Lakers star LeBron James and Clippers star Kawhi Leonard
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It was already the strangest NBA season before the coronavirus hit

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This just feels weird.

To be sitting on the couch in late March and streaming “The Peanut Butter Falcon” or “Don’t f*** with cats” because there isn’t any basketball to watch feels wrong. No NBA battles for the eighth seed, no late pushes for Defensive Player of the Year or even MVP. No NCAA March Madness. Nothing. And no idea when the NBA is coming back.

It’s been the strangest of NBA seasons. One that feels like a scene out of Space Jam.

The thing is, this was already the strangest of NBA seasons before the novel coronavirus forced the league to suspend games back on March 11.

Just think about all the stuff we saw before the coronavirus changed our lives.

One Daryl Morey Tweet upends NBA’s relationship with China

The NBA season hadn’t even started when things got weird. Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey sent out a Tweet showing support for the protestors in Hong Kong, a Tweet that barely registered a ripple of recognition stateside. NBA players or people from teams getting political barely generates a shrug here because we’re both used to it and had the concepts of free speech baked into us at a young age.

In China, Morey’s Tweet touched the third rail of politics and things blew up. Soon sponsors were pulling out of deals and NBA games were off Chinese television. When the NBA released a statement that read as wanting to appease the league’s business partners in China, plenty of people stateside — Senators and presidential candidates, even the creators of South Park — pounced to make a political point, saying the NBA was putting the almighty dollar over the freedom of speech it says it champions. The league had to come out and set the record straight with a second statement, backing Morey, and then hoping it would all blow over.

It has not, at least not completely. NBA games are still not broadcast on state-run television in China (although they can be streamed on Tencent) and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said this cost the NBA “hundreds of millions of dollars,” ultimately suggesting it could be about $400 million. It’s unclear if the NBA will be back in China for the preseason next year (or, when preseason will be). The coronavirus seemed to hit pause on everything with the NBA and China.

The shocking and untimely death of Kobe Bryant.

Before the coronavirus literally stopped it, the entire NBA world seemed to grind to a halt on Jan. 26, when a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and seven others crashed into a foggy hillside in Calabasas, California. There were no survivors.

Tributes poured in — not just at Staples Center but from around the NBA and around the world. Kobe’s impact and inspiration were global. His “Mamba Mentality” had influenced a generation of players (and people not in basketball), and he came to be a guru of sorts that countless current players leaned on for advice — Devin Booker even got a Kobe-related tattoo based on Kobe’s words to him.

Nothing, however, was as moving as the Kobe Celebration of Life that came at Staples Center. Kobe’s wife, Vanessa, gave a powerful speech that brought an arena to tears.

Michael Jordan — the man that helped fuel Kobe and became his friend — spoke from his heart. He also had the funniest line of the day.

Kobe was also the focus of a tribute — and an intense fourth quarter — at a re-imagined All-Star Game.

At Staples Center (even for Clippers games), the numbers and names of the other legendary Lakers’ players have been covered up, and just Kobe’s 8 and 24 were visible in the rafters. It seemed a fitting tribute this season.

The Houston Rockets go all-in on small ball

Morey, before he pissed off a nation, made a bold move last summer to try and push the Rockets into contention — he traded for Russell Westbrook.

That alone was strange because Westbrook was the guy who stayed and embraced Oklahoma City when Kevin Durant bolted for Golden State a few years prior, then Westbrook went on a historic run of triple-doubles. However, when Paul George forced his way to the Clippers via trade, Westbrook relented and went to join another former Thunder star in James Harden in Houston.

It never really worked, not on a contender level, anyway. Harden and Westbrook played next to, not really with, each other and Houston didn’t look any better than they did the season before (the Rockets were 34-20 at the All-Star break, they won 33 games before the break the season before).

But before the break lame-duck coach Mike D’Antoni found something that worked: real small-ball. Start P.J. Tucker — a 6’5″ corner-three shooting forward — at center, have nobody taller than 6’7″ on the floor. Make sure everybody can shoot the rock, and make other teams adapt to them. It may have been a lineup tried first out of injury desperation, but it worked. The Rockets went so all-in they traded center Clint Capela to Atlanta at the deadline.

For a while, it all came together and the Rockets went on a streak winning 10-of-12 and shot back up the standings. Eventually teams seemed to adapt (there was a four-game losing streak just before the suspension) and there were legitimate questions about how it all would hold up in the playoffs, but in the regular season the Rockets were must-watch television again.

