The buildup to the NBA’s return was a slow burn, but games in the bubble have started with a bang

The next night, Giannis Antetokounmpo posted 36 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in just 32 minutes to lead the Milwaukee Bucks past the Boston Celtics in an Eastern Conference showdown. In a captivating nightcap, James Harden scored 49 points to lead the Houston Rockets to an improbable comeback win in overtime over the Dallas Mavericks, who got a 28-point triple-double from Luka Doncic. The 153-149 final score made it clear that the Texas rivals need not be overly concerned about rusty offenses.

During the early whirlwind, it became apparent that the players missed the game as much as hoops-deprived fans.

“We’re in the land of the unknown,” James said. “Things are happening for the first time. You just take it for what it is. Don’t take the moment for granted. We’re all still living and alive and back to doing what we love to do: covering the game, playing the game, watching the game. That’s a blessing, because 2020 has been pretty [crappy]. We’re all blessed.”

There were other dazzling individual performances sprinkled in during the bubble’s first 48 hours. Rudy Gobert, the patient zero of American sports, posted a double-double and sank the game-winning free throws to lead the Utah Jazz past the New Orleans Pelicans in a two-point win. Portland Trail Blazers guards Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 62 points in an overtime win despite 22 points and 11 assists from Ja Morant, the Memphis Grizzlies’ rookie sensation. De’Aaron Fox, a rising star who has largely flown under the national radar on the Sacramento Kings, poured in 39 points against the San Antonio Spurs in a losing effort.

For all the justified anxiety about the living conditions at Disney World, the sport’s biggest names wasted no time making the most of their new situation and brushing off concerns about the quality of play after the long layoff. The lack of fans and quiet arenas are a dramatic departure from the NBA’s norm, but the sport’s emotions and passion were as visible as ever. Even more visible, really, because media members are granted an up-close and personal view from courtside seats.

James increased his intensity and loudly lobbied the officials for calls in the closing minutes against the Clippers. Davis flashed a childlike grin while basking in the hard-fought victory. Houston’s bench could not control its excitement as Harden took over down the stretch, and it erupted when P.J. Tucker took a key late-game charge. Clippers Coach Doc Rivers had shouted himself hoarse before halftime, like always. Antetokounmpo exchanged some heated words with Marcus Smart on the court, then saluted the Celtics pest for his team-first approach.

“Whenever I come back from the offseason or a long break, I’m just excited,” Antetokounmpo said, lamenting that built-up energy landed him in foul trouble and welcoming the tense interplay with Smart. “I told him at the end of the game that I respect that you play hard. There’s nothing more to that. I know he’s going to talk and talk and try to get me out of my game. I respect that he’s doing that.”

The sheer volume of high-level performances, in a short time and condensed at the same locale, was disorienting even for hungry viewers who had been anxiously counting down the days until games resumed. By the time Harden addressed reporters well past midnight on the second night of the season, only two media members were left standing.

“[The hiatus was lost] time away from our teammates building chemistry,” Harden said. “Tonight was a great start. We had a really good training camp. Guys were getting after it, building our conditioning and communication. We’re just happy to be around each other. … We’re not even close to who we want to be, but we’re building in the right direction.”

Glancing at the upcoming schedule is a dizzying proposition. On Monday, James, Davis, Morant, Chris Paul, Zion Williamson, Nikola Jokic, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons will all take the court. On Tuesday, it will be Antetokounmpo, Leonard, George, Harden, Russell Westbrook, Doncic, Lillard, Jayson Tatum and others. On Wednesday and beyond, the cycle continues, as long as the bubble holds up against the coronavirus.

After a four-month drought, there will be a torrential downpour of basketball in the Florida tropics.

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