THE Utah Jazz were squarely in the spotlight when the NBA season was suspended March 11.
The New Orleans Pelicans were making a push to play on a bigger stage.
They’ll share the marquee when the season resumes Thursday (Friday in Manila) in the NBA “bubble” near Orlando, Fla.
Back on March 11, when Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, the NBA canceled his team’s game in Oklahoma City that night. Gobert came under fire for his action in the days prior, when he made light of the virus and touched reporters’ microphones and reportedly acted similarly by touching teammates and their belongings before he knew he was infected.
“Obviously, when you have the whole world judging you or threatening you or sending you a lot of negative energy and stuff like that, it’s something that I would say is not easy as a human being,” Gobert said two weeks ago of dealing with the coronavirus-related fallout. “But, at the same time, people are just judging you on the perception they have and the perception you get from sometimes it can be one picture, one video or one interview, one action. So, people don’t really know you.”
Dominoes began to fall as the league announced that the season would be suspended at the conclusion of the final game that night — New Orleans at Sacramento.
But New Orleans was leery of playing after learning that a member of the officiating crew worked a Jazz game a few nights earlier. So, the game against the Kings was postponed and the NBA went on hiatus.
Now, 141 days later, the Jazz and the Pelicans lead the way in the resumption of the season.
New Orleans and Oklahoma City were the only teams to win all their scrimmages, and the Jazz went 2-1.
“The intensity level is going to be much, much higher (Thursday),” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “I’m confident that our guys will compete at a high level and be ready to play.”
The Pelicans got good news Tuesday night when rookie forward Zion Williamson returned to practice. He left the bubble July 16 to tend to a family emergency and returned last Friday.
As of Wednesday, Williamson’s status was listed as a game-time decision for Thursday. However, the Pelicans hope Williamson will see action in the opener of the eight-game seeding schedule.
“Obviously as a coach you want him out there as much as you can possibly have him out there,” Gentry said Wednesday. “We have guys that are better equipped to make those decisions than I am from a health standpoint and a minutes-played standpoint. It’ll be collectively something that’s done by sitting down and talking about it and figuring it out if he does end up playing.”
Williamson added, “The NBA isn’t something you can usually just jump straight into. … So, I think me and my team are gonna look to see what’s best and if I’m ready to go out there.”
Gobert looked fully recovered in Utah’s scrimmages, averaging 15.3 points and seven rebounds. A rift between Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, Utah’s leading scorer who tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after Gobert did, seems to have healed.
“I’m happy now that I’m in a good place and I’m happy that I get the joy back from playing basketball with my team and the competitiveness is back,” Gobert said. “I’m ready to try to go out there and try to win the championship. That’s the goal. To be honest, after everything we’ve been through, as a team and as human beings, it would be a great comeback.”
The Jazz will be without second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic (20.2 points per game), who underwent season-ending wrist surgery in May. Sixth man Joe Ingles is expected to replace Bogdanovic, who was making 41.4 percent of his 3-point attempts, in the starting line-up, but replacing the long-distance production will be a group effort.
“I think with Bojan out, obviously there’s opportunity from the 3-point line that we really need to take advantage of,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s very crucial to our game getting there and knocking shots down, just being confident and taking the early shots.”
The Jazz (41-23) are in fourth place in the Western Conference. The Pelicans (28-36) are tied with Portland (29-37) and Sacramento (28-36), 3 1/2 games behind eighth-place Memphis (32-33) in the West.
Both the Pelicans and Jazz were playing well prior to the suspension of the season. New Orleans, which endured a 13-game losing streak during an injury-plagued first half of the season, won eight of its last 13 games. Utah won five of its last six games.
The Jazz won the season’s first two meetings— 128-120 at home and 128-126 on the road. The Pelicans won the most recent matchup, 138-132 in New Orleans on Jan. 16.