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NBA returns: LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard poised for action at Disney World

It’s been more than 140 days since a ball was last bounced competitively in the NBA, with the season postponed on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo are now tenants of Mickey Mouse, with the regular season and play-offs being completed at Walt Disney World, Orlando.

To limit the number of personnel inside the NBA ‘bubble’, only 22 of the league’s 30 teams are taking part. Franchises with no chance of progressing to the post-season are not involved.

With the first of the tip-offs on Thursday, here’s a reminder of where we left the season and what to expect from the new-look NBA.

Who to look out for?

Led by James, the Los Angeles Lakers are the number one-ranked team in the Western Conference. James, now 35 and in his 17th season in the league, is trying to win an NBA title with his third franchise having previously lifted it with the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers.

The plot twist could come from the Lakers’ city rivals the Los Angeles Clippers, with Leonard (a champion with the San Antonio Spurs and last season with the Toronto Raptors) himself vying for a slice of history by also winning the NBA Finals with three different franchises.

In the East the Milwaukee Bucks host the best record – as well as the best overall record in the league. Reigning Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo is having another stellar season – but critics are still waiting to see if he can continue that form when it really matters, come play-off time.

Listed at 6ft 9in tall and with a wingspan of 7ft 2in the ‘Greek Freak’ will be trying to secure the Bucks’ first Finals title since 1971.

NBA returns – the first fixtures (all times in BST)
Thursday, 30 July Utah Jazz v New Orleans Pelicans (23:30)
LA Clippers v LA Lakers (02:00 Friday, 31 July)
Friday, 31 July Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets (19:30)
Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trailblazers (21:00)
Phoenix Suns v Washington Wizards (21:00)
Boston Celtics v Milwaukee Bucks (23:30)
Sacramento Kings v San Antonio Spurs (01:00 Saturday, 2 August)
Houston Rockets v Dallas Mavericks (02:00 Saturday, 2 August)

There’s no doubt the crowd plays a huge part in both building momentum and creating tension in sport – and in basketball the proximity of the fans and players means that’s often magnified.

Statistics show overwhelmingly the team starting at home usually advances – so psychologically it’s a huge advantage.

Well that’s out the window.

Inside the NBA ‘bubble’ all games are played at a neutral venue with just the bench players, coaches, backroom staff and NBA personnel in the gym.

Unlike the Premier League the NBA has decided not to pump pre-recorded crowd noise into the venues. DJs will however be on hand to help drum up atmosphere and fans will be able to get a “courtside” experience by using video conferencing and 17-foot tall LED screens that will go round the court.

Black Lives Matter

The NBA and its players have been one of the most vocal sport organisations to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Players have been invited to create slogans which will appear on their jerseys with social justice messages against racism and police brutality, ranging from ‘I Can’t Breathe’ to ‘Justice Now’ and ‘Education Reform’.

The courts will also show the Black Lives Matter message during games.

The Utah Jazz and New Orleans Pelicans are reportedly working together on a plan to kneel during the US national anthem and show support for the movement before they square off in the first official game of the restart on Thursday. –