The NBA is officially back, and boy have we missed it.
For many in Los Angeles, the NBA returned in cyclical fashion: with the 17-time NBA Champion Lakers squaring off with their inner-city rivals, the Clippers, in a Battle for City Bragging Rights.
Before the NBA season tipped off back in October, the Lakers and Clippers were the preseason co-favorites to win the NBA title.
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282 days later, it seems like everything in the world has changed; yet some things still remain the same.
The Lakers and Clippers are still the overwhelming favorites to meet in the Western Conference Finals, with one of those teams expected to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy when all is said and done.
The Lakers currently sit atop the Western Conference with the Clippers in second.
According to oddsmakers, the Lakers are the favorite (+200) to win the NBA Championship with the Clippers not far behind at (+300). In fact, only the Milwaukee Bucks have a better than 1 in 10 chance of winning the championship outside of those two teams.
The reason why the Lakers and Clippers are still the favorites to win the NBA Championship is simple: both teams contain two of the top ten players in the NBA on their roster. LeBron James and Anthony Davis still don the Purple and Gold. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George continue their quest to bring a championship to their hometown Clippers.
Beyond that, almost everything has changed.
On the NBA's Opening Night on October 22, the Clippers defeated the Lakers 112-102, behind a masterful performance by reigning NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Since that matchup, the world lost a legend in Kobe Bryant, a global pandemic suspended the season, taking the lives of over 675,000 people worldwide in the process, and a renewed discussion about racial injustice and police brutality has been at the forefront of the nation's conscience.
Nearly five months later, the NBA re-opening looks drastically different. The sold out Staples Center crowd of over 19,000 is gone, replaced by virtual fans like Chris Bosh, and countless others.
In its stead is basketball in a vacuum: a virtual "bubble" inside the confines of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The home of 22 NBA teams with aspirations of winning an NBA title, and arguably the safest place from contracting COVID-19 in the country.
There's plenty of new faces inside that bubble as well. Markieff Morris, Dion Waiters, and J.R. Smith were not on the Lakers when these two teams last met on March 9 at Staples Center. They were on Thursday night inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports Arena.
"It felt great," said Waiter about his first taste of basketball since January when he was with the Miami Heat. "I'm a hooper, the game of basketball as far as playing it, is easy for me. My teammates cheer me on and instill belief in me."
Neither were Marcus Morris, Reggie Jackson, or Joakim Noah for the Clippers. Noah, the team's most recent signing didn't even sign with the team until days before they left for Orlando.
All six were on the court on Thursday, as the Lakers flipped the Opening Day script on the Clippers with a 103-101 action-packed thriller in the re-opening.
"It was a little bit cyclical," said Lakers head coach Frank Vogel after the victory. "The Opening Night, the way these two teams are built: they're both championship caliber teams in the same city, and we know there's going to be a drama around that, and it's great for the league to see these two franchises go head-to-head."
Anthony Davis led the way with 34 points, LeBron James sank his first go-ahead basket with 15 seconds or less remaining in a game since he joined the Lakers, and Waiters added 11 points off the bench in his debut. Smith and Morris combined for 10 minutes, but no points.
“It felt like a real game to me, two teams battling. ... Can’t complain for the first game,” Davis said.
The Clippers new faces didn't fare much better. Marcus Morris was held scoreless in 18 minutes of action. Reggie Jackson, inserted into the starting lineup before the game, scored 10 points, and Joakim Noah had just one point in 10 minutes.
However, the Clippers were without some of their star players, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, both seen as favorites for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award this season, missed the game after leaving the bubble for personal reasons and are now still under quarantine following their return.
"You know, we were shorthanded and we made too many mistake," said Clippers' coach Doc Rivers after the loss.." It's a good lesson for the team. You can't make as many mistakes as we made in one game and be shorthanded."
The stars that were there contributed mightily. Kawhi Leonard scored 28 points in the return, and Paul George had 30, missing a potential game-winning three-pointer as time expired.
"The intensity was going to be there regardless if whether we were at Staples or not," said George after the contest. "You've got two teams that know each other very well based on personnel. It's a marathon, not a sprint, we'll take this game and we'll learn from the mistakes we had."
“It was a good game," added Leonard. “Still had fun out there. It was great to be back on the floor."
Despite how drastically the world and the NBA now look since Opening Night back in October, the game of basketball has not changed. Between the two baselines the game remained the same on Thursday. Sure, there was some rust, but there was also some sensational dunks, jaw-dropping alley-oops, defensive stops, hot-shooting, and uncanny passing.
Despite the time apart since they last took the court—142 days to be exact—these were still two of the best teams in the NBA going toe-to-toe delivering knockout punches in one of the more intense battles of basketball you'll ever witness.
"This is the last level you can get as far as playing basketball," said James. "I'm fortunate to have played against a lot of great players to have graced this league over my 17-year career, and two of them were on the floor tonight on their team…that's what's fun about the game."
There may have been no fans, but the energy and emotions were real, raw, and palpable.
"Absolutely the intensity felt like Staples Center," said James. "We're two teams in the same city that's fighting for one common goal, and that's to win a championship and bring it to the city of Los Angeles and our respective fan base. No matter what the cause is, the bubble is, no fans or fans, basketball is basketball, and competitive spirit is competitive spirit and we got right back to where we left off tonight."