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NBA Players Are Slowly but Surely Adapting to Bubble-Game Differences

Virtual fans may have seemed like the biggest in-arena changes players would face in Orlando, but overheard barbs, technical fouls, and differences in shooting sight lines have also required some getting used to

AP Images/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With less than a minute left in the third quarter of Saturday’s Lakers-Raptors game, Alex Caruso drew a charge. It may not have seemed like the most consequential play, but it gave Caruso a familiar flow of adrenaline—one he hadn’t felt since March.

“I got hyped,” Caruso said. It was easier for Caruso to tap into that energy on Saturday because that was the Lakers’ second game inside the bubble. Their first—a 103-101 win over the Clippers—was a different story. “Even when the buzzer went off, it felt weird. It didn’t feel like a normal game,” Caruso said. “Crunch time when the buzzer goes off, usually there’s a lot of joy and jubilation. This was a little less celebratory. I don’t even know how to describe it.”

Caruso is not alone in feeling that way. Throughout the first week of games in Orlando, players have described the differences of playing competitive NBA basketball in their new environment. It begins with the lack of fans—though the league has added virtual fans—and includes smaller arenas, changes in shooting sight lines, the level of discourse referees can now hear, spaced-out benches, and more.

“I’d say that the strangest part is just how separated we are,” Sixers rookie Matisse Thybulle said of the benches, which, as games have become more intense, have become a lot less separated. “With this whole thing, it’s just been new, weird situations we just have to adjust to.”

As many players and coaches have stated, the competition doesn’t need to be manufactured. So far the level of play inside the bubble has been postseason-like, and most games have gone down to the wire. But it’s impossible to ignore the unfamiliar surroundings and how, in a lot of ways, this environment has placed the focus squarely on the basketball product.

“You can feel the atmosphere,” Denver forward Paul Millsap said. “You can feel the significance of what teams are trying to accomplish.”

Added the Kings’ Kent Bazemore: “It’s basketball at its purest form.”

CJ McCollum claims he didn’t say anything, that the technical foul called on him during the second half of Friday’s Blazers-Grizzlies game wasn’t warranted. That game featured 52 fouls, five technicals, and 84 free throws. “We got to be smarter, react better I guess, and try to contain our emotion,” a resigned McCollum said postgame.

Across the seeding games so far, there’s been a drastic uptick in fouls called—over 10 more per game than in the regular season. And as The Athletic’s Seth Partnow pointed out this week, a good portion of that increase is coming during the first quarter, where fouls are traditionally called at a much lower rate. It’s also part of the reason games have been longer:

A popular theory is that this is a side effect of not having fans in the arena: Without as much noise, viewers at home aren’t the only ones who can pick up what players are saying—referees can too.

“I think they gotta do a better job of balancing that,” McCollum said of the noise situation. “We’re all competitive people.”

“The whistle was a little bit more hot,” Damian Lillard said of the environment in Portland’s game against the Grizzlies. “They didn’t give us as much leash when guys were celebrating, or maybe saying a word or two to somebody. … Maybe that’s the way that they’re coming out trying to control the action and control the back and forth, but hopefully it eases up.”

Blazers coach Terry Stotts avoided blaming the refs, instead noting that the increase in fouls was evidence that these teams didn’t need fans to get competitive. As Tim Hardaway Jr. pointed out, the environment lends itself to trash-talking, not just among players on the floor but between the benches too. It makes sense that referees would hear more of that back-and-forth and react accordingly, just as they may now hear more contact when James Harden drives to the basket.

“We’ve learned how to adapt, whether to rules or officiating,” Suns head coach Monty Williams said. “Everybody’s learned how to adapt to this environment.”

Some players have embraced the virtual fans, especially since the league has put players’ families on the screens, including kids of Chris Paul, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Jayson Tatum. Some, like McCollum, said that hearing the random noises being pumped in and seeing people on screens was “weird,” but that once the game got going, he was able to ignore it. Others prefer the artificial hoopla to the alternative of just hearing voices and squeaking sneakers.

“It is cool to see fans’ faces on the screens,” the Mavericks’ Delon Wright said. “And it’s better than being in an empty gym by ourselves.”

That said, the lack of general ambient noise has a strategic upside for teams: It’s easier to communicate, especially on defense. Watch any Lakers game so far and you can hear players shouting instructions throughout defensive possessions. New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said the communication was going to be a lot easier for a young team like the Pelicans, while Kings coach Luke Walton added that teams might try to communicate more via hand signals so that they could be more covert.

Players see both sides of this situation. As Thunder center Steven Adams said a few weeks ago, there should theoretically be no blown coverages. The Pelicans’ Lonzo Ball also said this is going to force teammates to talk, and that there will be no excuses for any missed assignments. So while the fan-less environment is a sound oasis that helps facilitate on-court communication, it’s also a spotlight.

“Sometimes, in film, we say that we called the coverage when we didn’t call it,” Adams said, laughing. “We’re going to get in trouble a lot more.”

When Tim Hardaway Jr. rises up to take a shot in Orlando, the black backdrop of each made-for-TV arena triggers something in the back of his mind that he’s experienced in only two other places: Madison Square Garden and Staples Center.

Those two venues are the “dark mode” arenas of the NBA: The lighting focuses on the court, and leaves the stands in the dark. There’s a similar effect happening with the arenas in Orlando, which are smaller and lined with screens and black curtains. And some players say that backdrop gives them a sight-line advantage when they shoot.

“The depth perception on the basket is a lot better, just because you can’t see through the backboard, shooting-wise, since it’s blacked out,” Hardaway said.

“I feel like it’s a hooper’s gym,” Devin Booker said. “It’s easier to shoot in here with [better] depth perception. I love the setup that they have for us. There’s not much more that comes with it beyond the game of basketball.”

As ESPN’s Kevin Pelton has charted, offenses are currently scoring above what would be expected at the start of a regular season. How much the controlled environment has contributed to that is not completely clear—shooting numbers from the field and from deep are about the same as they were before the league was suspended, despite scoring being up by about four points per game. Some of the extreme numbers so far—like the Lakers shooting 25 percent from 3 so far—feel more like outliers or products of a team-specific issue. Then there are the unexplainable anomalies, like Paul George shooting lights out from 3 (15-of-29), but not having the same incandescence from the field.

“It’s weird because I can’t make nothing else,” George said. “The 3s are the only thing that’s dropping. In a way, I’m in a rhythm, but I’m not in rhythm because I can’t find the ball between the 3-point line.”

Tyler Herro, for his part, downplayed the effect, saying players have played in different gyms and environments all their lives, and this is just another setting they have to get used to. More importantly, though, he wants people to know that, for him, this is not going to change a single thing. “Shooters shoot. Whether they’re going in or not, we’re going to shoot,” Herro said. “I plan on making my shots.”

Whether players subscribe to the backdrop theory or the referee theory, the one thing that is undeniable is that the setup in Orlando has created a distraction-free stage for basketball. We’re only a week into games, but if the quality of the basketball so far is any indication, everyone may feel like they’re playing right at home come playoff time.