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Clippers’ Paul George exits vs. Celts after hurting hamstring again

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BOSTON — The LA Clippers limp into the All-Star break with injury concerns after Paul George suffered a strained left hamstring again and was ruled out of Thursday night’s 141-133 double-overtime loss to the Boston Celtics.

The Clippers announced George was out at halftime because of the same injury that cost him nine straight games in January and a total of 10 games.

“He just told me that he felt his hamstring again,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said about when George hurt himself in the first half. “He said it wasn’t bad. I said you shouldn’t have told me that. I don’t think he wanted to come out. But once you tell me your hamstring, you feel anything, we have an All-Star break coming up, it’s a no-brainer for us.”

Rivers admitted he was worried about his guard, who had tightness in his left hamstring and missed a game against Memphis on Jan. 4. After returning and playing in a game, George strained his left hamstring during a practice on Jan. 8 and then sat out the next nine games.

He returned and played in the next seven games before straining the hamstring again in Boston after playing 15 minutes and scoring four points.

“Yeah I am,” Rivers said when asked if he was worried about George’s injury. “I’m a little concerned about that one because that’s the second time now, maybe third. Listen, I don’t know what to do, but I know rest you have to do and we’ll see.”

The Clippers return from the All-Star break and play next on Feb. 22 against Sacramento. Health has been an issue for the Clippers all season. Kawhi Leonard has been managing a knee issue that keeps him out of the second of back-to-back games. George didn’t start the season until Nov. 14, after offseason surgery on both of his shoulders.

Patrick Beverley missed his fourth straight game because of a sore right groin injury but was still scheduled to compete in the Skills Challenge at All-Star Weekend in Chicago.

Rivers said he likes what he has seen from the Clippers (37-18) despite having to use several starting lineups because of injuries and having a full roster available for only four games this season. But he knows the team needs a stretch of games where it is fully healthy.

“We had a first half of the season where we basically had more starting lineups than probably anybody in the league,” Rivers said. “Our record is pretty solid.

“We got to get healthy. That’s going to be the key for us. And then we got to play multiple games in a row as a group so we can kind of get some continuity. But other than that, I love our spirit, I love how we are. We’re good.”

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No matter the situation, basketball is basketball

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The rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers is so strong that even a global pandemic couldn’t stop the growing intensity between the two proud teams.

Despite the fact that the two teams were playing in the NBA’s bubble on the Walt Disney World campus Thursday night, they produced the same entertaining, high-level game they played the three times they met earlier this season at their shared home arena of Staples Center.

“We’re two teams in the same city and two teams that’s fighting for one common goal,” Lakers star LeBron James said on a video conference call after scoring 16 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and dishing out seven assists in the Lakers’ 103-101 win over the Clippers. “And that’s to win a championship and bring it to the city of Los Angeles and [each] fan base. So you have so many competitors on the floor — going out there and representing the purple and gold, representing Laker nation; those guys are doing the same thing for their fan base. No matter what the [situation] is, no matter what the bubble is, no fans, or [with] fans, basketball is basketball and competitive spirit is competitive spirit, so we’re right back to where we left off.”

Long before the NBA suspended its season March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Lakers and Clippers were pegged by many as the two best teams in the Western Conference. The battle for Los Angeles became one of the biggest showdowns of the season each time the teams squared off, a potential preview of the Western Conference finals. James acknowledged after Thursday’s game that the chance to square off against Clippers stars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George was one of the things he missed the most after over four months without NBA competition.

“Playing against the greatest basketball players in the world at this level,” James said. “This is the last level. This is the last level that you can get as far as playing basketball. … I’ve been playing against a lot of great players [in] this league in a 17-year career. Two of them was on the floor tonight [George and Leonard] on their side, and I have one on my team as well [in Anthony Davis] so just that competitive — that spirit, that fight. … You want to try to help even if you’re not shooting the ball well, you’re not able to do things, you can always help in other ways. Either by your voice or getting a defensive stop, just your presence. That’s what’s fun about the game.”

What made the game even more special for James was the fact that he made the go-ahead basket with 12.8 seconds left, after missing a 16-foot jump shot and getting his own rebound. It was the first time in his two seasons with the Lakers that he made a go-ahead basket in the final 15 seconds, according to ESPN Stats & Information. James previously had been 0-for-6 on those shots in his brief Lakers career.

