Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford talks to players during a timeout in the first half of the team's NBA preseason basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks on Friday, Dec. 11, 2020, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

John Wall back on floor, NBA opens preseason in empty arenas

John Wall was back on the floor for the first time in nearly two years. DeMarcus Cousins played for the first time since the 2019 NBA Finals.

And the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers were home, with nobody there to watch.

The NBA preseason — a truncated 49-game, nine-day sprint — opened Friday with a five-game slate, action returning to NBA arenas for the first time in exactly nine months. Coaches debuted with their new teams: Stephen Silas with Houston, Tom Thibodeau with New York, Billy Donovan with Chicago and Tyronn Lue with the Los Angeles Clippers. Rookies, such as No. 4 pick Patrick Williams of the Bulls and No. 8 pick Obi Toppin of the Knicks, got their first NBA minutes.

As will be the case in most buildings, at least to start the season, almost nobody was at any of these games. With the coronavirus pandemic ongoing and case numbers still rising, the era that started for the NBA with the suspension of last season on March 11 — the night that Utah’s Rudy Gobert tested positive — resumed with the league and its teams erring on the sides of caution and safety.

“It’s different, for sure,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said before his team faced the Clippers inside a very empty Staples Center.

Well, some things were different.

Coaches wore masks. Detroit showed old videos of actual fan interactions — with the disclaimer that they were taped previously — during some timeouts. Bench seating areas were all spaced out, nobody next to one another.

“The atmosphere will be obviously significantly different than what guys are used to in an arena,” Orlando coach Steve Clifford said. “And I think that’s going to be one of the valuable aspects of playing these four exhibition games. Just like in the bubble, we had to get used to a different-type environment and I think these four games will hopefully allow us to see what the regular season is going to be like in these big arenas also.”

So, yes, much was different.

Other things — like Wall’s explosion to the basket — were just like normal.

Wall’s first basket since December 2018 came on the first possession of Houston’s preseason, when he got to the rim for an easy score in his Rockets debut, one that came after his recovery from heel and Achilles injuries.

The Rockets’ next basket? Wall set up Cousins for a 3-pointer, the centre’s first basket since Game 6 of the 2019 finals with the Warriors, two months before he tore his ACL and missed last season.

Reigning NBA scoring champion James Harden wasn’t playing for the Rockets, still not cleared to be back on the floor with the team that he hasn’t practiced with yet and apparently no longer wants to be with. LeBron James and Anthony Davis, who were last seen on the floor together when the Lakers topped the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals in the Walt Disney World bubble — less than two months ago — were among the regulars who got the champs’ preseason opener off.

There are seven more games Saturday.

Friday’s games:

KNICKS 90, PISTONS 84

At Detroit, R.J. Barrett scored 15 points and Toppin finished with 11 points and seven rebounds in his debut as the Knicks won their preseason opener.

Julius Randle scored 11, while Elfrid Payton and Nerlens Noel each scored 10 for New York.

Svi Mykhailiuk and Saddiq Bey led the Pistons with 14 points apiece. None of Detroit’s five starters — all playing between 15 and 22 minutes — reached double figures, and they shot a combined 8 for 34.

MAGIC 116, HAWKS 112

At Atlanta, Nikola Vucevic had 18 points and 11 rebounds and all five Orlando starters reached double figures.

Dwayne Bacon had 14 points, Evan Fournier had 13, Aaron Gordon scored 12 and Markelle Fultz added 10 for the Magic, who also got 10 off the bench from Michael Carter-Williams.

De’Andre Hunter scored 18 for the Hawks, who got 14 points apiece from John Collins and Danilo Gallinari, 14 rebounds from Clint Capela and 13 points from Cam Reddish. Trae Young shot just 2 for 9 for Atlanta.

ROCKETS 125, BULLS 104

At Chicago, Wall had 13 points and nine assists in 19 minutes and the Rockets led wire-to-wire.

Bruno Caboclo had 17 points for Houston, which led by as many as 32. Gerald Green and Eric Gordon scored 16 apiece, Cousins had 14 points in 15 minutes and Ben McLemore added 10 for the Rockets — who had a 35-0 edge in points off turnovers until the final moments.

Coby White scored 15 for the Bulls. Lauri Markkanen added 13 for Chicago, Williams had 12 in his NBA debut, Noah Vonleh and Zach LaVine each added 12 and Tomas Satoransky finished with 11.

LAKERS 87, CLIPPERS 81

At Los Angeles, Talen Horton-Tucker scored 19 points and Kyle Kuzma had 18 for the Lakers.

Montrezl Harrell had 13 points and 12 rebounds against his former team and Dennis Schroder added 10 points for the Lakers. Paul George had 10 for the Clippers and Kawhi Leonard managed three in 14 minutes.

Both teams shot exactly 30 for 84 from the field, and none of the Clippers’ starters logged even 15 minutes.

TRAIL BLAZERS 127, KINGS 102

At Portland, Carmelo Anthony had 21 points in 23 minutes for a Trail Blazers team that had to close its practice facility earlier in the week over coronavirus concerns.

Harry Giles had 18 points and 14 rebounds against his former team. CJ McCollum and Gary Trent Jr. also scored 18 apiece for the Blazers, while Damian Lillard scored 15 and Derrick Jones Jr. had 15 on 6-of-7 shooting in his Portland debut.

Buddy Hield had 23 points and Harrison Barnes scored 16 for the Kings, who gave up 35 points in the first nine minutes. De’Aaron Fox scored 10.

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