Bubble-wrapped NBA readies for relaunch

In a twinbill to launch the restart, Zion Williamson (1) and the New Orleans Pelicans battle the Utah Jazz while the Lakers and Clippers face off in the Los Angeles derby. (AP file photo)
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Updated 29 July 2020

Bubble-wrapped NBA readies for relaunch

  • Teams will play games at three venues inside the ESPN World Wide of Sports complex inside the park
  • Players arriving in Orlando were required to spend 48 hours isolated in their hotel rooms

ORLANDO, Florida: Four months after COVID-19 sent basketball into an unprecedented shutdown, the NBA takes a leap into the unknown on Thursday as the league bids to resurrect its season at Disney World in Florida.

The Utah Jazz launch the rebooted campaign against the New Orleans Pelicans before LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard go head-to-head in a heavyweight Los Angeles derby between the Lakers and the Clippers.

The two games mark the start of a painstakingly crafted plan to stage the remainder of the basketball season safely in the midst of an ongoing pandemic which has already claimed around 150,000 lives in the US.

To mitigate the risks, the NBA is basing 22 teams within a tightly controlled "bubble" inside Disney World's sprawling 40-square mile campus in Orlando.

Teams will play games at three venues inside the ESPN World Wide of Sports complex inside the park, with no fans in attendance and only a smattering of journalists at each game.

Just over 350 players will be housed at three hotels located throughout Disney World, with access to each location severely restricted and visits from outsiders strictly forbidden until the playoffs start.

Players arriving in Orlando were required to spend 48 hours isolated in their hotel rooms until they had received two negative tests for COVID-19.

Testing will continue inside the bubble but it is not known how frequently this will take place.

While multimillionaire stars such as the Lakers' James have joked that entering the bubble felt like starting a jail term, so far the launch of the project has gone smoothly.

Practice games have passed off without a hitch, and the most recent round of testing found zero positive cases out of 346 players tested.

"It requires significant sacrifice from our players," NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told the New York Times this week.

"From my standpoint, it's going very well, and I'm cautiously optimistic that we're on the right track," Silver added.

"But I also recognize what we're doing has not been done before, and the competition is just beginning. The real test will come when players are commingling, playing basketball without masks and without physical distancing."

There have been some early glitches, however, as players adjust to the relatively spartan surroundings of the bubble.

Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams was forced to quarantine for 10 days after being photographed at an Atlanta strip club during a trip to attend a family funeral.

The Sacramento Kings' Richaun Holmes also landed back in quarantine after he left the bubble to pick up a delivery of take-out food.

Inside the bubble's three arenas, meanwhile, the legacy of the tumultuous protests which erupted in the weeks following the death of George Floyd in May will be on full view.

Giant "Black Lives Matter" slogans have been written on each court, while players will be allowed to wear jerseys adorned with social justice messages ranging from "I Can't Breathe" to "Justice Now" and "Education Reform."

On the courts, all eyes will be on James and his Lakers teammates as they attempt to return to the pinnacle of the NBA when the season wraps in October.

After a disappointing first season in Los Angeles, where the Lakers failed to reach the playoffs, James returned with a vengeance this season, leading the team to the top of the Western Conference before the COVID-19 pandemic erupted.

The Lakers and five other Western Conference teams — the Clippers, the Denver Nuggets, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets have already assured themselves of spots in the playoffs, which start on August 17.

The biggest threat to James' hopes of winning a fourth NBA championship is expected to come from the Eastern Conference, where Giannis Antetokounmpo is aiming to guide the Milwaukee Bucks to their first title in nearly half a century. The Bucks had ran away with the Eastern Conference before the hiatus, opening up a 6.5 game lead over the Toronto Raptors.

Antetokounmpo, who grew up in poverty in Greece as the son of Nigerian immigrants, smiles at the suggestion NBA players are facing hardship in their confined environment in Orlando.

"It doesn't matter where you are in life, there's always something to complain, there's always a problem and an issue," Antetokounmpo said.

"My apartment in Greece, when I was younger, with my four brothers, was way smaller than the suite that I have in the hotel, so I'm just trying to enjoy the moment."

Antetokounmpo's viewpoint was echoed by Oklahoma City Thunder's Steven Adams.

"Let's be clear mate," the New Zealander said. "This is not Syria. We're living in a bloody resort."


Bucks’ Antetokounmpo named NBA MVP for second straight year

Updated 37 min 54 sec ago

Bucks’ Antetokounmpo named NBA MVP for second straight year

  • The 25-year-old became just the third player in history to earn MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the same season, after Michael Jordan in 1988 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994
  • The MVP award carries a bittersweet tinge after the top-seeded Bucks fell in five games to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals

LOS ANGELES: Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo said Friday he’ll treasure his second straight NBA Most Valuable Player award and redouble his efforts to capture a league crown.
The 25-year-old from Greece became just the third player in history to earn MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors in the same season, after Michael Jordan in 1988 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994.
“Michael Jordan, one of the best players who’s ever done it, if not the best,” Antetokounmpo said, speaking from a rooftop in Athens during the televised announcement of the award. “Hakeem, a guy that I look up to, he came from where I’m from, Nigeria, where I have roots.
“Just being in the same sentence with them, that means a lot to me.”
The player dubbed the “Greek Freak” became the 12th player to win back-to-back MVPs, joining Jordan, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Moses Malone, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
But, once again, the MVP award carries a bittersweet tinge after the top-seeded Bucks fell in five games to the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals in the quarantine bubble in Orlando, Florida.
Last year, Antetokounmpo won the MVP only for eventual champion Toronto to oust the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.
“Obviously I would love to be still in the bubble playing games, fighting,” Antetokounmpo said. “But at the end of the day I won the award. I’m extremely blessed.
“It’s been a long journey,” Antetokounmpo added. “The people that know me, the people that know my story, you can never take these moments for granted.”
Antetokounmpo won in a landslide, receiving 85 first-place votes from a global panel of sports reporters and broadcasters, the league announced on Friday.
Los Angeles Lakers star James received 16 first-place votes and the third finalist, James Harden of the Houston Rockets, did not receive any first-place votes.
The voting was based on performance from the start of the season through March 11, when play was shut down in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
It did not included the “seeding games” played when teams in contention for playoff spots once play resumed in Orlando.
Antetokounmpo averaged 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists in leading the Bucks to the best regular-season record in the pandemic-disrupted season.
But he had to watch from the sidelines as the Heat won game five of their semifinal series, nursing a sprained ankle suffered in game three and aggravated in game four.
“Obviously, I am disappointed to not be able to help our team go to the third round,” he said. “That feeling cannot take away from this award.
“I’m happy for this award, but I want more,” he said. “I want to be a champion.”
As a veteran entering his eighth season, Antetokounmpo will be eligible to receive a supermax contract extension from the Bucks.
The Bucks reportedly plan to extend that offer as soon as they can — after the 2019-20 season officially ends.
There has been widespread speculation as to whether a player of Antetokounmpo’s stature will be happy to remain in the small market of Milwaukee.
He met with Bucks owners including Marc Lasry before heading to Greece and has indicated he’d be open to staying.
Providing he’s convinced the team is determined to invest the resources to pursue a title, Antetokounmpo said Friday, “I don’t see why not to be in Milwaukee for the next 15 years.”