James also scored or assisted on 13 of the Lakers’ 27 fourth-quarter points and played great defense on George in the waning seconds to close out the victory.

“I love having the ball in my hands late in the game, tie game, being down, being up,” James said. “We had a three-point game with like 40 seconds to go; we had a great look for Danny [Green], he missed it — Paul George came back and hit a 3 to tie the game. For me, just try to be aggressive. I felt like I got some contact at the elbow by Marcus Morris Sr.; they didn’t call it. But like it was told to me as a kid since I started playing basketball, there’s no whistle, you keep playing on. So I was able to follow my own shot and put us up, and put us up for good.”

With the win, James passed Lakers great Kobe Bryant and veteran forward Clifford Robinson and is now alone in ninth place on the all-time regular-season wins list with 837, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

While all signs point to the Lakers and Clippers squaring off again once the playoffs begin, Davis wasn’t getting wrapped up in the team’s first game back being a preview of what might come against its crosstown rival.

“I’m worried about my team, and that’s the Lakers,” Davis said. “We can’t control what other teams do, how they play and what they’re gonna do. So we only can control what we can control — and that’s how hard we play and going out there and competing every night.”

For James, performing again on the NBA stage in front of his some of his peers and close friends meant a lot. Confidants Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony were two of several players who came in on an off night to see the Lakers and Clippers square off.

“I think it’s a respect thing,” James said. “We’re all brotherhood, and definitely having CP and Melo. … Looking over there and seeing some of our guys in our league … I think it’s just pretty cool and hopefully throughout the course of this time that we are here I can make it to a few games too just out of the love for the game. You don’t have that much time to watch a game live over the course of a regular NBA schedule. … It’s a big AAU feeling for grown men and I want to try to take advantage of it.”

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Inside the first night of the NBA’s bold bubble experiment

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It’s not easy to recall the storylines and themes that dominated the 2019-20 NBA season prior to its suspension, which seems like eons ago. But the battle for supremacy between the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers in their home market — and more largely the Western Conference — was a highlight. As much as Thursday night was a celebration of basketball’s return, it was also a showcase of two of the NBA’s most charismatic teams and four of its most dynamic players, lest we forget.

The game’s introduction was a collective expression of protest and unity, with players wearing black T-shirts with “Black Lives Matter” etched in white across their chests. Arms interlocked along the entire length of the sideline, players and staff from both teams knelt on the court during the national anthem. This scene of sober solidarity in a sparsely populated gym of masked onlookers captured the two stories that have upended the nation — and the NBA.

Thursday night’s production felt more like a minimalist Las Vegas Summer League affair than the pyrotechnics and buzz that have come to define an NBA arena on a big night. Despite the relatively quiet confines of Disney Wide World of Sports complex, the Lakers and Clippers delivered all the intensity of a Staples Center showdown, with the Lakers scoring a 103-101 victory.

Though the Lakers were the nominal “home team” on Thursday night, none of the hallmarks of the recent intracity matchups were present 2,200 miles from Los Angeles: There were no competing fan bases yelling over one another in the lower bowl of Staples Center. No Steve Ballmer convulsing in glee under the home basket. No celebrity sightings courtside. Like much of life in 2020, the faces that appeared in the stands were just digital renderings.

The action was predictably craggy given the length of the suspension — and the 65 free throw attempts — but LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George provided a reminder that however adverse the restrictions and conditions, even rusty superstars propel the NBA product. That Davis shook off an eye injury when the Lakers have all but sewed up the top seed in the West suggests that after a hiatus of more than four months, meaningful games conjure up the competitive spirit of those stars.

Davis looked the best of the bunch, scoring 34 points — inside, from the short corners and the stripe. George looked like his best, healthiest self. Both he and Leonard controlled their share of possessions. James struggled through much of the evening, but notched two of the biggest buckets when he rumbled to the rim against the Clippers’ late help defense inside of two minutes, then converted an aggressive putback off his own miss with 12.8 seconds in a tie game. He also played the role of defensive stopper in the final possession.

