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Inside the ‘bubble’: New, different but ultimately NBA basketball

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New Orleans Pelicans v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA’s slogan for its return-to-play is “A Whole New Game” and indeed the first scrimmages showed that. There were 22 teams, not 30, not 16. There were no fans in the stands, players on the bench were socially distant and other than the players, everyone wore masks. “Black Lives Matter” was emblazoned on every court. Announcers were back home taking an NBA feed. Team introductions? Forget about it. No national anthems either, at least for the scrimmages.

And of course, the product was not what you’d expect. Stars were missing — home dealing with a positive coronavirus test or an injury, or in a nearby hotel, sitting out the quarantine protocol. Chemistry was a work-in-progress. Rust was everywhere.

Still, after four months and 11 days, the NBA was back. After months of questions and debates related to everything from the location of the bubble to the value of playing amid protest and pandemic, basketball players suited up and did their best.

For Nets fans, the transition was made simpler by the presence of the YES Network team: Ian Eagle, Sarah Kustok and Michael Grady back on the bare floor of Barclays Center or in a makeshift studio nearby. There was no dropoff in quality of their performance. Even “I Did Not Know That” and “Wear Brooklyn At?” segments returned!

Also, the public address announcer and DJ were the Nets own Olivier Sedra and DJ M.I.L., who are doing a number of games for the NBA.

For the players, of course, the differences were more in-your-face. The absence of fans, different lighting, different sight lines, etc., etc.

“It is still different. It was weird. It felt like a 2K atmosphere – like we were just put into a video game,” said Garrett Temple. “That’s how bright the lights were. It felt different. Kind of a Summer League feel, maybe because it was a preseason game or exhibition game as well. It was very different. I’m glad we have three games to be able and get used to it.

“The one positive you can take away from it is coaches and players can really talk to the guys on the court without fan interaction, without having to yell too loud. We are going to be able to communicate to people on the court what we need to see happen.”

In fact, he said, a team’s lack of on-court communication becomes much more evident in a mostly silent arena.

“It felt good. It felt good, man,” said Caris LeVert about the whole experience. “That’s the first time since March with us getting up and down. We’ve gotten up and down a little bit in practice, but you know, nothing’s like a game. It was good to get out there.”

On the atmosphere in the arena and playing without fans, LeVert said it certainly was different but he wasn’t complaining.

“The arena was pretty cool. Obviously it’s different playing in front of no fans, but like I said, it was good getting out there and playing against different competition. Hopefully we’ll be ready to go again on Saturday.”

LeVert was asked about how he felt seeing “Black Lives Matter” on the court.

“It was cool to see that. Definitely cool to see the NBA behind the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s definitely huge, because like I said, there’s a lot of people watching these games, so I think the more recognition we can get, the better (it is) for the cause.”

For each of the first scrimmages, there were about 200 people in the stands, Marc Stein of the Times reported. That included both teams, game operations personnel, league representatives, three human camera operators to complement an array of robotic cameras and the small contingent of reporters permitted to watch after observing the same protocols as NBA players, coaches and staff. Nothing was left to chance. Each player had assigned seating on risers.

There were some differences between teams. On the video wall that stretched from one of the court to the other, the Nets put up their team logo in giant form. It was their home game. The Heat meanwhile used a loop of Miami fans cheering...

Bottom line for the Nets head coach?

“There’s nothing like playing the game of basketball,” said Jacque Vaughn, summing it all up for just about everyone.