” during the playing of the national anthem.”
In 1996, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf tested the rule when he didn’t stand for the anthem due to his religious and personal beliefs. He was suspended for one game and worked out an agreement with the league which allowed him to stand and cup his hands in front of his face in prayer. However, he was eventually blackballed, foreshadowing what would happen to Colin Kaepernick 20 years later in the NFL.
“I respect our teams’ unified act of peaceful protest for social justice and under these unique circumstances will not enforce our long-standing rule requiring standing during the playing of our national anthem,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver about the pregame demonstrations. Silver’s comments were in contrast to how he and the league felt three years ago when a memo was sent out in 2017 reminding all teams of the league’s rules when it came to the anthem.
On the court, the rust was apparent throughout the evening as players returned from a 141-day break since the last regular-season game. And it just wasn’t the players that were out of sync, as the referees called a combined 105 fouls on Thursday night.
The Pelicans and Jazz combined for 40 turnovers, as Jordan Clarkson came off the bench to lead Utah in scoring with 23 points, while Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley each scored 20 to go along with Gobert’s 14 points and 12 rebounds. For the Pelicans, Zion Williamson scored the team’s first 5 points, as he finished the night with 13 points in only 15 minutes due to still being limited by the medical staff. Brandon Ingram led the way for New Orleans with 23 points. JJ Redick had 21 and Jrue Holiday had 20.
The Lakers were able to overcome a bad shooting night as they shot 39 percent from the field and only 30.6 percent from three. Anthony Davis led all scorers with 34 points, as James added 16 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists. The Clippers duo of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard combined for 58 points, which was 57 percent of the Clippers’ final tally.
With the way things are going in the NFL and MLB, and the uncertainty around college football and basketball, the NBA and WNBA look like the only sports that may have this thing figured out.
And if that’s the case, the combination of this past weekend and Thursday night proved one thing.
Basketball never stops.