In competitive terms, the Lakers’ win held little relevance. The Lakers have plenty of cushion atop the Western Conference, while the Clippers are less concerned with seeding and standings than cohesion and health. But Thursday night wasn’t about the power balance of the West, bragging rights in a city neither team will step foot in for months or even a celebration of sport. It was the first trial of the NBA’s bold experiment. — Kevin Arnovitz


Our NBA experts’ biggest takeaways from opening night

A powerful pregame message

Before the virtual American flags began to ripple and the first notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang out, Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans players and coaches were already getting down on a bent knee. The three game referees knelt, too.

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The Jazz and Pelicans kneel together for the national anthem before the NBA bubble restart in Florida.

The protest wasn’t unexpected: Players had been talking about using games to amplify their social justice message for months. Still, the symbolism was powerful. Michele Roberts, the executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, wiped away tears. Several NBA personnel members clapped for the players after the anthem ended. And following the game, players made it clear that they plan to continue kneeling.

“The ‘stick to sports’ crowd, ‘keep politics out of sports’ — all those things, they’re meaningless now,” Pelicans guard JJ Redick said. “You can’t. Politics and sports coexist now. And the league has recognized that.” — Malika Andrews


Utah’s early attempt at reinvention

Donovan Mitchell‘s playmaking isn’t quite where it needs to be. His defense comes and goes; he got hung up on several screens Thursday. But from the moment he walked into the NBA, he has had that something — bravado, fearlessness, guts — any team with serious ambitions needs from its star.

Mitchell scored eight points in the game’s final 4 minutes, 9 seconds Thursday after having spent most of the first three quarters fending off very rude defense from Jrue Holiday. He put the Jazz ahead with a double crisscross against Holiday, and a dump-off to Rudy Gobertpoetic on about five different levels.

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Rudy Gobert is fouled at the hoop before receiving a pass from Donovan Mitchell, then drains both free throws to put the Jazz up for good over the Pelicans.

The drive started with Mitchell’s back foot perilously close to half court. So did two other stutter-stepping forays in crunch time — one that ended with a foul on Brandon Ingram, and a pick-and-roll Mitchell punctuated with a step-back. They were basketball stripped to its bones: retreat as far as rules permit, and have a big guy screen for you.

Utah will default to simplicity in reinventing itself without Bojan Bogdanovic — its only true off-ball gunner. On Thursday, the Jazz plugged different players into Bogdanovic’s spots in some of their fast-moving, complex set pieces. Royce O’Neale jacked seven 3s, an encouraging example of Bogdanovic mimicry.

But no remaining Jazz man approximates Bogdanovic’s game. What many of them — Mitchell, Mike Conley, Joe Ingles, the always-burrowing Jordan Clarkson — can do is get where they want to go off the bounce. That doesn’t make for as pretty of an offense. Utah dished only 17 dimes on 37 baskets. The Jazz scored 103.9 points per 100 possessions — a mark that would rank dead last overall for the season. They might well have lost if Zion Williamson played longer, though Williamson was minus-16 with zero rebounds.

Utah did not play with its normal flow. The Jazz leaned on their remaining bedrock skill — ballhandling everywhere, Gobert the screen machine — to manufacture enough buckets. If Utah can find the right balance between system and individual creation, it will be a tough first-round out. — Zach Lowe

Zion back

He’s the kind of player who’s already on a first-name basis with the world, whose bouncing, bruising, bubbly vibe prompts you to instinctively add an exclamation point to his moniker.

Zion!

Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry cautioned on the eve of this NBA restart that Zion Williamson’s minutes against the Jazz would be limited to a series of “short bursts.”

The rookie appeared to take his coach literally. The moment he entered the game, he exploded to the basket with the brute force of a locomotive barreling down a mountain. No wonder conspiracy theorists believe the league expanded the bubble to 22 teams just so the Pelicans and their wunderkind could have a chance at the postseason.

Williamson left the bubble on July 16 for an “urgent family medical matter,” putting his availability — and conditioning — in question. Thus, he rarely spent longer than three or four eventful minutes on the court Thursday evening before he retreated back to the bench to catch his breath.

