The 2019-20 NBA season is officially back. On Thursday night, the Utah Jazz opened the action with an impressive 106-104 victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Down by as much as 16, the Jazz battled back in the second half and held on for the win after Brandon Ingram's late attempt from beyond the arc didn't fall.
But while basketball is important, the action off the court is as well. As expected, everyone from both teams kneeled for the national anthem before the game. The players also warmed up in shirts that said "Black Lives Matter," and the coaches from both teams are wearing special patches on their shirts.
Jordan Clarkson came off the bench to lead the Jazz with 23 points. His energy and ability to get into the paint was key to getting Utah back into the game. Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley each added 20 points. The Pelicans were led by Brandon Ingram, who went for 23 points and eight rebounds.
Obviously everyone was excited to watch basketball again but there are bigger things going on in this country, and players made it clear that they wanted to use this platform to continue fighting for change and spreading their message. They did just that on Thursday night.
As expected, everyone from both teams kneeled for the national anthem, while players wore shooting shirts that said "Black Lives Matter," and coaches wore special patches on their shirts that said "Coaches for Racial Justice." In addition, "Black Lives Matter" was painted across midcourt, and players wore special slogans on their jerseys instead of their names.
Clarkson provides a boost
The Jazz traded for Jordan Clarkson back in December, hoping that he would provide a much-needed scoring boost off the bench. Before the season was shut down, he had been doing just that, chipping in 15.8 points and shooting 35.6 percent from 3-point land. It was looking like a savvy move for Utah but has taken on even more importance now that Bojan Bogdanovic is out for the rest of the season.
Bogdanovic underwent surgery on his wrist, and won't be playing in Orlando. That's 20 points per game the Jazz suddenly have to replace, and a big part of that burden is going to fall on Clarkson. In the first game, at least, he showed he could handle the load. Despite shooting 1-of-8 from 3, he led the team in scoring with 23 points, while also adding five rebounds and three assists.
His ability to get into the paint and create his own shot was crucial to Utah's second-half turnaround, as they battled back from a 16-point deficit. The Jazz are going to need him to keep that up not only over these last seven seeding games but into the playoffs.
Zion looks good in limited minutes
A few hours before the game, it still wasn't clear if Zion Williamson was going to play. The rookie had to leave the bubble for a family matter earlier this month and only cleared his re-quarantine two days ago. He returned to the court for a few practices, but the team has been understandably cautious after he missed the first half of the season due to knee surgery.
In the end, New Orleans decided to let him play, but only in extremely limited minutes. They were so strict about it, in fact, that head coach Alvin Gentry didn't bring Williamson back for the final few minutes. That decision may have cost them the game, but Williamson understood his coach's decision.
"It's just getting my flow to the game back," Williamson said. "This is the NBA, these are the best players in the world. You want to feel comfortable. I don't want to hurt my team more than I helped."
When he was on the floor, Williamson was explosive, scoring 13 points on 6-of-8 from the field, while also making what was perhaps the play of the game with a slick behind-the-back pass. As opponents across the league have found out, he's almost impossible to stop around the rim.
Each team played three scrimmages over the past week, but this was their first real game in over four months, and it certainly looked like it for stretches. Neither team shot the ball well from outside, combining to go 19-of-65 from 3-point land. And they struggled to take care of the ball as well, matching each other with 20 turnovers apiece.
As the teams get back into game shape and regain their rhythm, and get more comfortable playing in front of no fans inside the bubble, those issues figure to fade away. It will be interesting to see how long that process takes, however, and whether teams will be back and firing on all cylinders before the playoffs.