As 22 NBA teams prepare to restart their engines July 31, L.A.’s two-pronged championship chase picks up anew — in accordance with a wildly unprecedented plan that’s being unfurled in the midst of the national uprising happening during a global pandemic.
“Basketball offers no vaccine, no cure,” Paul George said as he narrated a video from the Clippers’ addressing all that’s happening in the United States. “Only an example of teamwork, of togetherness.”
But Matt Barnes, a former Laker and Clipper turned prolific basketball commentator, suggested there are members of both L.A. squads who feel uncomfortable with the idea of playing while the nation is embroiled in protests over racism and police brutality. Barnes said in an interview with Yahoo Sports’ “Dunk Bait” that “there are some whispers about some teams not being comfortable. Some guys want to play and some don’t want to play.”
Nonetheless, the NBA board of governors and the players association gave their approval last week to a return-to-play proposal that set in motion the resumption of the season at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.
Starting with eight seeding games per team in Orlando, the first-place Lakers and second-place Clippers will try to recapture the momentum they’d built before March 11, when the league slammed on the brakes in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The seeding games will set up a play-in tournament set for Aug. 16 and 17, according to the Athletic’s Shams Charania, who also reported Monday that the first round will commence Aug. 18, followed by the second round Sept. 1, the conference finals Sept. 15 and then, with Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Sept. 30.
“A couple guys from the Lakers and the Clippers … there are some whispers about some teams not being comfortable. Some guys want to play and some don’t want to play.”@Matt_Barnes22 on players wanting injustices in the black community addressed before basketball resumes. pic.twitter.com/C3ULiUaZ7u
— Dunk Bait (@DunkBait) June 7, 2020
— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) June 8, 2020
Without real home-court advantage to play for (save, possibly, for some creative incentives that could reproduce the advantage for teams “hosting” playoff series), the eight seeding games will be all about jockeying for matchups.
But while New Orleans fights for the eighth and final seed and the Rockets try to avoid slipping into seventh and ending up with a first-round date with the Clippers, L.A.’s pair of contenders will play to maintain their position atop the heap.
When the season was suspended, the 49-14 Lakers had won eight of 10 games and were the only team in the Western Conference to have clinched a postseason berth, ensuring the end of their six-season playoff drought on March 7 with a resounding 113-103 win over the Eastern Conference-leading Milwaukee Bucks.
As the Clippers left things, they’d won seven of eight games and held the second seed, at 44-20 overall — 5 ½ games behind the Lakers in the standings and 1 ½ ahead of the Denver Nuggets.
Who will the Clippers and Lakers play?
For the eight games ahead of the playoffs, every team will pick up its schedule where they left off. When a game comes up against a team that isn’t one of the 22 invited to Orlando, or against a team that’s already played its final eight games, they’ll skip over that opponent and move on to the next.
The Lakers are one of four teams — along with Miami, Orlando and Portland — whose remaining schedule won’t accommodate eight games by the conclusion of their schedule. The league conceivably will fill in those teams’ final games by pitting them against one another, although that’s not been determined officially.
So the Lakers’ schedule will look like this: Rockets, Nuggets, Jazz, Jazz, Raptors, Pacers, (and possibly the Trail Blazers, Heat or Magic).
The Clippers’ seeding schedule: Nets, Pelicans, Mavericks, Nuggets, Suns, Nets, Pacers, Thunder.
For the Clippers, it’s health, always health.
They’d played only 11 games this season with a fully healthy lineup, and they lost only one of those contests — to the Lakers. The Clippers managed to stay successfully afloat despite using 29 starting lineups and the fact that neither Kawhi Leonard (knee) nor Paul George (shoulders) was totally healthy entering the season.
The Clippers were making it a point to do everything possible to protect their stars’ health ahead of an anticipated playoff push, including keeping Leonard out of one game of every back-to-back set as part of his treatment for an ongoing injury to the patella tendon in his left knee. The long, unexpected layoff should should bolster the health of Leonard and George, although there’s risk in ramping up quickly after not having played a game in months.
There’s also the matter or incorporating new addition Joakim Noah, who was acquired March 9 on what was to have been a 10-day contract: “There are certain individuals that this rest period, or whatever this is called, has been a benefit (for), and Jo is one of them for sure,” coach Doc Rivers said on a Zoom session with reporters during the hiatus. “He’s gotten a chance now to get healthy and to get in shape. That’ll be a factor for us.”
For the Lakers, there’s the question about whether they might bring back DeMarcus Cousins, whom they signed last summer before he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee and later waived to make space for Markieff Morris.
With the NBA reportedly working on plans that will permit teams to replace players in the event of positive coronavirus tests or serious injuries while they finish the season in the Orlando bubble, it’s likely that rosters will expand. With extra time off to rehab, could Cousins be available to give the Lakers the stretch 5 they’re otherwise missing?
Another question for the high-energy Lakers, who are accustomed to feeling at home even when they’re away, feeding off fan support in every NBA city: How will they handle playing without spectators?
“I don’t know how we can play a game without our fans,” Dwight Howard on a Zoom conference with reporters last month. “I don’t know how anybody could. I think it might be different for fighting, boxing and stuff like that. But for basketball, that’s like the energy. We feed off that. We feed off the crowd. Especially at home. But everywhere is at home for us. When we’re hearing ‘Ko-be! Ko-be!’ or whatever we’re hearing, it’s kind of like they give us more energy. It’s like no matter what’s going on, we have those people behind us. So to be playing games and stuff like that, it would be hard.”
Tentative NBA postseason dates:
Aug. 16-17: Play-in tourney
Aug. 18: First round
Sept. 1: Second round
Sept. 15: Conference Finals
Sept. 30: Finals Game 1pic.twitter.com/Y2bL8CpkSL
— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) June 8, 2020