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Seven must-watch games from NBA Orlando restart

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The NBA is back… almost.

The plans are agreed to, the schedule is out, there’s a decision to focus on social justice, and now tip-off of the restarted season is a little more than a month away. Concerns are rising along with the coronavirus cases in Florida, but Friday Adam Silver said it would take a “significant spread” of the virus inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble to shut down the league again.

Which means we can start to focus on the must-watch games on the NBA schedule.

And that new schedule is stacked. Remove the eight worst teams from the mix, throw in the race for the eighth and some important seeding games, and every night there is a matchup worth watching. There are a lot of games with weight and meaning.

Here are our seven must-watch NBA games of the restart.

1) July 30: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers 9 p.m. (TNT)

Opening night we get the Hallway Series — just played 2,500 miles from the Staples Center hallways. It’s a matchup of (arguably) the two best playoff performers in the NBA right now — LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard — it’s the top teams in the West, two teams sharing a city, and a budding rivalry. That said, this could look a lot like two NFL teams meeting in week 16 knowing a playoff matchup looms — nobody wants to tip their hand. If there’s a matchup Doc Rivers loves, he’s not going to wear it out in this first game of the restart. Same with Frank Vogel. Expect some lineup experimentation and not too many minutes for the stars.

That said, it’s still opening night and both teams want to get off on the right foot. The Lakers need to find rotations that work without Avery Bradley and have some work to do. These are the best teams in the West, and fans or no fans the competitive juices will be flowing.

2) July 31: Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo has been clear-and-away the best team in the East this season, led by the best defense in the NBA. Boston has been the team on the rise this season, another top-five defense and with an emerging star in Jayson Tatum the Celtics look like the biggest threat to the Bucks Finals run. Milwaukee doesn’t have to worry about losing its seed, but it would love to make a statement — as would the Celtics.

3) Aug. 2: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets, 8 p.m. (ABC)

This will be pure fun. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. a skinny James Harden. The small-ball, bomb-from-three Rockets against the best defense in the NBA — a Bucks defense predicated on taking away the paint and forcing teams to beat them from three. Every game will matter for a Rockets team in the middle of a seeding fight in the West, but mostly this game just should be as entertaining as basketball gets.

4) Aug. 3: Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

An easy addition to the NBA’s must-watch games list. It’s more than just Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant… although it is that too. Zion was making a push in the Rookie of the Year race despite playing just 19 games — 40 fewer than Morant — and his only hope of catching the Grizzlies point guard is to completely outplay him in the restart and get the Pelicans into the playoffs. (Even that may not be enough.)

New Orleans had the easiest schedule remaining in the NBA when the league was forced to shut down. The league replicated that as best it could heading to Orlando — New Orleans is the only team where the cumulative records of their opponents are below .500. Throw in a healthy Zion ready to shock the world and the Pelicans are the biggest threat to get into a play-in tournament with the Grizzlies. Picking up a head-to-head win would be a huge plus for the Pelicans in that chase.

5) Aug. 7: Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors, 9 p.m. (TNT)

These two teams are the second and third best teams in the East — but in what order? Toronto has been an elite defensive team this season, Pascal Siakam has taken a step forward, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are still making veteran plays, coach Nick Nurse has been nothing short of brilliant, and the Raptors look every bit the dangerous defending champions. But do they have an answer for the emerging Tatum and an interesting, switchable Boston team on the rise? Bet the under in this game, both defenses are far better than the offenses.

6) Aug. 10: Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (TNT)

Skinny Nikola Jokic is for real — but are the Nuggets for real? Denver will likely finish as the third seed in the West, but in NBA circles there is a sense this team is headed for another early playoff exit in a tight West. Denver’s defense looked good on paper early in the season, but a lot of that was just teams missing shots they usually hit (looking at the NBA’s Second Spectrum tracking data). The Nuggets have to find that defense and answer other questions, such as can Jamal Murray step up and be a No. 2 option on a dangerous playoff team? There would be no better time for Denver to make a statement before the playoffs than beating LeBron James and the top team in the West.

7) Aug. 12: Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Philadelphia is the dangerous darkhorse in the East. They are long, they can defend (sixth-best in the NBA this season), they have an elite big man in Joel Embiid who can carry the team for a stretch, they get a healthy Ben Simmons back, and they got one of the softer schedules in Orlando. If the Sixers can just find enough shooting to both score and space the floor, watch out. This will be a good test for them, going against the defending champs and a team with both talent and a real identity.

