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

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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 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."