SportsPulse: Need an update on where we left off with the NBA before the game was interrupted? Mackenzie Salmon presses the rewind button and takes us to speed. USA TODAY
After a four-month hiatus due to the outbreak of the new coronavirus, the NBA – which ended on March 11 after Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID-19 test – is expected to restart its bubble at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.
The action starts with two games on Thursday. Utah Jazz plays the New Orleans Pelicans at 6:30 pm ET (on TNT). This game is followed by the favorites of the Western Conference – the Los Angeles Lakers and the Clippers – facing off.
USA TODAY Network experts reveal the most frequently asked questions they want answered as the 2019-20 season restarts with the following postseason.
By Mark Medina, USA TODAY
Will major weight loss help or harm Nikola Jokic?
When he was a big man, the center of Nuggets, Nikola Jokic, claimed that he needed the extra pounds to be able to play more physically inside. News: Jokic was kidding. He spent the 2019-20 season and the hiatus losing extra weight because he knew it did more harm than good. Today’s NBA requires its big men to be physical and mobile, both dominant in rank and on the perimeter. By cutting their body fat, Jokic maximizes the Nuggets’ chances of making a championship. It has the potential to remain one of the best threats and passers-by in the NBA, as well as having more speed to protect the paint and close the perimeter. This could also give you an advantage against opponents still struggling with your conditioning.
Can anyone bother the Lakers or the Clippers before the West final?
The NBA will have a wild west after the hiatus interrupted the team’s chemistry and timing. I am still favoring the Lakers and the Clippers as favorites, as long as their respective pairs remain healthy at LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. I suspect that, since the hiatus, it has helped all of these players to heal varied injuries, and all reports suggest that they remained disciplined with their training and diet during the quarantine.
However, each team’s depth chart is subject to change depending on injuries (Rajon Rondo), COVID-19 cases or violation of the NBA bubble rules on campus (Lou Williams). Therefore, the Nuggets, Rockets, Jazz, Thunder and Mavs have the potential to turn. Still, I’m choosing the Los Angeles teams because of their stars. I give the Lakers a slight advantage. James and Anthony had more time on the court together. The Lakers also went through several obstacles, including the training camp controversy in China, a new coaching staff, a new roster of players and the tragedy of Kobe Bryant.
LeBron James controls the ball while Clippers’ Paul George defends during the game on March 8. (Photo: Kirby Lee, USA TODAY Sports)
How far can Rockets go with their little ball formation?
Rockets have the best chance to disrupt the Western Conference scene for three reasons.
- They are one of the best scorers in the league (James Harden).
- They have one of the fastest guards (Russell Westbrook).
- They have a coach who oversees a modern steroid offense (Mike D’Antoni).
Houston knew he had a problem with his central position. So he completely eliminated the position when he switched Clint Capela to Atlanta in a four-team, 12-player deal that earned Robert Covington, Minnesota winger.
Of course, the Rockets have no one to stop James, Davis, Leonard, George, Giannis Antetokounmpo from Milwaukee and Joel Embiid from Philadelphia. Other teams don’t have enough defenders, however, to stop Harden, Covington, PJ Tucker, Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers and Danuel House Jr. to make three points. Not when they also need to worry about Westbrook in the open court. So yes, the Rockets have a good chance of relying on their math to win an NBA title, especially since the teams will be out of shape to open the season.
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By Matt Eppers, USA TODAY
What can we expect from the Sixers?
Philadelphia was perhaps the most irritatingly inconsistent team during the first part of the season, from game to game and even from quarter to quarter; dominant at home and lousy on the road. Much of the focus was on the coexistence of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, but some adjustments in the formation of the young stars can trigger a slow offense. Simmons recovered from a back injury that opened the door for Shake Milton to show his potential as a perimeter ball handler. Initial returns within the bubble are promising, with Simmons throwing more power in the attack and Milton taking on more traditional guard roles.