Toronto knows who it is, does Philadelphia.

Players’ social media provides early glimpse of life inside NBA bubble

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Starting Tuesday (and through Thursday), players began arriving in Orlando to enter the NBA bubble and restart of the season.

Immediately, some took to social media to document the experience.

What’s life in the bubble like? For the first 24-48 hours, it looks like a hotel room — players get a coronavirus test soon after arrival, then have to quarantined in their hotel room until they pass that and a second test at least 24 hours later and are cleared. What are the rooms like? Orlando’s Evan Fournier gave us a glimpse.

Stuck in their rooms, the players are watching TV and eating the room-service meals provided — and food became an NBA Twitter topic.

Brooklyn’s Chris Chiozza had a meal that looked a little better.

As for the food, it should be noted the players will eat a lot better in the NBA bubble once they can go to the restaurants in the hotels, it’s just for the first couple days of quarantine they have to eat the mass-produced room service meals.

No matter the food, no matter how nice the room is, being stuck in a hotel room for a couple of days straight is not a lot of fun — which is why CJ McCollum had his own wine shipped to him at the hotel, just for this moment. At least he’s got a good glass.

Utah’s Jordan Clarkson summed up the mood of a lot of players those first couple of quarantine days in Orlando.

Things will look a lot better in a few days when players are out of their rooms and out on the practice courts.

Rudy Gobert to replace name on jersey with ‘Equality’ as first social justice messages leak

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“Equality” and “Vote” have proven popular among the first social justice messages on the back of NBA player jerseys have been leaked to the public.

The choices of nine NBA players were leaked by Chris Haynes of TNT and Yahoo Sports on Tuesday during Inside the NBA on TNT. Here is the first list:

Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz) – “Equality”
CJ McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers) – “Education Reform”
Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trail Blazers) – ‘Equality”
Kent Bazemore (Sacramento Kings) – “Education Reform”
Matisse Thybulle (Philadelphia 76ers) – “Vote”
Pat Connaughton (Milwaukee Bucks) – “Equality”
Meyers Leonard (Miami Heat) – “Equality”
Ivica Zubac (Los Angeles Clippers) – “Enough”
Moe Wagner (Wizards) – “Vote”

The NBA is a multi-billion dollar business, so it wanted to allow for social justice messages on jerseys — but not any social justice message. It had to come from a pre-approved list (read: things that felt “safe” and would not offend the core audience). That did not sit well with players, but everyone is headed to Orlando for the restart for financial reasons, so of course this was a business decision. The list of approved messages is:

Black Lives Matter; Say Their Names; Vote; I Can’t Breathe; Justice; Peace; Equality; Freedom; Enough; Power to the People; Justice Now; Say Her Name; Sí Se Puede (Yes We Can); Liberation; See Us; Hear Us; Respect Us; Love Us; Listen; Listen to Us; Stand Up; Ally; Anti-Racist; I Am A Man; Speak Up; How Many More; Group Economics; Education Reform; Mentor.

NBA players will be arriving in Orlando through Thursday as the NBA starts to form its bubble and begin practices.

NBA coaches preach flexibility as first real practices about to begin

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Practice facilities in the NBA have been open for a couple of months, with one major element missing from them.

No team has had an actual practice yet.

Most of the work that has gone on in those buildings during the NBA’s shutdown has been voluntary, and all of it has been of the individual variety – one player working at one basket with one ball. That changes starting Thursday, when the first handful of teams at the Disney complex will be permitted to have full-fledged practices again.

“Every day will be an adventure, a little bit of, `OK, here’s where we are today, this practice will reflect this, tomorrow’s practice might be totally different,”‘ Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “And that’s what makes it interesting. It makes it fun. But it’s a little bit like a training camp. Every year you know you lay out all these grand plans and about the third practice you go, `Ooop, they’re out.”‘

The teams that arrived at Disney on Tuesday, assuming quarantines are completed and other issues haven’t popped up, will likely be permitted to practice sometime Thursday. More teams arrive Wednesday and Thursday, so their first practice sessions, in theory, would be as early as Friday and Saturday respectively.

