It looked a lot like basketball, but it was far from a finished product.
The NBA’s season-reopening game between the New Orleans Pelicans and Utah Jazz on Thursday reflected the Disney bubble experiment as a whole: It is way too early to make any determination about whether this is all worth it. The league has planned about as well as it possibly could for hosting 22 teams in a coronavirus hotspot, but even the best-laid plan is not immune to the rust of four months in isolation during a global pandemic.
The opener’s main attraction, Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson — the most hyped No. 1 overall pick since LeBron James — barely played after clearing quarantine on Tuesday, following two weeks attending to a family emergency outside the bubble. His 15 minutes did not include crunch time, when New Orleans relinquished a lead it had held since the first quarter in a game that could very well decide its playoff fate.
Bottled up by Pelicans guard Jrue Holiday for much of the night, Jazz counterpart Donovan Mitchell saved his energy for the final flourish, scoring eight straight points down the stretch and connecting with All-Star teammate Rudy Gobert on a drive-and-dish that resulted in the deciding free throws in a 106-104 victory.
A win would have put New Orleans in position to force a play-in series with the eighth-place Memphis Grizzlies for the Western Conference’s final playoff seed. Instead, the loss drops the Pelicans a half-game behind both the Portland Trail Blazers and Sacramento Kings, outside of the Western Conference playoff picture with seven games to play. One of the game’s most impactful forces watched it from the bench.
The official explanation?
“We wish we could have played Zion down the stretch,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry told reporters, twice deflecting questions about Williamson’s disappearance by pointing to the medical staff, according to ESPN’s Andrew Lopez. “But he had used the minutes that had been given to us. That's just the way it is. We weren't going to stick him back out there.”
To be fair, New Orleans should have had the game in the bag long before the last few minutes, but 21 turnovers kept Utah in the game. Pelicans guard J.J. Redick, this game’s oldest player at age 36, was in the best shape of anyone. He ran the Jazz ragged for three quarters, along with current All-Star Brandon Ingram and former All-Star Jrue Holiday, each scoring 20 or more points and building a lead as large as 16.
The Jazz looked disorganized on offense without second-leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic, who had hand surgery during the hiatus, after playing 61 straight games before the suspension of the season. Utah shot 33 percent from the field in the first half. Outside of a 10-point run midway through the first quarter, they made just two of their 18 first-half 3-point attempts and were outscored 52-29 over a 19-minute stretch.
Somehow Utah looked worse on defense, allowing 44 points in the paint and 19 second-chance points through three quarters, despite the presence of Gobert, the two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
The tide turned in the fourth, when New Orleans lost its legs, offering little resistance as Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson blew by the initial layer of defense. A 96-89 edge evaporated into a 98-97 deficit in three minutes.
Rust does not excuse Williamson’s absence after the Pelicans lost their lead. Each one of the eight seeding games are make or break for New Orleans and a handful of other teams still fighting for a playoff spot. If the Pelicans would not bother to play the game-changing face of the season-reopener in arguably the biggest minutes of their season, what hope do we have of seeing a polished product prior to the playoffs?
“It's not even just conditioning; it’s just getting my flow to the game back,” Williamson said, via Lopez, suggesting that flow could take a bit. “This is the NBA, this is the best players in the world; and you want to feel comfortable. I don’t want to hurt my team more than I helped them in a sense, if you understand me.”
We cannot know if Williamson would have made the difference. He finished a game-worst minus-16 in limited action, failing to hustle back on defense and looking winded in his three-minute “bursts” at the start of each quarter. But he did score 13 points on eight shots, attacking with force and lurking as a lob threat. All it would have taken was one more bucket. Instead, the Pelicans missed all but two of their last 12 shots, including the final three — all 3-pointers, capped by Ingram’s failed rim-rattling, game-winning attempt.
The visuals of the game were not all that different, save for “Black Lives Matter” in block letters on the sideline, NBA personnel and media members wearing masks, and the virtual fans seated on giant digital displays. We might have liked to hear more of the bleeped-out trash talk and less of the canned cuts from mic’d-up players, but for the most part, it looked like basketball again. Just not of the playoff hunt variety.
Gobert fittingly scored the first and last points of this sloppy start to the Disney bubble. Days after callously touching media microphones in jest, his positive COVID-19 test on March 11 halted the season. His bookends in Thursday’s game were a reminder that bad basketball is better than no basketball at all.
Let’s just hope it doesn’t get worse before it gets better.
– – – – – – –
More from Yahoo Sports: