Don’t Call It a Restart

The NBA Bubble has been tremendously compelling television

One of the indelible images of the 2018-19 season was the championship run of the Toronto Raptors, buoyed by raucous home crowds and thousands more celebrating in the streets outside the Air Canada Centre. We know we won’t have that in 2020, where the NBA has sequestered 22 teams in the Disney World bubble. We also really haven’t had any of the theatrical spectacle in which the NBA traffics. No crowds to pump up, no courtside celebrities to schmooze, no pregame fashion runways. The “virtual fans,” shown on giant courtside Zoom monitors, initially seemed like a bizarre distraction but have become an unexpected highlight. Was that Paul Pierce next to a giant baby? Did the Pelicans fans really all disconnect en masse during a blowout loss?

The marquee games have been excellent: the Lakers’ gritty win against the Clippers and loss to the Raptors, Houston’s wild 153-149 win over Dallas, Milwaukee’s controversial win over Boston. T.J. Warren and the Pacers have solidified themselves as a potentially tricky spoiler. The Lakers, odds-on title favorites since the season began, have gone 3-4 in the bubble and look downright mortal. On August 5, the Nets beat the Bucks despite being 19-point underdogs. There hasn’t been an upset like that since 1992.

Late-season basketball usually isn’t this good. By now, most of the playoff seeds are set, and the top teams are generally resting their stars at the end of the 82-game season and in advance of the lengthy playoff grind. After a 4 ½-month layoff, fatigue isn’t an issue, but lack of momentum is. The worst eight teams in the league aren’t participating in the bubble, so nobody’s tanking for draft lottery position. Every game means something.

Nowhere has the competition been wilder than in the race for the last playoff spots in the West. When the bubble started, the Phoenix Suns were afterthoughts, wracked by offseason COVID positives and injuries, languishing 6 ½ games back of Memphis in the crowded playoff race. Vegas bookmakers set their over-under at 2.5 wins. They’re currently 7-0. One of the great pleasures of the bubble has been watching their mercurial star, Devin Booker, achieve transcendence. He’s the obvious August MVP, almost single-handedly willing a formerly bad team into relevance.

 

And yet the Suns might not make the playoffs, not if the likes of Damian Lillard and the Blazers have anything to say about it. Lillard’s late-season exploits are well-chronicled, but I’ve never seen him play with this much aggression and intensity. He scored 51 and 61 points in consecutive wins this week, screaming “Put some respect on my fucking name!” as though there’s a more terrifying playoff deadeye than Damian Lillard.

Like Phoenix, the Blazers key injuries devastated the Blazers this year, but the return of center Jusuf Nurkic has enabled them to play pick-and-roll at the highest possible level, while Carmelo Anthony, unwanted by 30 teams last season, looks like his old self as an energetic shooter. Whichever team survives the gauntlet will face the Lakers in the first round of the playoffs, where home-court advantage will be irrelevant. This all has, as Hubie Brown might say, tremendous upside potential.

The televised presentation of the NBA has changed subtly in ways that benefit the home viewer, too. Without fans and photographers at courtside, there’s more space to dive for loose balls without winding up in Drake’s lap. Even with the piped-in music, you can hear the trash talk and physical contact. It makes for tremendously compelling television, by far the best sports of the pandemic era.

Pro basketball’s social justice initiatives have generally been the most thoughtful of any major sport to resume play after the pandemic. The players and coaches have backed up the pervasive with their actions and words. In his pregame press conference on August 2, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich offered a lengthy analysis of the history of voter suppression. Players’ union president Chris Paul set up a Zoom call between dozens of players and the mother of Breonna Taylor, and Lebron James has repeatedly called for justice for Taylor during his own media interviews.

NBA announcers have discussed the Taylor case during games, and the WNBA went one step further, wearing her name on their jerseys during opening weekend. (NBA players have so far been limited to choosing from a list of slightly anodyne league-approved messages, but it’s still striking to see “FREEDOM” on the jersey of Celtics center Enes Kanter, who cannot legally travel back to his home country of Turkey.)

“Inside the NBA,” with all its goofy comedy and anarchic chemistry, has been as funny as ever. Ernie Johnson, Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal, and Charles Barkley were back on opening night, making fun of their extra-long Bubble desk, ready to resume their roles as the NBA’s court jesters. Speaking of Lou Williams, the Sixers guard who had to re-enter quarantine after traveling to Atlanta for a funeral (and making a stop at the infamous Magic City strip club for takeout along the way), Smith couldn’t help cracking wise. “He tried to fool everybody, he was going there for the wings,” he said, drawing out the punchline. “He went in there for the legs and thighs.”

 

Most importantly, the bubble is working: so far, there haven’t been any confirmed positive COVID tests among the players, staff, and journalists who’ve been sequestered. Players’ guests and families are about to enter the bubble, with the wackiest possible rules around access, but all evidence points to the league’s ability to continue to manage its public health responsibilities. In a time of great uncertainty about the safety and feasibility of sports, the NBA is doing it right.

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Daniel Cohen

Daniel Cohen is a software developer who lives in Syracuse, New York. He has written for Yard Work, The Guardian, and Maura Magazine.

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