Teams will be assigned a three-hour window and be able to run practice on a pair of side-by-side courts, with training and weight rooms nearby. Disney staff will clean and disinfect everything after one team leaves, preparing it for the next team to arrive.

“Just like with probably everything the league is doing, I think it’d be wise to have a degree of flexibility sprinkled in with everything that you’re planning, a degree of being able to either back off or turn it up a little bit, either way,” Milwaukee coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But to be honest with you, that happens a lot even in the normal season. There’s a plan for the first practice and we’ll see how it goes.”

Players haven’t even been allowed to play 1-on-1 yet at team facilities, per the rules of the individual workouts. That all changes at Disney, where teams will be able to practice for about two weeks before a series of three scrimmages begin on July 22.

The season resumes on July 30. Players have said throughout the shutdown that having only three weeks of actual practice to get ready for game action may not be enough – but that’s what the league ultimately decided the schedule would allow.

Most NBA coaches – D’Antoni, Budenholzer, Dallas’ Rick Carlisle and more – are going into this believing that plans have to be flexible.

“It’s not going to be a typical training camp where you jump in on Day One and just go full-bore,” Carlisle said. “Our players have done a great job of working on their individual conditioning with individual workouts with the coaches on the floor on a 1-to-1 basis … so I feel really good about where we’re at. But this is a different situation, it’s a different time, it’s a different set of circumstances.”

Toronto, the reigning NBA champion, has been on the road for a couple of weeks already, getting their individual work in at a pre-camp of sorts in Fort Myers, Florida. The Raptors couldn’t get their pre-Disney work in at home because of travel restrictions that would have applied to players coming into Canada from the U.S.

Raptors coach Nick Nurse said his players haven’t dreaded the 1-on-0 work that they’ve been limited to so far, saying his team has approached these weeks with “great professionalism” and that his plans for Disney are fairly loose right now.

“I don’t really know where we’re at,” Nurse said. “I can see individually. I think we look really good. But, what will that translate to when we get back into, you know, calling plays and running defenses and doing some things? … I know that I’m sensing they really want to play basketball.”

The Los Angeles Lakers arrive at Disney on Thursday, and while coach Frank Vogel isn’t looking forward to weeks and potentially months away from his family, he believes the individual workouts have gotten the Western Conference leaders ready.

He said those solo sessions have been designed in large part to get players back into some sort of practice shape, with the hope of being able to hit the ground running when everyone can finally be together again at Disney.

“We just want it to be as high as possible to minimize risk of injury and just further the conditioning along as much as we can,” Vogel said. “So, guys have been able to work pretty diligently the last few days or so. And, you know, we’re looking forward to wrapping this up and getting on that plane.”

What worries Adam Silver? Positive tests inside NBA bubble

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Since testing started on June 23, 28 NBA players tested positive for the coronavirus, 8% of the players tested. That and the positive tests of team staff members (10 of them, 1.1% of the people tested) led to seven teams (at least at one point) shutting down their training facilities.

None of that greatly worried NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and league staff.

The company line is this: Positive tests were expected — this many or more — which is why testing began two weeks before teams flew to Florida for the restart. This gave time for players and staff who tested positive to recover and still go to Orlando for the restart if they wished. The league expects a few more positive tests as players arrive in Orlando this week.

So what does worry Adam Silver and league staff? Positive tests once the first round of testing is done in Orlando and the bubble is formed. Silver spoke (virtually) at the Fortune Brainstorm Health Tuesday and was asked what would happen if there was an outbreak among players in the bubble.

“It’s the right question, and I’m not sure yet.” He went on to say: “Certainly, if we had any sort of a significant spread at all within our campus, we would be shut down again.”

“It would be concerning if once [the players] sit through our quarantine period, and then were to test positive, we would know that, in essence, there’s a hole in our bubble,” Silver added. “That our campus is not working in some way.”

That is the nightmare scenario for the NBA: They set up the bubble — essentially trying to keep the rest of Florida and its spiking cases out of the NBA’s campus — and still the virus gets in and spreads. If that happens, even with all the NBA’s protocols and protections, it’s hard to imagine the NBA season finishing.

However, the NBA is confident the bubble will work, that players will follow the rules enough, that it will all come together and work. Plenty of people, players included, have their doubts. But everyone seems willing to give it a shot, and the NBA wants to push through this.

So long as Silver’s nightmare scenario doesn’t unfold.