ORLANDO — Practice had officially ended at the Contemporary Hotel at Walt Disney World. As Gordon Hayward finished his media obligations, he yelled to his teammates not to leave on the bus without him. Meanwhile, a bunch of Celtics stayed in the gym to get extra work.
This is life in the NBA bubble where the players have no place to go besides their hotel. They can’t go home to their families. They can’t go to the beach and hang out. They are confined to the bubble and, if their plans come to fruition, the Celtics will be here two more months.
After their impressive 122-100 win over the Toronto Raptors on Friday, the Celtics’ strut was longer and more confident. They had beaten a team that hadn’t lost in the bubble in a game they led by as many as 40 points.
The Celtics didn’t arrive at the bubble prepared for the intensity of the games. They looked shaky in their first three games, playing one good half against the Portland Trail Blazers before hanging on for their only previous win.
On Friday, however, the Celtics played with intent and force from the opening tip. They were able to see the fruits of their labor for the past few weeks, the extended practice time together, the gained camaraderie, and the opportunity to bond off the floor.
Here in the NBA bubble, the activities are limited. Players cannot leave the compound. Celtics coach Brad Stevens takes walks on a circular road that surrounds the Walt Disney property. The track/street has become a popular exercise trail for coaches, game officials, and even media members.
In the arena, the Celtics have to energize themselves. As much as the stadium operations posts Celtics logos, plays “Crazy Train” prior to tipoff, and shows virtual Celtics fans, it’s essentially an empty place.
“It’s actually a relief to a certain extent because you don’t have some crazy fan cursing you out or getting on your nerves, you can actually focus on playing,” guard Marcus Smart said. “Everybody here is on a mission and everybody here is trying to focus and lock in and do everything they can to get their team to the spot they want to be.”
The Celtics are a close and harmonious team, especially compared with last season’s chaotic bunch. But some players have families. Others live alone. They may not communicate much once they lead the arena. Here in the bubble, they are with each other constantly, at practice, team meals, in the hotel, even at the pool or walking around the compound.
“We’re making the most out of it,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “We’re enjoying each other and building chemistry. We were away from each other and now we ain’t got no choice but to be around each other. We’re all in this together. We’re all in the same predicament and we’re all missing somebody back home, so we’re making the best out of enjoying each other’s company because we’re trying to be here as long as we can.”
What makes these games normal is Smart’s presence and leadership. He has become the most piercing vocal presence on the team during the bubble games. His voice can be heard throughout the arena, asking Celtics players on the floor who is going to screen the free throw shooter or calling out defensive assignments.
It is during the quietness of these games that Smart’s value to the organization is appreciated even more by teammates.
“I mean it’s no secret Smart is like the heart and soul of this team,” Tatum said. “He brings so much more to this team that doesn’t show up in the stat book. So just hearing his voice, him talking on the court, off the court can only help us. If he’s doing that, we’re a better team.”
It’s not that the Celtics didn’t think they were capable of a performance like Friday’s, but it has been months since they put together such a complete game. In the first three quarters, when the starters mostly played, the Celtics shot 50.7 percent from the field, 37.1 percent from the 3-point line, and held Toronto to 33.8 and 14.8. Raptors coach Nick Nurse began pulling his starters once the Celtics’ lead reached 34.
The Celtics had put together a masterpiece. It seems as if they are getting accustomed to this bubble environment.
“I think every team will tell you when you get in a rhythm like that and you find it it’s a good feeling,” Smart said. “We still have some work to be done. We know what we need to do and how to do it, we just need to go out there and do it every single night.”
Smart will continue his role as team leader, team conscience, and team commander, especially since he knows for sure his teammates can clearly hear him.
“The way I see the game is different than a lot of people,” he said. “That’s one of my great attributes that I have is my uniqueness to have the IQ that I have. I’m just making sure my guys are in the right place to succeed.”