The Sixers remain so fascinating because they still have one of the highest ceilings in the East and may still have the best chance of keeping the Bucks out of the NBA finals. They are a defensive terror with their length and versatility, and when healthy and engaged, Embiid has the talent to be the best player in a series against just about anyone.
What will the basketball be like on the floor?
NBA Twitter had fun during the shutdown, guessing who could get out of shape. It seems that nobody got carried away, but going back to the game is very different. A week of scrimmages gave players a start. Still, they will probably look a little rusty in the first sowing games when their legs return. Coaches, especially those of the main competitors, plan to gradually increase the minutes of key players to try to prevent the eruption of soft tissue injuries that some European football leagues saw when they return – tense groins and hamstring tugs that can take if you don’t have time to heal properly.
Teams in the final playoffs don’t have that much luxury to increase the minutes. Every sowing game is vital for teams like the Grizzlies, Blazers and Pelicans in a fierce race for seed No. 8 in the West. How they manage workloads can be the deciding factor for those who move into the postseason and who get out of the bubble early.
By Scott Gleeson, USA TODAY
Can pelicans catch seed # 8 in the West?
It is difficult to imagine a team with less than 500 pelicans occupying 10th place in the west, if Zion Williamson played the first 44 games of the season. And Williamson’s return to the NBA bubble after a family emergency is a breath of fresh air, because it means that New Orleans will have its future star to push through number 8 seed as a drastically different team that went 19-10 on top highlight of the flight and exhibited one of the top 10 offenses and defense.
What is important to realize about the pelicans is that while Williamson is the sail that helps this team to stand out, the franchise player is surrounded by a young and underestimated core that can bode well in a bubble shape. Brandon Ingram, an All-Star this season, was arguably the most improved player in the league as a capable striker with the game at stake. Lonzo Ball’s irregular jump has steadily improved and his passing mentality first is a key ingredient for this high-octane team in transition.
While Trail Blazers and Grizzlies will be mixed with equally talented pieces, it is the New Orleans experience of veterans Jrue Holiday and JJ Redick that can make a difference. In reality, New Orleans needs to overtake ninth place in Portland and finish in four Memphis games to force a series of play-ins, and this configuration would undoubtedly favor the group led by Williamson.
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By Jeff Zillgitt, USA TODAY
Can the NBA outperform COVID-19?
That has been the billion-dollar question since the NBA decided to resume its season at a central location in a bubble atmosphere. It will remain the most important issue until the NBA crowns a champion or once again suspends or cancels the season. The success of the bubble is responsible for ensuring that there are no positive cases or keeping cases to a minimum, and that depends on daily testing and people who follow health and safety guidelines.
So far, so good. In the past two weeks of testing, no NBA player has tested positive on the NBA campus. If the NBA can continue, this effort, which is not certain, will be successful.
What will social justice messages be like?
The messages of social justice and anti-racism will continue to be focal points for NBA players, the National Basketball Players Association and the league. You will see this happen in many ways, starting with almost 300 players wearing a message on the back of the shirt and the phrase “Black Lives Matter” printed on the court.
Players are likely to kneel down during the national anthem – something NBA players have not yet done – and they have had and will have ample opportunity to discuss issues with reporters. Voting rights, empowerment, justice for Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, police reform, education reform, reform of the judicial system and increased opportunities for people of color are among the topics that will be discussed.
Why is no one giving the Raptors a chance?
Toronto is the defending champion, has an incredible experience with Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and young emerging players OG Anunoby and Terence Davis, and has a coach on Nick Nurse who can finish winning coach of the year this season. Even without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, the Raptors were on pace to win 58, 59 games this season. Toronto is the 12th offensive, the second on the defensive and the fourth in the net classification. This is an equation that can be like a deep playoff run. The Raptors are not favorites to beat the East (they weren’t last season either), but will participate in any series, including one against Milwaukee, with confidence and skill.
By Matt Velazquez, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
What’s at stake for Bucks?
As the team with the best …