And Harden is going to win another scoring title, averaging 34.4 points per game.

The resurgence of a 35-year-old LeBron James as serious MVP candidate

Nobody questioned that LeBron James could still dominate basketball games, we had seen it in the playoffs for years. When focused, he was still as good as anyone on the planet, a dominant force of nature unlike anyone else the NBA had seen (or, at least seen since MJ or Wilt).

However, for years, LeBron had largely coasted through the regular season, particularly on the defensive end. He was saving energy, not dialing it up every night, and placing a priority on the postseason over the regular season. This had gone back to his second stint in Cleveland — where he won another title — and continued into his first injury-riddled season in Los Angeles.

Not this season. At age 35, LeBron held nothing back. He came out of the gate playing hard on both ends of the floor every night, becoming a disrupting defensive force while scoring 25.7 points per game and leading the league with 10.6 assists a game every night. He was attacking again like we hadn’t seen in years.

It feld weird bcause it was unexpected at this age. We’d need to go back to Karl Malone, or maybe Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to find a player at this age having this kind of impact.

LeBron, driven by the arrival of Anthony Davis and the realization he does not have that many years left in the game to win another title, had played at an MVP level all season. The award may well go to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who had another spectacular season as well and pushed his Bucks squad close to 70 wins, but the impact of LeBron was unquestionable. When he sat, the Lakers’ offense struggled, which is a big part of the “valuable” portion of his MVP case. The season being cut short hurt LeBon’s chances to make that case over the final 20 games.

There was a real rivalry in Los Angeles for once

For many years, the Clippers had been — at best — the cute little brother in Los Angeles. They were not the heart of Los Angeles basketball or a bigger draw, even when the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin “Lob City” Clippers were clearly the better team and a potential contender. The Los Angeles market always has been about the Lakers. There also was no feeling of a rivalry because even the years the Clippers had been better the Lakers were not in the mix for a title. The little brother was not in the way.

This season the LeBron/Davis Lakers were legit title contenders — and the Clippers may be their biggest foe.

The Clippers are no longer the backward-run franchise of the Donald Sterling years, this is one of the best-run franchises in the league now and that word had gotten around to players. The Clippers were a team guys wanted to play for, Steve Ballmer was an owner guys wanted to play for.

That helped the Clippers win the off-season, landing Kawhi Leonard as a free agent and trading for Paul George. Combine those two elite talents with a playoff-level core already — Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Patrick Beverley, and the list goes on — and the Clippers were the deepest team on paper in the NBA. The Clippers were legitimate title threat, once they got healthy and put everyone on the court.

To make their point, the Clippers won the first two meetings in the battle of L.A., the Lakers the most recent one (and one that felt like a playoff game), but the real test of seven games was ahead in the playoffs.

Lakers’ fans will try to deny this is a rivalry yet — “what have they won, look at the ringzzzzzz” — but in the last meeting of these teams in the regular season everyone could sense it. Lakers fans realized the Clippers were their biggest threat (with the Bucks in that mix). Around Los Angeles, Lakers fans don’t look at the Clippers as their little brothers, they look at a rival and legitimate threat. Which, for anyone who grew up in Los Angeles, or as an NBA fan, is just strange.

The crash of Golden State from five-straight NBA Finals to worst team in the NBA

Everyone understood this would be a down season — a “gap year” — for the Warriors. Kevin Durant had left for Brooklyn, and after tearing his ACL in last year’s Finals nobody expected Klay Thompson to suit up this season (except maybe Thompson himself).

Then four games into the season, Stephen Curry fractured his hand, followed by four months of missed action.

At that point, the wheels came off, and the Golden State Warriors went from the team that went to five straight NBA Finals to the worst team in the NBA. The Warriors were 15-50 when play was suspended, leaving them with the worst record in the league by 4.5 games. Even with Curry back, and now a healthy Andrew Wiggins on the wing (the book is still out on that trade), the Warriors were going to finish near the bottom of the pack.

It has always been all about next season for the Warriors: A healthy Curry, Thompson, and Draymond Green, with Wiggins, a high draft pick (or whomever they can trade that for), and a solid bench, should put the Warriors back near the top of the NBA. This season, however, was a strange and ugly one for the Warriors.

The midseason resurgence of Carmelo Anthony

Carmelo Anthony was outside the NBA looking in. After being waived by the Rockets 10 games into the 2018-19 NBA season, the future Hall of Famer could not find a new home. No team picked him up last season, no team wanted to sign him this summer. The concerns from teams were mainly about Anthony’s defense — never good it had been a disaster in Houston — and whether the production was worth the attention he would bring.

Enter Portland. Already without Jusuf Nurkic for much of the season, and early rash of injuries — including to Zach Collins, sidelining him most of the season — left Portland desperate for frontcourt help. They turned to Anthony in a marriage of desperation.

It worked. Anthony averaged 15.3 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, and he provided a solid forward presence to the team — even getting named Western Conference Player of the Week one week.

At age 35, Carmelo Anthony proved he was not washed. He’s going to get to walk away from the NBA on his own terms (probably). Which is amazing and a little weird considering where we were a year ago.

Luka Doncic having Dallas on pace for the greatest offense in NBA history. Statistically.

Last season, the Golden State Warriors put together the greatest team offensive season in NBA history, with an offensive net rating of 115.9 (that’s points scored per 100 possessions). That just bested the 1987 Showtime Lakers and the 2017 version of the Warriors, who had net ratings of 115.6. Then came the 1992 Jordan Bulls and last season’s James Harden/Chris Paul Rockets at 115.5.

This season’s Dallas Mavericks, led by second-year player Luka Doncic, blew them all out of the water.

Dallas had an offensive rating of 116.7 when play was suspended. Through 67 games, Dallas had been the best of them all, with Doncic’s masterful pick-and-roll decision making setting up Kristaps Porzingis, Tim Hardaway Jr., Seth Curry, and others in a game of marksmanship. Dallas has been entertaining, and Doncic has pushed his way into getting MVP votes (down-ballot, but still top five) with his play.

The high offensive rating may be a product of the times and three-point shooting, but it’s still weird to say this Dallas offense may have been better than any other. Ever.

There was so much more

The strangeness of this NBA season went beyond all that. There was:

• The likely end of San Antonio’s 22-season playoff streak.
Ja Morant mania.
Zion Williamson mania surpassing Morant-mania.
• John Beilein’s weird, short tenure as Cavaliers coach.
• Kenny Atkinson getting fired late in a playoff season for his injury-riddled Brooklyn team.

And that list goes on; it was all weird.

Then the coronavirus came and made it all that much stranger.

Raptors rookie Terence Davis arrives to game with hole in mask

Raptors rookie Terence Davis
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The NBA – with threat of fine and suspension – reminded everyone inside the bubble to wear their masks.

Why issue that warning now?

Maybe because of Raptors rookie Terence Davis.

Davis arrived to Toronto’s win over the Lakers on Saturday with a hole in his mask.

Perhaps, it was inadvertent. Accidental rips happen. But it’s hard to give Davis the benefit of the doubt after his social-media activity:

Undrafted, Davis has a lot of confidence in himself. He earned that in basketball. If the cut were deliberate, he ought to give more credence to actual coronavirus experts.

Masks are highly important for the general population. We often don’t know whether we have coronavirus. Testing is insufficient, especially of asymptomatic cases. So, everyone in the outside world should wear a mask to reduce the spread.

On the other hand, NBA players – like Davis – can reasonably know they don’t have coronavirus. The NBA’s program of daily testing and no close contact with anyone outside the bubble is designed to ensure a coronavirus-free bubble. That’s why five-on-five basketball games – an otherwise dangerous activity – can be played safely.

However, masks between games are an extra layer of protection. What if a player – intentionally or not – comes into too close of contact with someone outside the bubble who has coronavirus? Masks would limit the spread of coronavirus within the bubble.

All coronavirus precautions should be measured through a cost-benefit lens. Wearing an intact mask can be unpleasant, and it’s somewhat superfluous for NBA players inside the bubble. But the health of everyone inside the bubble plus all the money at stake makes it an easy call.

Wear the mask, and wear it correctly.

NBA’s bubble works so far, allows “great stage” for dramatic games

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — So far, so good.

The NBA’s bubble remains intact. The extraordinary health protocols put into place to try and save this season seem to be working. The mission shared by coaches and players to use their platform and continue the conversation about racial injustice is off to a strong start.

