As I sit down to start this article, I’m watching Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals between the Boston Celtics and the defending champion Toronto Raptors. Normally, I connect the NBA playoffs with a number of things. It means that winter is gone and springtime has arrived. In another couple of weeks, school will be over and golf courses will be open. Then, the weather will start to get warmer and summer will be upon us.
But this year, I’m watching a basketball game on Labor Day weekend. School has just begun and I tune into my daily Zoom classes, waiting to get the results of my COVID-19 test so that we can resume classes in person. In person classes will not be the same, as there will be many precautions taken to ensure the safety of all students and faculty. However, this is one more step in the right direction in returning to a sense of normalcy. Another step is the resumption of professional sports. This may not mean much to some people, but it does to me. The world has been an unusual place over the last six months and I will gladly welcome anything that even remotely resembles life as we knew it before COVID-19 struck.
But like everything else in the world, the basketball season could not resume without many precautions being put in place to make sure the virus would not spread throughout the NBA community. Unlike other professional leagues, the NBA has done a spectacular job in keeping the players safe and the quality of the games high. Though fans cannot attend in person, they have created an excellent viewing experience and have been able to recreate the magical feeling that I’ve always associated with watching the NBA playoffs.
This article will explore some things that the NBA has done well with the restart of their season, some of the bizarre (yet entertaining) parts of their life in the bubble, and reasons why games have been better since the restart of the season.
No Home Court Advantage
One of the biggest reasons why games have been so competitive is because there is no home court advantage. Although the advantage that fans provide for their team is one of the best parts of the game normally, life without a home court has resulted in excellent competition. Each game is played in a neutral location where no one team has a leg up on the other. Normally, the higher seeded team will have more games at home throughout the course of the series. This can be what pushes a team over the edge and helps them advance to the next round. This is not a factor in the NBA bubble and has made it so that fans can truly see who the better team is.
No Travel or Time Zone Changes
Whether it’s back-to-back games in different cities, changing time zones, having a rough flight to away games, or various other factors, travel and time zone changes can wreak havoc on the players mentally and physically. For example, a team from the east coast could travel to the west coast for a series of road games. The time zone change would make it so that the east coast team is playing games three hours later than they’re used to. While this doesn’t always equate to poor performance by the road team, combined with other factors it can certainly lead to sluggish play. In the NBA bubble, all of these variables are removed. There’s no jetlag, delayed flights, or distractions in various cities to worry about. The players have every reason to be playing at their highest level.
While the underdog has not always won the series, nearly every game has been competitive. The Thunder just got knocked out, but took the Rockets to seven games in a season where they weren’t even expected to make the playoffs. The Miami Heat followed up a dominant four game sweep of the Indiana Pacers with a 4-1 series win against Giannis Antetokounmpo and the #1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks. The Denver Nuggets, the initial favorite, got down 3-1 in their first round matchup against Donovan Mitchell and the Utah Jazz before riding the coattails of Jamal Murray to a comeback victory in the series. These unexpected winners and comebacks have made the NBA playoffs extremely gripping.
One of the stranger aspects of life in the bubble is evident in postgame interviews. Since social distancing is strictly enforced, reporters aren’t able to get as close to the players and coaches as they would be under normal circumstances. This makes for a peculiar looking interview. While a masked reporter stands six feet from the person they’re interviewing, they loudly ask questions into the microphone so that the person can hear them. The camera then pans over to the player or coach, who answers the question into a boom mic that is being held by someone off screen. The whole process is awkward looking, but in some ways more fun to watch than typical interviews.
Fans in the Arena
Because no fans are allowed in the bubble, the NBA tried to find some ways to make the game feel more authentic. One thing they were able to do was to surround the court with video projections of live fans who are watching the game from home. The court now looks like a video game in some ways, with screens full of people cheering all around the arena. This is something that the NBA has done a far better job with than other leagues trying to restart their season. Major League Baseball’s solution was to put cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats, which just doesn’t have the same feel as what the NBA has been able to do. The NBA has made the most of the situation and has created the best possible experience for their fans. They even have a partnership with Michelob Ultra which allows fans to enter a contest where they can win tickets and be in the virtual stands.
Artificial Stadium Sounds and Crowd Noise
Unless you’re playing very close attention, it can be easy to forget that there are no actual fans in the arena during the NBA bubble. This is because the league has done an excellent job with creating both artificial stadium sounds and crowd noise. From “defense” chants to a rise in crowd volume during the most exciting parts of the game, the NBA has worked hard to make the sounds of the bubble as natural as possible. They have even gone as far as to give the “home team” in the game an advantage of sorts by using crowd noise in their favor. It’s yet another thing the league has done to make the playoff experience as normal as possible.
Visibility of the Black Lives Matter Movement
The most important thing the NBA has done is express support for the Black Lives Matter movement. This is a cause that transcends the basketball world and is very relevant in today’s society. In a league made up mostly of black males, it is a very important to show support. The NBA has long been the most progressive professional league in sports and they did not disappoint during the restart of their season. In addition to having their last names on the back of their jerseys, players are now able to choose from a variety of words or phrases that best represents what the Black Lives Matter movement means to them. The NBA has created a culture in which players, coaches, and announcers feel comfortable expressing their opinions on topics such as racial justice and systemic racism. I get the feeling that this will be something that carries on long past this year’s playoffs and will be a part of the game moving forward.