ORLANDO, Fla. — What used to captivate those audiences on those old ABC Wide World of Sports telecasts of the Globetrotters was the piercing voice of Geese Ausbie standing at the free throw line, conducting traffic offensively with his teammates, his voice never stopping until the ball reached the right hands for the right shot.
The sounds of the NBA have been drowned out by fan noise or rap music or drummed in sound effects. You could no longer hear the point guard maestros of the game command their teams with their encouragement, orders and barbs.
That was until this NBA bubble, where the fanless atmosphere allows those in attendance to hear all of the game’s idiosyncrasies, and on Friday the chattering voice of Chris Paul controlled the first half of the Celtics scrimmage against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
It was Boston’s first experience in this new coronavirus-sparked environment and the Celtics essentially failed their first test in a 98-84 loss. What was evident after just a few minutes is the Celtics are going to have to alter their approach if they want to be successful here under the NBA bubble.
It was apparent the Thunder were the more vocal and spirited team. The players talked trash from the bench, encouraged each other. On released 3-pointers by teammates, Paul would yell, “That’s three of them” make or miss.
The Celtics were timid in this environment, with Marcus Smart the lone one making any real noise. The bench was quiet, hardly encouraging. The players didn’t talk much on defense. The workmanlike Celtics thought their old style would work here, and it may, but the Thunder taught them a valuable lesson about self-motivation because that’s required when there are no fans.
“I thought the most interesting part is when you listen to Chris Paul, the whole place, there’s nobody else in here, and Chris Paul dominated the game with his voice,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “That’s gonna be critical as you move forward to be connected and communicate. That was a great lesson for us.”
The impact of this new atmosphere can’t be understated. The NBA is trying desperately to give the home team some type of home-court advantage, so with the Celtics the official home team Friday, the video boards displayed Celtics logos, large head shots of players, scenes of the city during timeouts and Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” was played at opening time like any other game at TD Garden.
Yet, once the play began and the silence dominated, the environment changed. Paul was chattering at his teammates, Celtics players — including an interesting exchange with Smart, who was called for a foul despite getting flattened by a screen — and anyone else who would listen. He was determined to turn this game into his own personal congregation, his own church where he was the lead pastor.
The Celtics were merely witnesses.
“The fastest team that makes the adjustment is going to be the better team,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “While we are here, we gotta be vocal, we’ve got to be detailed, we’ve got to adjust as fast as we can. Chris Paul did a great job of organizing his team and we’ve got to do a better job of organizing ours. It’s early and we are young and we’ve got a lot of stuff to work on and we’re gonna get there, we’re gonna get there.”
The Celtics have two of these scrimmages left until the regular season resumes and they need to become more focused. Brown said the team wasn’t in as good of shape as it thought it was, and perhaps practices will ramp up now that the players have seen how prepared their counterparts are.
The Thunder are a cohesive club that looked comfortable from the tip. It was perhaps too stiff of a test to begin, with Paul digging deep into the Celtics defense and whipping the ball to teammates to finish, or for Steven Adams to gobble up every offense rebound for a resounding finish. The Celtics got punched in the gut early and the Thunder quickly realized they had a vulnerable opponent and their bench got louder.
The Celtics seemed shell-shocked with their performance and the veterans half-heartedly encouraged their younger teammates in the first half. Maybe this method works in Boston or on the NBA road, but in the NBA bubble, silence is deafening. It’s painful and a sign of vulnerability.
“The oddest part was running out [onto the floor],” Paul said. “Maybe if you’re the home team you can come out and hear the crowd roar and if you’re the visiting team you can hear some boos. But this is what we do. This is our jobs, our livelihoods. You figure it out. You adjust and a lot of guys on the team say, ‘bring your own energy.’”
It was just a scrimmage, and this may serve to benefit the Celtics in the long run. They are going to have to revive their summer league mentality from those rookie days of being vocally involved in every play, emotionally invested. Because in an atmosphere of such silence, a game now without the embellishments of a normal NBA game, energy is desperately needed.