Five Takeaways From Last Night’s Awesome, Slightly Weird NBA Return

Michael Pina

After 141 long days without NBA basketball, the league returned Thursday night with a riveting doubleheader that saw both games come down to the final second. LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert, Zion Williamson (sort of), and several other familiar faces re-entered our lives in a game-playing capacity. It was nice to see. Here are five takeaways from the evening.

1. Social Justice was front and center. But also not really.

Before both of last night’s games, every referee, player, and head coach kneeled during the national anthem. In a row along the same sideline, some locked arms and a few raised their fists. Commissioner Adam Silver was cool with it. Player’s union executive director Michelle Roberts, called the act “powerfully moving.”

These images represent at least symbolic progress since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee four years ago. But, zooming out, the entire broadcast’s approach to the movement felt like sanitized, rehearsed, corporate-sponsored activism. The message had to awkwardly stand beside the relief of being able to watch sports again. After his Lakers pulled off a last-second win, LeBron James was immediately awarded with a postgame interview that allowed him to say “police brutality” and “racism” in front of millions, but more could’ve been done.

Players spent the weeks leading up to last night’s opener demanding Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron prosecute the three officers who killed Breonna Taylor. At the very least it would’ve been nice to amplify that particular fight—Taylor’s name is not on the list of league-approved phrases that players can choose to wear on their jersey, but what about, say, airing educational explainers on white privilege or displaying graphics about voter suppression?

Expressing solidarity on behalf of a meaningful cause is good. But if the NBA really wants to use its platform to accelerate change, last night’s show could’ve gone deeper.

2. Keeping your last name is a power move. Instead of promoting one of the NBA-sanctioned social messages on the back of their jersey through at least the restart’s first four days, several superstars**** wore their own name on the back of their jerseys last night: LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, and Paul George, to name a few. Intentional or not, the contrast with so many other, less starry players who had “Equality” or “Black Lives Matter” stitched across their shoulders made the decision seem like a statement by the league’s elite. Hats off to them.

3. LeBron is truly aging like a fine wine—even if his graybeard is gone. During warm-up scrimmages, LeBron had gray streaks on both sides of his beard—he looked like Zeus. Sadly, those were invisible last night, but oh my god LeBron James was crisp, from the several key instances in which he bottled up Kawhi Leonard to how he made scoring the ball look so easy in crunchtime.

Before he put back his own miss for the game-winning bucket, LeBron beelined through the gut of L.A.’s defense for a layup with just over a minute to go. Five seconds later he forced Leonard to pick up his dribble for the 79th time, which led to a Clippers turnover. On the final Clippers possession, he forced Kawhi to rush a pass to Paul George, switched out on PG, then contested his would-be-game-winner without committing a foul. It was vintage. Who cares if he shot 31%?

4. The artificial crowd noise is too real. It was almost hard to tell that the players were competing in an empty gym. Aside from the new camera dollies that provided slightly different angles, the visuals were almost identical to normal times. And between the whistles, buzzers, artificial cheers, squeaking sneakers, music, PA announcements, and three-second delays of silence whenever a player loudly swears, same deal with the audio experience.

There were stretches where we could hear players chirping, encouraging each other on defense to keep their hands up and out. More of that, please. I want to hear the refs. I want to hear the coaches. I want to hear strategy being discussed and abusive taunts being hurled.

(Related: Stan Van Gundy was unsurprisingly terrific. The outspoken ex-coach-turned-social-media-celebrity was informative, concise, and direct working as the color commentator for Utah vs. New Orleans. His analysis was spot on, and he spoke confidently and clear on topics other announcers might shy away from. Follow him on Twitter if for some strange reason you aren’t already.)

5. Rudy Gobert’s redemption. The Jazz center’s coronavirus diagnosis was the trigger for the NBA shutdown back on March 11th, and a key moment in America recognizing the seriousness of the disease in general. The aftermath included a few months of stories about his rocky relationship with star guard Donovan Mitchell, who wasn’t pleased with his teammate’s careless behavior. Gobert scored the first basket of the restart, and later sunk two clutch free-throws that pushed Utah to victory. Mitchell scored eight points in the game's final 4 minutes and 9 seconds Thursday after spending most of the first three quarters fending off very rude defense from Jrue Holiday. With 10 seconds left, the young All-Star finally shook Holiday before he fittingly threaded a silky no-look dump-off to Gobert.

Good for both of them.

****OK, longtime superstar-turned-key-role-player Dwight Howard used his last name too, as did solid 3-and-D man Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.

Originally Appeared on GQ

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