Basketball

A prelude to how the West was won

ORLANDO • The National Basketball Association (NBA) season resumed yesterday (this morning, Singapore time) at the Walt Disney World Resort with what could be a sneak peak of this year’s Western Conference Finals.

The leading Lakers (49-14) take on the second-placed Clippers (44-20) in the first game between the two Los Angeles teams in more than four months.

A positive coronavirus test of Utah Jazz centre Rudy Gobert locked down the league on March 11. Three days before, the Lakers beat the Clippers 112-103 for their first win in three meetings this season.

The backdrop will no longer be the Staples Centre but the NBA bubble in Florida. And there is just an eight-game sprint for seeding before the play-offs begin.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel said: “They’re one of the best teams in the league. More than anything, it’s going to be a great measuring stick for where we’re at.”

Lakers superstar LeBron James said he is ready.

“I’ll be as locked in as I can be under the circumstances,” said the three-time NBA champion. “I won’t cheat my teammates, I won’t cheat our fans and I won’t cheat myself. I’ll be ready to go.”

Anthony Davis expects to play too. The Lakers’ leading scorer, who has averaged 26.7 points per game this term, got poked in his right eye during Saturday’s scrimmage against the Orlando Magic.

He did not feature in the Lakers’ scrimmage against the Washington Wizards on Monday and also sat out practice on Tuesday.

The Clippers might go without guard Lou Williams, who is a game-time decision but is quarantined after being photographed at an Atlanta strip club during an excused absence. Williams, who leads his team in assists with an average of 5.7 per game, said he visited the establishment for food.

“We know that a lot of teams have had their guys throughout. We haven’t,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “We’ve had up to five of our key players out – six, at one point… but things don’t go as planned all the time and you’ve got to adjust, and I think our team is doing that.”

11.6 

Points per 100 possessions that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have outscored opponents when they shared the floor this campaign, despite having played only 32 games together.

Forward-centre Montrezl Harrell, who left the facility on July 17 for an emergency family matter, is out. Guard Patrick Beverley, who also left Orlando for a family matter, rejoined the club last weekend, as did centre Ivica Zubac and guard Landry Shamet, both of whom had tested positive recently for Covid-19. All three could be available against the Lakers.

Both teams also made additions during the break. Guards Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith will replace Avery Bradley, who opted out due to coronavirus concerns, and guard Rajon Rondo is recovering from surgery on a broken thumb. The Clippers added forward-centre Joakim Noah during the stoppage.

For Clippers star Kawhi Leonard, their upcoming games are about building chemistry. They had their full roster available for only 11 games this season due to injuries. Leonard and wingman Paul George have played just 32 games together this campaign, although they have been stellar when they shared the floor, outscoring opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions.

“I knew that we had a pretty deep squad,” Leonard said. “I knew how talented we could be. It’s about executing now.”

REUTERS

Five other teams to watch

MILWAUKEE BUCKS (53-12)

Outlook: The Bucks were the dominant team before the suspension, leading the National Basketball Association (NBA) in point differential at 11.2, against 7.4 for the Los Angeles Lakers. And they had the league’s best defence and the third-best offence. The Eastern Conference leaders also have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who will likely repeat as the Most Valuable Player, and efficient Khris Middleton as his wingman. They are title favourites, bolstered by likely first-round opponents (Brooklyn Nets or Washington Wizards) who are weakened without their best players.

Challenge: Middleton said he did not pick up a basketball for several months during quarantine. And can Antetokounmpo, who is not a strong three-point shooter, overcome defences that load up the paint on him in the play-offs?

TORONTO RAPTORS (46-18)

Outlook: The defending champions are deep. Pascal Siakam broke out this year to average career highs in almost every category and establish himself as a star, which helped the team overcome the loss of Kawhi Leonard. Aside from Siakam, five other players – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, Serge Ibaka and O.G. Anunoby – averaged double digits in scoring for Toronto. They excelled defensively, second best behind Milwaukee.

Challenge: Can they hold off the Boston Celtics, who are three games behind, to retain their second seed? The difference between the No. 2 seed and the No. 3 is facing a depleted Nets team and going up against Miami, Indiana or Philadelphia, who might land at No. 6.

BOSTON CELTICS (43-21)

Outlook: Of their big four – Kemba Walker, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward – only Hayward is not averaging at least 20 points a game. They have also received some heady contributions from rookie Grant Williams.

Challenge: What’s the status of Walker’s knee? He missed several games during the regular season, and after the long lay-off, coach Brad Stevens suggested that Walker needed more time to ease into play.

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (40-24)

Outlook: When the Thunder traded Russell Westbrook to the Houston Rockets and Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers, most figured that Chris Paul, who they acquired in their deal with Houston, would land with another team. Instead, he dedicated himself to the Thunder – fifth in the Western Conference – and even made the All-Star team again. The pay-off has been huge, as he helped nurture players like guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, 22.

Challenge: Do they have enough pieces? Dennis Schroder, one of the league’s top reserves, has said that he will leave the bubble when his wife gives birth to their second child. She is due next month.

HOUSTON ROCKETS (40-24)

Outlook: The mad scientists of the NBA are set to continue with another bold experiment: The small-ball line-up they deployed in February. The idea is to station five players on the perimeter so that they drag their defenders to the three-point line and give Westbrook seams to drive to the hoop.

Challenge: James Harden is having another big season, scoring a league-leading 34.4 points a game, and Westbrook’s production improved after coach Mike D’Antoni went small. But will the Rockets, level with the Thunder in the West, be able to defend in the post-season?

NYTIMES

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