He made the most of his cameos, efficiently sniffing out buckets, eschewing open looks in favor of feeding his New Orleans teammates. His unorthodox gait and physique are mesmerizing. There has never been anyone who has quite looked like him before, this curious combination of bulk and agility.

During Williamson’s short NBA career, he has managed to generate at least one moment in each game that prompts those unscripted squeals of “Zion!” On Thursday night, it was his flawless no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass in transition to Lonzo Ball for a layup. It would have been a nifty play for a veteran point guard. For a 20-year-old, 280-pound forward, it was a marvel.

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The Pelicans cash in on a fast-break opportunity as Zion Williamson whips a behind-the-back pass to Lonzo Ball for the lay-in.

Williamson finished with a tidy 13 points in 15 minutes, though he was strangely unimpactful on the glass and clearly needs to get in better shape if he plans on contributing NBA-caliber defense. Afterward, he conceded, “It’s not even just conditioning, it’s just getting my flow to the game back. This is the NBA, this is the best players in the world, and you want to feel comfortable. I don’t want to hurt my team more than I helped them in a sense, if you understand me.”

We do, but no matter. Zion is back in the bubble, where he belongs, cinching the Pelicans as must-see TV. — Jackie MacMullan


The Lakers’ new backcourt comes through

Any questions about the Lakers entering the restart of the season revolved around the backcourt, where they saw starter Avery Bradley decide against participating and backup Rajon Rondo suffer a thumb fracture in practice that is expected to sideline him six to eight weeks.

In their opener, the Lakers got along just fine without Bradley and Rondo thanks to the contributions of reserves Alex Caruso and Dion Waiters. Caruso figured to see his role increase more than any other Lakers player, and his 27:50 of action Thursday were the fourth-most playing time he’s seen all season. Caruso finished the game alongside LeBron James in the backcourt and came up with a pair of key scores down the stretch.

In his Lakers debut, Waiters looked capable of contributing after playing just three games for the Miami Heat before being waived by the Memphis Grizzlies following a deadline trade. Waiters’ shot creation was important for the Lakers’ second unit, and though he missed five of his six 3-point attempts, he was a perfect 4-for-4 inside the arc. The Lakers outscored the Clippers by a team-best 17 points during Waiters’ 21 minutes of action.

The Lakers didn’t get as much from their other newcomer, JR Smith, who was scoreless in eight minutes of playing time. Still, they have to feel good about how they were able to fill in for Bradley and Rondo on Night 1 of the restart. — Kevin Pelton


All-Star fandom

Having no fans in the stands was a necessary condition for the NBA to restart, with the league recognizing just how untenable it would be to try to shield its players from the coronavirus if thousands of people came through the gates each game. However, Lakers-Clippers ended up providing a fan element that, while much smaller (and quieter) than the 20,000 spectators an NBA matchup like this one normally attracts, still enhanced the experience.

About a dozen players on other teams in the bubble — including Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum and Carmelo Anthony of the Portland Trail Blazers; Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander of the Oklahoma City Thunder; DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay of the San Antonio Spurs; and Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors — used their off night to watch some of their peers perform.

In the weeks spent in Orlando, Florida, leading up to the seeding games, players comparing the bubble life to their childhood AAU memories became a common refrain. And seeing that collection of accomplished players show up to the game in casual gear — hoodies, sweats, shorts and baseball hats — conjured up thoughts of a group of teenagers in it for the sport, rather than the polished image that professional athletes often project as part of their brand.

The best sequence involving the All-Star fans might have come when LeBron James was off on a 3 as Patrick Beverley crowded him with a contest late in the first quarter, the ball barely grazing the rim. Beverly first shot James an indignant look of disbelief as if to say, ‘You missed that bad?’ and then turned to share that same quizzical glance in the direction of the players, causing several of them to double over in laughter. — Dave McMenamin


An unforgettable Lakers-Clippers game

Every time I looked at the TNT studio crew, extra socially distanced on their Atlanta set on Thursday night, I kept thinking of the night they all sat extra close together, on the Staples Center court, grieving after the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash.

That was Jan. 28, two nights after the crash. The game between the Clippers and Lakers had been cancelled to allow the Lakers space to mourn. It was supposed to be replayed April 9, at the end of the regular season, when both teams were ramping up for the playoffs. I remember how strange we all felt that night. How surreal it was.

