Inside the First Set of Games In the NBA's Restart

What are some of the biggest adjustments for players in the NBA's restart? Here are some sights and sounds from the first games in the bubble.
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Sights and sounds as NBA (exhibition) basketball is back …

· “Please welcome the L.A. Clippers,” the public address announcer deadpanned, and the first NBA game since March 11 was off and running. The NBA will make use of three venues in the Disney complex: The HP Field House, The Visa Athletic Center and The Arena, the largest of the group. Eventually, as field winnows, The Arena will be the only one used.

The set up for each is the same: A floor with an NBA logo, with BLACK LIVES MATTER emblazoned above it, along the scorers table. Three super-sized screens flank the baselines and the area behind the scorers table (which is walled off by plexiglass) and benches—anywhere that will be shown on TV. Media seating is opposite the benches, along with socially distanced seats for team and NBA staffers. Behind them, the broadcast position, where the national TV broadcasters will call the games.

· With no crowd, the NBA will use the screens to acknowledge the home team. During Clippers-Magic, the screens default setting was black and red, with L.A. OUR WAY alongside the Clippers logo. When Orlando had the ball, drumbeats that would usually initiate chants of DE-FENSE blared from the speakers. When LA made a three, a graphic appeared acknowledging it. When a Clippers player made a shot, another graphic, this one with their name and image, appeared on the boards.

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· The biggest adjustment for players? Creating energy on the bench to replace what they usually get from the crowd. “Talking like hell, man,” Williams told me. “You see my voice is a little raspy because we’re all we’ve got. This was the most vocal I’ve been forced to be during a game. Usually when fans are yelling and screaming and celebrating, that’s an opportunity to relax, rest and get back in the game. I wasn’t allowed to do that.”

As Williams spoke, Clippers coach Doc Rivers ducked into his interview.

“Now you know this is why I talk like this,” Rivers said, his voice hoarse.

Rivers, for one, enjoyed the quieter atmosphere. Usually Rivers has to stand to address his team or call plays. On Wednesday, Rivers found himself sitting more, even when addressing referees. “Maybe I’ll have a better voice after this,” Rivers said. “Who knows?

· The NBA continues to exercise extreme caution inside the bubble, including social distancing coaches and players on the bench. Four coaches for each team sit in the front row, while the remaining have assigned seats in the back. Players have assigned seats, too, though as the game wore on players began to take more liberties with them. The NBA has been strict with players this month—the league has reminded teams that players and coaches need to wear masks, even during Zoom interviews—but if coronavirus positives continue to remain at zero, don’t be surprised to see the NBA loosen up some of the more extreme restrictions.

· The Arena is freezing. I swear, there is a 40-degree temperature drop from the soupy humity of central Florida to the icebox the NBA plays games in.

· With NBA awards voting opening this week—the league has decided that voting will be based on player performances before the hiatus, and won’t include the eight seeding games—the debates have begun. Sixth Man figures to be a close vote. Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schroder is considered the frontrunner, with a pair of Clippers—Williams and Montrezl Harrell—right behind him.

Williams, for one, believes he and Harrell deserve stronger consideration.

“I was looking at the predictions everyone was tagging me in and I was a little disappointed” Williams said. “Trez and I, we have made history. We’re on the No. 2 team in the West. We’ve sacrificed and we’re still able to be successful. For whatever reason, we’re not one of the top guys in that conversation. I thought that was a little weird.”

Williams says he doesn’t want to win the award again this year. He wants to share it.

“I feel like we both deserve it,” Williams said. “I really would love to share that award with Trez. If not, I say give it to him outright.”

· The Clippers might have stumbled on something with Joakim Noah. Noah, who signed a ten-day contract with the Clippers before the pandemic shut down the season and inked a multi-year deal with the team in June, played well in the Clippers scrimmage, collecting four points and five rebounds in 15 minutes. Noah, 35, was his usual active self on the floor. With LA still missing Ivica Zubac—Zubac did not travel with the team to Orlando and the Clippers have not said when he will rejoin it—a productive Noah would be a huge boost.

"You know, he is so used to coming towards the ball and getting the ball, we're asking him to do something totally different, and that's screen-and-roll more," Rivers said. "So he's still getting used to it, but today I thought he did a great job. And he's also starting to notice a bit the more talent we have on the floor, the more they're going to double-team. And you give him the ball in the middle of the paint, he's just a great decision-maker.”

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· Boston is convinced Tacko Fall will be a productive NBA player. Bol Bol posted 16 points, ten rebounds and six blocks in Denver’s win over Washington, while disrupting everything Washington did on the offensive end. The NBA is trending smaller, but maybe it’s time to stop ignoring oversized centers with big time skill sets.

· The Pelicans blasted out a Zion Williamson update on Wednesday. Williamson, who abruptly exited the bubble last week to attend what New Orleans called “an urgent family matter” has been getting tested daily since he has been away, and continues to return negative results. The Pels offered no timetable for Zion’s return, but did add that he intends to. Though it remains to be seen how long it will take him to get into game shape.

“He's like anybody else, he's been working out, but until we got into these scrimmages and everything it would be tough to gauge where anybody is right now,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. “So I think that anything that I would say would be speculation, so there's no reason to say anything about it. As I said, he's going to be very similar to everybody else here. When you have a layoff that long, it's not like you're going to come back in mid-season form, anybody. No one has any way up until this point.”