While NBA games have resumed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it sometimes feels like we are still stuck in a basketball purgatory, waiting for them to actually feel like games again.
In many arenas, tarps have been pulled over the empty seats so it does not look as cavernous. Fake crowd noise is pumped in to make everyone forget that the real thing is not there. Public-address announcers still scream in delight when the home team scores, but it mostly just sounds garbled over a television.
Of course, there are plenty of NBA games during normal times in which atmospheres are pretty stale anyway. Seats are empty, and others are filled with apathy. But that’s certainly never the case when the Lakers and Celtics meet, as they will at TD Garden on Saturday night. In this Celtics game, more than any that preceded it during these pandemic-filled days, the lack of a rabid Saturday night crowd will be glaring.
“Right now, it’s different,” Lakers star LeBron James said. “Without the Boston fans, without the Laker faithful, it’s not the same. It won’t feel the same on Saturday. It’s gonna feel great to play another game and play against a very good team, but it won’t have the rivalry feel. The fans are so much a part of that rivalry. You can just listen, and go back and watch those games, how key those fans were in all those battles.”
When the Lakers and Celtics played in the Orlando bubble, there were no home courts. The environment was sealed and stale, but it sort of felt like it should be that way. The transition to home arenas has been different.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said the lack of fans struck him on opening night one month ago, when the mighty Bucks came to TD Garden and just a handful of people witnessed it. He agreed with James that Celtics-Lakers probably would not feel like Celtics-Lakers.
But the unusual setup will not make this important game any less meaningful to him. He sometimes thinks about what he would have thought of this chance when he was a child, and he urges his players to look at it similarly.
“When you’re concerned about your role in this game, or how many minutes you’re going to play, don’t forget about that 15-year-old who would have died to be on the end of the bench,” Stevens said. “This is a special opportunity, a special rivalry. Obviously the opportunity to compete against the very best is always a great challenge. They’re excellent. They have an excellent team on top of all that.”
In addition to being the Lakers, of course, this team also has James, and it stormed to an NBA championship three months ago. And rather than returning with the same squad, Los Angeles had a powerful offseason as it reloaded around James and Anthony Davis.
The team signed Sixth Man of the Year Montrezl Harrell and the runner-up for that award, Dennis Schroder. It also added veterans Marc Gasol and Wesley Matthews while keeping most of its other core pieces.
“It’s scary to think that last year’s champion is better, but I’d say on paper, they probably are,” Stevens said. “They obviously lost good players, too, but those additions are all very, very good players, and they seem to complement each other very well thus far.”
This is the Lakers’ sixth game of a seven-game road trip. They started 3-0 but have lost the last two, including Thursday’s setback against the lowly Pistons. But Davis missed that game with a bruised quadriceps and is expected to play against Boston.
The Celtics, meanwhile, are trying to shake off Wednesday’s loss to the Spurs. It was the first game this season in which stars Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker, and Jaylen Brown all played.
“We’ll figure it out,” Walker said. “We get along very well. We all want to win. At the end of the day, we just have to figure it out. That just is what it is. [Tatum and Brown] are special talents and we need them to be great every night. I’m really the one that has to figure it out. Those two guys, they’re good … We want those two guys to be super, aggressive and leading us.”
Celtics rookie Payton Pritchard has resumed on-court workouts after spraining the MCL in his right knee in a loss to the 76ers last Friday, but there is no timetable for his return.
“I’m starting to move and cut and stuff like that,” Pritchard said. “So, I’m getting there. I would say I’m a little over 50 percent. Obviously, this is a process, so each day it’s gotten better and better.”