The first game of the NBA’s restart experiment, a scrimmage between the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Clippers, began as all basketball games do. With a tip-off.
Yes, the backdrop of the affair was unusual, and will remain that way for some time. No fans were in attendance for the most highly-anticipated game of the 2019-20 season so far. Reserves sat in slightly spaced-out chairs on the bench. One play-by-play commentator — LA radio announcer Noah Eagle, son of Ian Eagle — manned the microphone, solo, for the NBA TV (FOX Sports LA) simulcast. In bold print, “Black Lives Matter” shone off the far baseline. It all served as a reminder of the unprecedented times the NBA’s return comes amid — of pandemic and protest.
And then the ball was in the air. Joakim Noah and Nikola Vucevic went up, Noah swatted the ball to now-Clipper teammate Reggie Jackson, and the game was underway. It didn’t feel normal. Nothing these days seems to. But, man, NBA basketball was back on television, and it’s hard not to take some small satisfaction from that.
Another lighter note: Noah didn’t disappoint starting at center in his Clipper debut, and first NBA action since March 23, 2019. He got Los Angeles in the scoring column a minute-and-a-half into the contest with an and-one layup through a ticky-tack foul by Aaron Gordon:
Some things you simply can’t script — including the ensuing missed free throw.
Noah finished the night with four points, five rebounds and three assists in 15 minutes of action. It’s hard to take much away from an exhibition in which the Clippers played without frontcourt fixtures Montrezl Harrell and Ivica Zubac, as well as Patrick Beverley and Landry Shamet. And Jo had his rusty moments. But he moved well for the most part, set waves of wide-elbowed screens and made some nice reads as a passer — two of his three assists came on short-roll darts to Amir Coffey and Marcus Morris for corner 3-pointers. He looked like he belonged.
“Well, he’s an elite passer. We already knew that,” Doc Rivers said postgame, adding to praise he offered Noah after the Clippers’ second practice earlier this month. “What I loved was his screening and rolling.”
Rivers was also quick to highlight the value in Noah’s stabilizing presence as a decision-maker, especially adapting to a role he’s not accustomed to.
“You know, he is so used to coming towards the ball and getting the ball, we’re asking him to do something totally different, and that’s screen-and-roll more,” Rivers said. “So he’s still getting used to it, but today I thought he did a great job. And he’s also starting to notice a bit the more talent we have on the floor, the more they’re going to double-team. And you give him the ball in the middle of the paint, he’s just a great decision-maker.”
On top of it all, we got a couple hot-mic screams off rebounds (though ambient trash talk generally underwhelmed), a possible LeBron jab and Noah extended a Clippers possession late in the second quarter scrapping for a contested board on the baseline. Staples.
The rest of gameplay went about as well as one could expect. There were sporadic defensive breakdowns and fumbled passes. Without spectatorial buzz to buffer on-court sound, rims rattled a little louder and sneakers squeaked a smidge sharper. Piped in chants caught the ear at first, and eventually blended into the background. The general feel, though, was that of a basketball game.
Paul George looked outstanding commanding the Clippers offense, and Lou Williams chased down 22 points-worth of buckets. Williams and Rivers both noted postgame the extra energy manufactured from the bench in the absence of fans. The Clippers won 99-90. It's a start.
“The games are the games,” Rivers said. “Once you get between the lines, you could make a case that’s probably as comfortable as the players will ever be, or as normal as everything will ever be. Because once they get between the lines, it’s a basketball game.
“I think you can see that. You can see the rust and all that. But for them, they were back in their natural habitat.”
Health willing, scrimmage games will march on through July 28, and the seeding phase from July 30 - Aug. 14. A 16-team playoff from there. We’ll be watching.