ORLANDO — The NBA is finally ready to return after four months of a pandemic, a couple weeks of training camp, and several days of scrimmage games that do not even resemble a normal NBA atmosphere.
The players have had the past week to get accustomed to the new conditions — no fans, smaller venues, a different shooting backdrop, and socially distanced bench seating — and there have been few complaints, only observations about how important on-court communication will be.
All 22 teams, including the Celtics, have essentially reintroduced themselves and attempted to galvanize after such a long break. The games will begin Thursday, when the Jazz take on the Pelicans, followed by Lakers and Clippers.
Firstly, expect the players to make a social justice stance, whether it is kneeling for the national anthem or interlocking arms, as players did four years ago. Secondly, each of the three courts has “Black Lives Matter” scripted near the scorer’s table, and there will be virtual fans in the background and crowd noise piped in.
The NBA has tried feverishly to transform the bubble into a normal game setting, but that’s impossible. There is complete silence when players are shooting free throws. Trash talk can be heard clearly. The players on the bench have no fan noise impeding their ability to talk to players on the floor.
For example, Lakers superstar LeBron James decided he was going to pick on Orlando guard and Hamilton native Michael Carter-Williams. With James on the bench and Carter-Williams entering the game, James roared to his teammates, “He’s all drive, no shoot. No. 7 is all drive.”
Later in the game when Carter-Williams picked up a foul, James could be heard saying from the bench, “That’s on you. You. You. You.”
James, chasing a fourth NBA title, but first with the top-seeded Lakers, said the atmosphere will be an adjustment for all players.
“It’s a different circumstance. It’s different,” he said. “It’s 20/20. People have been asking me how the bubble is, and it’s 20/20. Everything else is different, and you have to be able to adjust to it. Like a home game at Staples Center, it won’t have that feeling. But we know our fans are looking forward to seeing us play again. They’re still supporting us behind their phones, TV, laptops, whatever it may be.”
There is a collective glee, however, that the NBA is actually here. The league released its latest COVID-19 testing results and there were no positives out of the 344 tested. The bubble is working. The protocols, which include daily COVID, temperature, and oxygen saturation testing, are working. And those who don’t follow them, such as Everett native Nerlens Noel (who missed a test Tuesday), will not play. Noel had to miss Oklahoma City’s final scrimmage.
When those test results are compared to the happenings in Major League Baseball, the NBA feels as if it’s winning this battle against the disease by making the early decision to choose a bubble. NBA commissioner Adam Silver prefers to call it a “campus,” but the league has created perhaps one of the safest places in the world for its players to resume their jobs.
One of those jobs is to reconnect. The pandemic break spanned essentially an NBA offseason, so players returned to training camps in their cities having not seen each other in a month, and some we unable to play basketball because of a lack of facilities.
“It’s a new season pretty much,” Clippers guard Kawhi Leonard said. “After you win or lose in the playoffs, you probably have about three months before you through training camp and then you start up again.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers said he has discussed the bubble with many of his fellow coaches. There will be teams who respond favorably to the new conditions, who may play better because there are no fans and no home-court advantage. And there could be teams that may have not been close before the pandemic and didn’t improve those relations.
“Everyone’s chemistry has gotten either way better or we hate each other,” Rivers said. “I can’t imagine someone’s team not growing in this. It’s an NBA village. It’s the greatest superstar basketball camp, if you look at it that way. Adversity is not all bad. It really isn’t. We may have two to three guys out. Having said that, that doesn’t stop us from believing we can win every game. We have great confidence.”
Confidence and fortitude will be keys to team success, especially for the rather quiet Celtics, who learned in their scrimmage opener that talking and enthusiasm will be critical because there are no fans. This is a season reboot, and of the 22 teams here in Orlando, 12 to 14 feel like they have an honest chance to reach the NBA Finals.
It’s really impossible for any coach to predict exactly how their team will fare in this new environment, but all the teams have had plenty of preparation time for this moment. The NBA is back, and here we go.
“Obviously everybody quarantined for four months, the key is to be in the best shape to give yourself a chance [to win a title],” Houston guard James Harden said. “Why can’t it be us?”