This time, though, it was just a small clock adjustment, and after it was quickly corrected, referee Scott Foster walked to the center circle and, almost five months late, officially tipped off the Thunder versus the Jazz.
“It was almost like an epiphany, right?” Thunder center Steven Adams said. “Just that weird feeling that you’re in it right now. This is what we’re doing now. The NBA’s properly started back up. It was an awesome feeling, definitely.”
It has been four months and 21 days, to be exact, since March 11, the night the NBA shut down in Oklahoma City with Rudy Gobert becoming Patient Zero as the COVID-19 pandemic became a tangible reality to North America. It’s the game that is seen as having stopped everything, a pivotal moment in both sports, and really, world history.
“That game was the start of everything being shut down,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said. “Not only in the NBA, but in our country.”
The Thunder picked up pretty much where they left off in March, pummeling the Jazz 110-94, never trailing and building a lead as large as 29 points. Chris Paul dictated the action, as he often does, pacing the Thunder with 18 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists, while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added 19 points and 6 assists. There has been a lot of buzz about the improvements of some of OKC’s younger players during the hiatus, which is something that gives Paul confidence that the break might have brought out a better version of the Thunder.
“When you talk about that big gap we’ve had since March, to see how much better we’ve gotten as a team, to see [Andre] Roberson out there hooping,” Paul said, “it’s special and it almost gives you goosebumps.”
Paul and close friend Donovan Mitchell reflected before the game on the connection between the two teams and the magnitude of that moment in March as they both considered everything that has happened since.
“We had a conversation right before the game, it’s pretty surreal we ended up here kind of replaying the game,” Mitchell said. “We talked just about how crazy life has been since the last time we saw these guys. I think, honestly, it was kind of refreshing to go out there and play that game specifically, because you know it was kind of the one that really changed a lot throughout the world. I think for us to get out there, as an outsider, for the game itself, but as a whole moment for the NBA, I think it was a pretty special moment.”
The Jazz already played a game in Lake Buena Vista, Florida — a 106-104 win over the Pelicans — before facing the Thunder, but for OKC, facing Utah was seen by some players and staff as a bit of a poetic full-circle moment, a box that needed checking.
“I mean, it’s a hell of coincidence that that’s who our first game is against,” Paul said with a laugh before the game.
“From what transpired that night, with all the craziness, to people being in the unknown,” Thunder center Nerlens Noel said before the game, “fast-forward four or five months later and we’re here, ready to play basketball in a great, safe environment in the bubble that the NBA has done a great job with. So it’s time to get it done and face our fears.”
After Gobert’s positive test, the entire Jazz traveling party was tested for COVID-19 and only one player came back positive: Mitchell. As Jazz coach Quin Snyder prepped for the Thunder, watching film and making a game plan — which wasn’t all that different from the one he had ready for March 11, he said — he knew playing OKC would flood his mind with memories and reflections of the night sports stopped in America.
“What happened in OKC, it was historic,” Snyder said. “I think it’s hard to imagine when you look back at the circumstances that occurred, not only with the cancellation of the game and subsequently the season, but to have our two primary players, the two guys on our team that were in the All-Star Game, to have them both test positive and no one else in the group, was a little bit surreal. The whole evening was surreal.
“I think the last game against New Orleans in a lot of ways for us, just getting back on the court and reconnecting and playing basketball seemed like more than one game,” Snyder added. “It gave you a sense, our team a sense, our players in particular, even though that night in Oklahoma City was dramatic as it was, as we’ve been through the subsequent three or four months, it gives you an appreciation for how unimportant that game was, relative to all the people that have been fighting this virus. The health care workers who are on the front lines, people that have given their lives to protect other people. The many people that have gotten sick, the people that have tragically passed away. So that game starts to fade away as far as its importance on a larger scale.”
Before the game, both teams took a knee in solidarity in front of the Black Lives Matter emblem during the national anthem, which was performed by OKC singer Rob Clay from the floor of Chesapeake Energy Arena.
That arena, some 1,300 miles from NBA’s Florida “bubble,” remains almost entirely untouched from the night sports stopped. The hardwood floor is down, still shimmering under the stadium lights after being polished and disinfected following Gobert’s positive diagnosis. Media seating placards are still in place at the scorekeeper’s table, signage dots the concourses and even the Gatorade jugs bookend both teams’ benches. From there to Lake Buena Vista, in both the time and space between, as Snyder said, the league and the world have changed.
“At this point we’re battling COVID and we’re also battling social justice issues, so there are things that have replaced that game that are much more significant and important,” Snyder said. “That said, that game was a unique set of circumstances that we’ll never see again.”