NBA returns with virtual fans: Players take a knee, Lebron James hits game winner for Lakers

James had 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists to help the Lakers move 6 1/2 games ahead of the Clippers in the West with seven games remaining.

NBA returned for the first time after the league was interrupted in March due to the lockdowns imposed by coronavirus pandemic. The return was marked by strong messages as well as performances with Los Angeles Lakers’ Lebron James stealing the show with a game winner against Clippers in the absence of fans.

The players were seen wearing ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirts as they took a knee while the U.S. national anthem played. Coaches and game officials joined players from the Utah Jazz, New Orleans Pelicans as well as Lakers and Clippers in taking a knee to protest against racial injustice and police brutality in the first games in 140 days.

Black Lives Matter was also written on the courts at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, where the NBA plans to finish its season with 22 teams inside a bio-secure bubble.

James followed his own miss and made the winning shot with 12.8 seconds left as the first-place Lakers beat Clippers 103-101. Finishing with 16 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists, James struggled on 6-of-19 shooting.

“The game of basketball has always been bigger than just the ball, the rim, 10 guys on the floor and referees,” James said after the match. “It’s an opportunity to use this platform to spread a lot of positivity and love throughout the whole world.”

Speaking on the hot topic of racism, James said, “We want to keep our foot on the gas. We’re dealing with a lot of racism, a lot of social injustice and a lot of police brutality, not only in my neighborhood and not only with Black people, but with all people of color.”

The games are being played without fans, but “virtual fans” appeared on LED screens wrapped around the court and a simulation of a crowd’s cheers and jeers could be heard.

Anthony Davis scored 34 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the Lakers and Kyle Kuzma added 16 points for the Lakers (50-14), who increased their lead to 6 1/2 games over the second-place Clippers (44-21) in the Western Conference standings.

Paul George had 30 points for the Clippers, but he missed a 3-point attempt at the final buzzer. Kawhi Leonard finished with 28 points, Patrick Beverley added 12 points, and Reggie Jackson added 10.

The Clippers wiped out a two-point halftime deficit with a 14-1 surge to open the third quarter for a 66-55 advantage. However, consecutive 3-pointers by Davis put the Lakers up 72-71 with 1:41 remaining the period. The Clippers took a 77-76 lead heading in the fourth quarter.The Lakers, who led by as many as 13 in the first half, seized a 41-29 edge when Dion Waiters (11 points off the bench) converted a layup two minutes into the second quarter.

However, a jumper by Leonard capped a 9-0 run as the Clippers cut the gap to 41-38 with 7:45 remaining in the quarter.Two free throws by Davis pushed the margin to 50-40 midway through the quarter before the Clippers rallied again. A 12-4 run to end the half allowed them to pull within 54-52 at the break.Davis scored 20 points in the first half while Leonard finished with 19.Both teams showed rust after more than four months of competitive play.

The Clippers committed 22 turnovers compared to 16 for the Lakers. The Lakers prevailed despite shooting 39 percent from the floor to 43.2 percent for the Clippers.

(With inputs from Reuters)

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