Through four days, here’s just some of what has happened at Walt Disney World: LeBron James had a game-winner for the Los Angeles Lakers, T.J. Warren put his name all over the Indiana record book with a 53-point outburst, Houston and Dallas combined for more than 300 points in a game, the defending champion Toronto Raptors came out flying and Joel Embiid had a 41-point, 21-rebound night — in a loss.

And don’t forget the symmetry: Rudy Gobert was the first player to test positive for coronavirus, so naturally, it made sense that the Utah center was the first player to score when the pandemic shutdown was officially over.

If that wasn’t enough, the quality of play is so good that it’s almost like the NBA hadn’t stopped playing for 4-1/2 months. Shooting percentages and scoring averages, through the first four days anyway, are basically right where they were when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. And there has been a ton of down-to-the-wire drama, with eight of the 19 games played through Sunday decided by five points or less.

“In all honestly, it’s better than I was expecting … talking about all the teams in general,” San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. “Everybody is much crisper. They look more in rhythm than I ever expected teams would be. Whether it’s the best team with the highest seed or other people like us who are just trying to get into the playoffs, everybody’s a lot sharper than I would have expected.”

If the season ended Sunday night, Popovich and the Spurs — whose playoff chances were in serious trouble when the season was stopped — would be in a play-in series for a chance at the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference. And in the Eastern Conference, there would be a first-round rematch from a year ago with the Raptors taking on the Orlando Magic; they’re both on five-game winning streaks, and the Magic are on the best scoring roll in the history of their franchise.

For as much as has been made about the difficulties of being in a bubble and away from families, friends and freedom of movement, turns out, there might be some advantages to this thing.

“Seriously, it’s a great stage to play,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “There’s not a lot of distractions. It’s the same court every night, so you get your shooting depth perception and all of that. It’s pure basketball. So, you see some of the talents these guys have are coming out.”

The numbers inside the bubble are ridiculous.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the reigning MVP and probable winner of the award again this year, had 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists for Milwaukee in the Bucks’ first real game in the bubble. How did he follow that up? Try 36 points again, 18 rebounds and eight assists in the Bucks’ loss to Houston on Sunday night.

Portland’s Damian Lillard had 30 points and 16 assists in a loss to Boston on Sunday. Kyle Lowry had 33 points and 14 rebounds in Toronto’s win over the Lakers. Dallas’ Luka Doncic is averaging a triple-double in his two bubble games. The Rockets beat the Mavs 153-149 in overtime Friday and then tried 61 3-pointers to tie an NBA regulation-game record Sunday.

On top of all that, there’s the messaging — “Black Lives Matter” on the court, “Black Lives Matter” on the shirts that most players and coaches have worn as teams kneel together for the national anthems pregame, the way coaches like Popovich turn ordinary pregame questions into opportunities to educate about racism. He was asked Sunday if Marco Belinelli was playing; Popovich spent the next 3 minutes and 21 seconds to speak about how Black people in North Carolina were required to pass a literacy test to vote but white people were not.

And then he answered the question: “Marco Belinelli is out tonight,” Popovich said.

So far, so good.

On every level, pretty much, other than the news that arrived early Monday about Jonathan Isaac and how the Orlando forward tore the ACL in his left knee — an injury that would likely put all of next season, if it happens, into question for a big part of the Magic future.

The rust, whatever there was for most players, seems gone. Playoffs are just two weeks away, and momentum already seems to be building.

“I think it’s only going to get better,” D’Antoni said. “I think the playoffs are going to be terrific. And it’s a great setting.”

Three Things to Know: Haven’t we learned by now not to bet against the Spurs?

San Antonio playoffs
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack — especially with games spread out every day in the bubble — so every weekday during the NBA restart we are here to help you break it all down. Here are three things you need to know from yesterday in the NBA.

1) As Pelicans and Trail Blazers stumble, shorthanded Spurs win again to become nine seed in West.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the San Antonio Spurs?

The Spurs have made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons, a legendary run that was coming to an end this year (with Tim Duncan coaching from the bench rather than draining wing bank shots). The Spurs entered the bubble shorthanded and undersized. San Antonio was four games back of eighth-seed Memphis and having to leap both New Orleans and Portland, plus the Spurs were without LaMarcus Aldridge, their best big man.

Count them out at your own risk.

After beating Memphis Sunday behind 21 and 10 from Dejounte Murray, the Spurs are currently the ninth seed in the West — if the season ended today, San Antonio is in the playoffs and would face Memphis in a play-in series.

The Spurs have gone to a four-guard starting lineup — Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, DeMar DeRozan, with Jakob Poeltl as the big — and that lineup is messing with teams. On defense, they switch everything 1-4 and bank on Poeltl to protect the rim. On offense they run and play at pace — they have moved away from leading scorer DeRozan for a more balanced, egalitarian offense.

“We need to play with pace. We don’t have one-on-one players,” coach Gregg Popovich said after a recent win. “We don’t give the ball to a player and say, ‘beat your guy and go score.’ That’s not the kind of players we have on the team. We’ve got to do it as a group. We’ve got to have movement and pace goes along with that.”

The bench behind that starting five — Patty Mills, Rudy Gay, and Drew Eubanks — follows the same premise.

It works — and it’s fun to watch.

The teams that were the favorites to earn the ninth seed are stumbling. New Orleans is 0-2 and has been a mess — Zion Williamson is playing 15 minutes a night, they struggle to defend the paint, and in the bubble their offense has been atrocious. Portland’s offense has been impressive with Jusuf Nurkic — even if Damian Lillard is passing up game-tying threes — but their defense has been as bad as the offense is good, and the result is a 1-1 record with a tough schedule ahead. (The Kings are 0-2 and shorthanded, and while the Suns are 2-0 they were so far back to start they were never in this race.)

Like every year, here come the Spurs, putting a makeshift lineup out there and looking like a team that has a shot at making the postseason. Again.

You’d think we’d all have learned by now not to bet against the Spurs…

2) Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac tears ACL

This sucks.

Jonathan Isaac had been having a breakout season — and looking like an All-Defensive Team player — until a left knee bone bruise sidelined him in January. The break in play caused by the coronavirus let him return for the restart, and now this?

Driving to the basket Sunday — late in a blowout game where he was still in to help build up his conditioning — Isaac tried to plant on that left knee and it buckled under him. It was a non-contact injury that looked bad when it happened. He was taken off the court in a wheelchair.

Later the word came from the Magic, Isaac had a torn left ACL. He’s obviously done for this restart and likely will miss all of next season as well.

Isaac had made more news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds. On the court, he was seen as a cornerstone of what Orlando wants to build.

This is a punch to the gut for Orlando.

3) Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like MVP with 36 points, but Rockets’ former MVPs take the win

This game was the ultimate clash of styles: The big and long Milwaukee Bucks who dare teams to take above-the-break threes, against the small-ball Houston Rockets.

This game was a reminder why Houston is going to be so much trouble in a playoff series — teams have yet figured out how to play against them. For the first couple of games of a playoff series the Rockets could surprise teams, and that may be enough.

Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 36 points, had 18 rebounds and eight assists on the night, but it wasn’t enough. The Rockets took 61 threes (hitting 21, 34.4%), Russell Westbrook scored 31, and Houston got the win 120-116.

Milwaukee led by six in the final minutes and by one with 16.5 seconds left, but in the clutch all night Westbrook was able to drive and draw fouls. James Harden had 24 points, but it was Westbrook’s play at the end that was the difference. Well, that and some defense by Harden and P.J. Tucker that led to Danuel House stealing an Antetokounmpo and sealing the win with free throws.

The Rockets are rested and fresh, and the small-ball game is still finding teams not exactly sure how to deal with them. Will that work in a seven-game series remains to be seen, but this is such a fun experiment to watch.

Orlando’s Jonathan Isaac suffers torn ACL in left knee

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Jonathan Isaac, who returned from a left knee injury to play for Orlando in the bubble, has torn his left ACL and is out for the remainder of this season. And likely the next one.

It was a non-contact injury that occurred when Isaac drove into the paint Sunday, tried to plant on his left leg, and felt his knee buckle under him.

Isaac had been in the news in Orlando for his decision to stand for the national anthem, explaining his decision was based on religious grounds.

It’s a blow to the Magic, who believe Isaac is one of the cornerstones of their future. He was having a breakout season until he suffered a posterior lateral corner injury and a bone bruise back in January. Now comes this. Teammate Aaron Gordon said he was in tears when the injury happened.

All those injuries came in a season Isaac was making a leap on the court. On offense, he’s averaged 12 points and 6.9 rebounds a game, both career bests. However, his bigger impact is on the defensive end, where he is a long, athletic, switchable defender averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game. He might have made the All-Defensive team if healthy.

Now, it will be a couple of years before we get to see Isaac on the court again.