First Look At NBA Games Inside The Bubble

At first glance, the NBA’s return to play was something out of a movie.

It was an absurd scene, a successful, millionaire NBA coach hunched over, placing name tags on the new bench seats, which were attached to orange Gatorade dollies, with wheels.

The dollies are to keep the water bottles separate for each player, not to be used by a teammate or a player in the next game.

Michael Malone, the Nuggets coach, placed the names, one by one, for the first row: Craig (for Torrey), Harris (for Gary), Murray (for Jamal), Barton (for Will). Not one of those players would be in uniform for Wednesday’s scrimmage inside Disney’s HP Field House.

Giving assigned seats to pro athletes, as if they were in elementary school, is something I never thought I’d see at an NBA game. But in the world of socially distancing, it has become protocol.

As for the game action presented, it was just as bizarre. Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets’ best player and one of the best centers in the world, started the game at point guard. Bol Bol, a 7-2 rookie who did not play a single minute for the Nuggets all season, yet he started at Small Forward.

Mason Plumlee, a backup center, Paul Millsap the starting PF, and Jerami Grant (SF) rounded out the starting 5 for the Nuggets. So the Malone ran out a rotation that featured no guards, nor anyone under the height of 6’7″.

All of these weird experiences were caused by COVID-19. The Nuggets, the West’s third-best team record wise, were hit harder by the “Rona” than any other NBA team. A total of 9 players contracted the virus, including Jokic who was stranded in Serbia until he could test negative. They had to shut down their practice facility in Denver before flying to Orlando as the virus spread through the team.

The Washington Wizards, the Nuggets opponent for the game, are in the bubble but are a shell of themselves.

John Wall missed the whole season with a torn Achilles, and though he declared himself “110 percent healthy,” he didn’t come back for this. Bradley Beal, their best player and leading scorer (30.5 points per game) chose not to play. They said he had a sore shoulder. And Davis Bertans, also chose not to play, to protect his free agency. Sans pandemic, at least two of them would have finished the season.

Beyond that, Gary Payton II and Garrison Matthews aren’t with the Wizards. The team won’t say why. Thomas Bryant was late to Orlando, for an undisclosed reason. Of the team’s five starters, only Rui Hachimura and Isaac Bonga started more than 40 games before the pandemic.

As you would expect, the Wizards looked like a bunch of guys playing pick up at the park with the only benefit being cardio work. They don’t want to be there, they don’t have the talent to compete. But they’re there for a few more weeks.

Bol Bol was the bright spot of the game, recording 16 points, 10 rebounds and 6 blocks. Watching him and Jokic run the floor was something fun to watch.

The other game on the schedule yesterday was the Los Angeles Clippers and Orlando Magic.

Nothing special or weird stood out during this scrimmage game. Paul George gave us some highlights including a buzzer beater, and Kawhi Leonard played. It felt more like a NBA game because the lineups were somewhat normal. But what is normal these days?

The lack of fans was noticeable at first, but quickly became no big deal. We were gifted live basketball and that’s all that mattered.

The NBA’s game operators were still figuring out what to do with sound. They played hip-hop music, piped in familiar crowd chants, and had occasional periods of silence where complaints to refs by coaches and players could easily be heard.

When the Nuggets took the floor in Game 1, the p.a. announcer screamed, “PLEASE WELCOME YOUR DENVER NUGGETS.” The players running out of the tunnel chuckled at the silence.

The video boards and crowd noise, at least for these two scrimmages, were clearly skewed toward the home team.

It is a hard situation to balance, and sometimes the sounds were awkward. But by the time the regular season games start, I expect the operators and broadcast partners to have this audio thing figured out.

The NBA is back, and that’s all that really matters.

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