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NBA Returns Thursday for First Regular Season Games Since March

The New Orleans Pelicans will come into the first game of the NBA restart Thursday as a two-point favorite over the Utah Jazz. The league resumes its regular season from its bubble campus in Orlando, Fla.

Kawhi Leonard (left) of the Los Angeles Clippers defends LeBron James (right) of the Los Angeles Lakers in an NBA game played Oct. 22, 2019 at the Staples Center. (Image: Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports)

The Lakers and the Clippers will follow to complete opening night, with the Lakers entering the all-LA matchup as 4.5-point favorites.

The NBA shut down its season on March 11 because of the coronavirus pandemic. From the beginning, NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed confidence that the league would find a way to finish its season and crown a champion. In June, the league’s Board of Governors approved a return-to-play format for 22 teams.

Those teams will play at Walt Disney World, where players and staff will live in a “bubble,” isolated from the outside world. Only teams within six games of the playoffs are participating in the restart, with each remaining squad playing eight regular-season games for seeding purposes.

Partial NBA Restart

Once the teams complete the regular season, the playoffs will begin with the usual best-of-seven series format. There’s one exception: if the ninth-place team in either conference is four games back or closer when the regular season ends, they will play a short series against the eighth-place team for the final playoff spot.

The team in eighth place must win just one game to advance; the ninth-place team must win twice in a row to steal the final spot.

That’s far from the only quirk in this NBA restart. Because teams played a different number of games before the season halted, they will also end the year having played anywhere from 71 to 75 games. Because of that imbalance, the NBA will seed teams for the playoffs based on winning percentage.

Lakers Put to the Test

The marquee matchup for reopening night features the Lakers and the Clippers squaring off in a battle between two of the favorites for the NBA title. At 49-14, the Lakers hold the best record in the Western Conference, 5.5 games ahead of the Clippers (44-20), who sit second in the West.

The Clippers will play without several players, including Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley, and Montrezl Harrell, all of whom left the bubble for family emergencies. Williams is in quarantine preparing to rejoin the team, while Harrell has yet to return. The Clippers have listed Beverley as questionable for tonight’s game.

Clippers coach Doc Rivers told ESPN that if his team has to be short-handed, there’s no better time than now.

“Guys have the virus, guys have family stuff, and so you have all of this, what I call ‘clutter’ in your lives, and it’s part of life,” Rivers said. “But adversity is not all bad. You’re going to go through hard stuff, and if it’s at the beginning, then let’s do it now.”

While this game is far from do-or-die, Lakers coach Frank Vogel is still placing plenty of importance on getting off to a strong start.

More than anything, I think it’s going to be a great measuring stick for where we’re at,” Vogel told reporters. “You don’t sharpen yourselves as well against teams of lesser opponents as you would against a great team. It’s definitely going to be a good test for us.”

The Lakers (+260) and the Clippers (+320) trail only the Milwaukee Bucks (+240) in the odds to win the NBA Championship this year.

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