The fact that Thursday night’s game between the Lakers and Clippers was effectively the replay of that game is staggering.

This season has been defined by the rivalry between the Lakers and Clippers since last July, when George and Leonard spurned the Lakers to join forces on the Clippers. Each game between them has been memorable. But this fourth game in the season series — going down to the wire, inside a Florida bubble, featuring numerous acts of players demanding social justice — was unforgettable in ways we might never be able to fully process. — Ramona Shelburne


The player of the night

Man, Anthony Davis did exactly what the Lakers needed him to do in this one.

LeBron James, the king of efficiency, has made just 37% of his shots in four games against the Clippers this season. But while the Clips’ incredible wing defenders may be able to slow down James, their bigs don’t have any answers for Davis — and it showed.

The Brow punished the undersized Clippers and gave the Lakers 34 huge points on 19 shots. Davis owned the paint, drawing foul after foul and ending the game with 16 points at the line. If Davis can consistently overpower smaller bigs, the Lakers are in great shape.

— Kirk Goldsberry


Getting used to the weird

The thing that stood out the most from watching Jazz-Pelicans inside HP Field House was how normal the game itself seemed, yet how truly strange everything around it was at the same time.

If you kept your eyes focused on the court, the play looked just like any other NBA game. There were benches cheering good plays and booing bad calls. There were the usual pleas with the referees for assistance, lots of sneaker squeaking and the game generally playing out in pretty entertaining, high quality fashion.

Look or listen anywhere else, though, and things quickly got weird. The cheering crowd noise that was pumped into the building was off-putting at best, and simply didn’t fit with the proceedings. Often it just sounded like white noise. And, without fans yelling, it was fascinating to hear actual chatter on the court. With four minutes to go in the fourth quarter, Jazz forward Joe Ingles was imploring his teammates to push the pace.

“Go! Go! Go!” he shouted. “They are all tired. Go!”

That isn’t something that would be heard during a typical NBA game. The players noticed the differences, too.

“It’s still weird,” Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday said postgame. “That’s never not going to be weird. There was one play out there where you can hear the [ball] slap. Usually with the crowd, you can’t hear that slap down, because it is so subtle. But when you don’t have people out there it seems like it’s super loud.”

Meanwhile, the virtual fan boards rimming the court are a cool idea, but struggled in execution. They were glitchy, more of a distraction than an aid to the viewing experience. Most of the time, the people didn’t seem to be reacting to the action.

Of course, there’s a learning curve here for everyone. The league will surely make changes as things go along to try to improve the viewing and playing experience. But it’s definitely going to take some getting used to. — Tim Bontemps



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NBA players react to the first games in the Orlando bubble

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The NBA officially returned Thursday with the meeting between the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans in the bubble in Orlando, Florida, after the coronavirus pandemic halted the league in March.

In the 4½ months that have passed since the last game was played, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have ignited a league-wide social justice initiative. That was the focus as the Jazz and Pelicans took the floor, with every player, coach and referee taking a knee during the national anthem.

Though his is one of eight teams not in Orlando, Atlanta Hawks point guard Trae Young took to social media to applaud the pregame ceremony. Enes Kanter, whose Boston Celtics play the Milwaukee Bucks on Friday, also shared his support.

Stephen Curry and Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBPA, chimed in following the pregame ceremony between the Los Angeles Lakers and LA Clippers that also featured a Black Lives Matter tribute.

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell posted a message following his team’s 106-104 win over the Pelicans, calling on Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron to arrest the officers involved in Taylor’s death.

Mitchell’s teammate, Rudy Gobert, shared his excitement along with a call to action following his game-winning shot.

Other Jazz players Royce O’Neale and Jordan Clarkson had messages of their own, celebrating Utah’s win.

Dallas Mavericks guard Luka Doncic takes the court Friday against the Houston Rockets, but took in Thursday’s matchup between the top two seeds in the West. The Mavericks would face Paul George and the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs if the season ended today.

Players outside the bubble, like Maurice Harkless, who was traded from the Clippers to the New York Knicks at the deadline, shared excitement for the return of basketball but lamented missing out on the action. Young later echoed that sentiment.



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