The champs, COVID-19 and another NBA season

LOS ANGELES, CA – It’s been a minute since the Los Angeles Lakers last played basketball inside of STAPLES Center. To be precise that was March 10, 2020. The Lakers lost a home game to the Brooklyn Nets on that date. Then the weight of the world collapsed as the COVID-19 pandemic surged throughout the United States and the rest of the world.

The NBA and the Lakers regrouped to salvage their season, forging a unique playing atmosphere inside of a bubble format in Orlando, Florida, where all 30 NBA teams would resume playing with the season coming to a conclusion as it always does: crowning a champion.  The Lakers restarted their season July 30 with a 103-101 win against the Los Angeles Clippers, a team considered by many pundits to be a heavyweight title contender.

The Clippers got knocked out in the second round of the playoffs by the Denver Nuggets, while the Lakers went on to claim the NBA championship with a 4-2 series win against Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat. It was the franchise’s 17th title and a wonderful closing chapter of a storybook year that included the devastating loss of the late Kobe Bryant, his daughter, Gianna Bryant, and seven other people in a helicopter crash.

And what normally would have resulted in a spectacular parade to celebrate their championship was negated by COVID-19, which simply did not allow for such a festive event. So no parade for the champs. With the pandemic raging, there would be no open fan revelry. Fast forward to Dec. 11.

Los Angeles Lakers forward Markeiff Morris in preseason action against the Los Angeles Clippers. Courtesy photo

Exactly two months (Oct. 11) to the day that confetti fell on their heads as they celebrated beating the Heat in five games to win the title, the Lakers took to the STAPLES Center floor in a preseason game against the Clippers. They did so with reigning NBA Sixth Man of the Year award winner Montrezl Harrell who spent his last three seasons playing for the Clippers.

Harrell opted to sign with the Lakers during the free agency period in the shortened offseason. And so what was already a simmering situation between the two ballclubs will no doubt grow even more in city rivalry clashes. In preparation for their season opener against the Clippers on Dec. 22, the Lakers entertained their STAPLES Center co-inhabitors for two games.

With no LeBron James, no Anthony Davis, no Marc Gasol, no Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and no Markeiff Morris taking the floor, the Lakers squeaked by the Clippers with an 87-81 uneventful win. The second contest was not so close as Talen Horton-Tucker went off for 33 points in the Lakers’ 131-106 dust-up victory.

While the games are being played the more noticeable thing outside of the Lakers’ top stars deciding to chill the first couple of preseason games was the absence of fans inside the arena. The players are used to it having gone through this process inside of the NBA bubble format as it closed out last season. This appearance shows that these are not normal times-for the players as well as for everyone else.

It also demonstrates how seriously COVID-19 is being taken. Everyone inside STAPLES Center, including media, is carefully distanced from one another. Only team personnel, staff, security, and exempt camera people are allowed on the floor. Players are properly spaced out from one another.

Everyone wears a mask except for players in the game. It is utterly quiet inside of STAPLES Center these days. It’s pretty surreal to walk into the arena and not see all of the hustle and bustle of social activity inside of the arena. That’s because COVID-19 has turned our society upside down.

Los Angeles Lakers small forward Talen Horton-Tucker
Los Angeles Lakers small forward Talen Horton-Tucker (5) looks for an open teammate to pass the ball to as Los Angeles Clippers forward Paul George ramps up the defense. Courtesy photo

No fans will be able to sit inside the STAPLES Center arena to cheer on either one of these teams. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed all of that. Due to the fact that Los Angeles County has accounted for over a half-million (502,026  at last count) of the more than 1.4 million people in California afflicted with COVID-19,  attending live events is out of the picture for the foreseeable future.

And it’s a wonder that the Lakers and Clippers are playing basketball at STAPLES Center at all. When COVID-19 initially broke out, the sports world completely shut down for a while. The NBA figured out a way to keep its season going by managing to get all of its teams under one roof in Orlando, Florida. It worked.

Preseason games are typically a rough draft gauge of where individuals are at, in terms of conditioning and execution before the rollout of the regular season comes into play. For the Lakers and Clippers, the opportunity to play at STAPLES Center is home. But things are a little bit different this season.

After seeing what the NBA was doing successfully, other sports leagues began figuring it out to keep their respective sports going as well. Some sports leagues, such as the NFL and NCAA football, have slowly integrated fans back into the flow of normalcy by attending games.

Los Angeles County is not at that point. Far from it when you consider the recent astronomical rise of COVID-19 cases in Los Angeles County and in the state. Los Angeles County like most of California is under a restrictive tier for movement and activity. The seven-day rate for people who have tested positive for COV-19 in Los Angeles County is 11.6 percent, according to numbers posted on the County of Public Health webpage.

The COVID-19.CA.Gov site lists the state’s positivity average at 8.4 percent. So, it’s going to be a long minute before fans will be allowed back inside of stadiums and arenas like STAPLES Center. Fans will have to take in their NBA basketball by streaming services, on their phones and computers, and looking at their television sets for the time being.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Quinn Cook (2) dribbles past Reggie Jackson of the Los Angeles Clippers in the two teams first preseason game. Courtesy photo
Los Angeles Lakers guard Quinn Cook (2) dribbles past Reggie Jackson of the Los Angeles Clippers in the two teams’ first preseason game at STAPLES Center. Courtesy photo

Not having fans at a ballgame was something new and different at STAPLES Center. The glitz, the glamour, and all the social aspects of going to an NBA game made the arena during the Lakers and Clippers’ preseason game feel empty. Players got used to it when they played in the bubble format in Florida.

But playing in your home arena with no clapping and no cheering your every move on the court might be a tad different than that lockdown feeling in the bubble. Nonetheless, the Lakers and the Clippers hit the floor on a Friday night in a first step towards getting ready for the Opening Night. That’s when the Lakers and Clippers will tangle for real.

Newcomers like Montrezl Harrell, Wes Matthews, and Dennis Schroder, as well as Kyle Kuzma, got extensive work in the Lakers’ 87-81 win. The Clippers, now under the management of head coach Tyronn Lue, pulled in the exception with Paul George and Kawhi Leonard playing minutes in the first half, but it was nothing to take home and brag about.

So what can we take away from the Lakers and Clippers’ first dance for the 2020-21 season? Not much. This was an exhibition training practice for the young and the new to shine in. What we did come away with was how much the Clippers are going to miss Harrell, who signed to join the Lakers through free agency in the offseason.

Horton-Tucker impressed in his 37 minutes of action for the Lakers. Lue played a game of mix-and-match with the players on his ballclub, not giving away too much schematically. The great news is that it’s good to have the NBA back at STAPLES Center. This gives people hope that normalcy is somewhere around the corner. The alternative would have tilted the morale of the country.

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