Lakers and Heat set to play before fans, a year after NBA Finals

Fans will be present as Lakers play host to Phoenix and the Heat returns home to face Milwaukee in a pair of Round 1, Game 3 matchups.

LeBron James celebrates with his teammates after the Lakers defeated Miami Heat during the 2020 NBA Finals.   -  AP

On their respective ways to the NBA Finals last season, there was one important element missing for both the Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat. No fans were there.

That changes for last year’s finalists on Thursday night when the Lakers play host to Phoenix and the Heat returns home to face Milwaukee in a pair of Round 1, Game 3 matchups.

Those are two of the three games on Thursday’s slate, the other being Denver heading to Portland for a Game 3 contest.

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Portland and the Lakers are going home having taken away home-court advantage from higher-seeded opponents in their respective series by getting splits of the first two games, at third-seeded Denver and second-seeded Phoenix.

Miami is limping home, the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference down 2-0 against the third-seeded Bucks and after getting simply blown out in Game 2.

Heat fans can get a shot in the arm — literally. The Moderna vaccine will be available if any of the expected 17,000 fans want to begin the process of getting inoculated against the coronavirus.

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But Heat forward Jimmy Butler stopped short of saying having a raucous home crowd, which if capacity is hit would be the biggest in the NBA during this virus-marred season, would automatically help Miami’s chances.

“I don’t think so,” Butler said. “We love playing in front of our home crowd, on our home floor, but we’ve still got to go out there and play basketball the right way — compete and do what we say we’re going to do before the game, what we say we’re going to do after the game."

The Lakers, who won last season’s NBA championship in the restart bubble at Walt Disney World, haven’t won a playoff game in their home arena since May 18, 2012.

Here’s how long ago that was: Lakers forward LeBron James was a month away from his first NBA title in Miami, Suns guard Chris Paul was in his first year of a six-year run with the Clippers (and he’s been with three teams since), and Phoenix center Deandre Ayton was only about a year removed from picking up a basketball for the first time.

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“Us just coming home, 1-1, evening up this series and actually playing a real playoff game ... for the first time in, what, eight years? It’ll be pretty special for our fans,” James said. “To just have our fans in the building, we want to continue to make them proud. That’s what I came here for, to play a playoff game in front of the Laker faithful.”

Portland won Game 1 of its matchup in Denver before the Nuggets recovered to take Game 2. Over the last three months, no team has been better than Denver on the road.

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The Nuggets are 14-6 in their last 20 road games, including a regular-season finale loss at Portland in which they didn’t exactly give big minutes to their regular rotation.

Nikola Jokic made 15 of his 20 shots for Denver in Game 2, and the Nuggets had six players in double figures.

“We’ll have to be even better on the road to try and get Game 3,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said.

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