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Between the lines, game is the same, but NBA players learning to fight against the quiet

Referee Tony Brown blows his whistle, which is covered by a small cloth bag, during an NBA basketball game between the Toronto Raptors and the Portland Trail Blazers in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Sunday, July 26, 2020.
Tim Reynolds, Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. — Professional athletes are veterans in tuning out noise from a crowd. Over their careers, NBA players especially become adept at being able to focus on a game despite the roaring din that can take over an arena.

There are moments of course when the cheers from rabid fans and the sound of 20,000 adoring cheers can motivate players, and they play into it. But by and large they are focused on what goes on between the lines.

The 94-foot by 50-foot rectangle that makes up an NBA court is a sanctuary where players are able to blur everything else around them. So when asked what it’s like to play in a fanless arena in the NBA bubble, almost every player and coach says that the game hasn’t changed.

“By and large really the games are what make the atmosphere and the competition and that’s the same,” Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said.

But there is one thing that has completely changed in the bubble: communication.

The Los Angeles Clippers were the first team to play a game when scrimmages started on Wednesday, and after the first game at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, guard Lou Williams was immediately aware of how much talking he’d done over the course of 40 minutes.

“My voice is a little raspy because we’re all we got,” Williams said following the Clippers’ win over the Orlando Magic. “This is the most vocal I’ve been forced to be during a game.”

Without fans to energize the team and give them motivation between plays, on defense, and during a run, it’s on the players to find the energy amongst themselves, and that doesn’t come quietly as Celtics coach Brad Stevens explained after a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday.

“When you listen to (Thunder guard) Chris Paul — and there’s nobody else in here — Chris Paul dominated the game with his voice,” Stevens said after the game. “That’s going to be critical moving forward, connecting and communicating. That was a great lesson for us. ... The best thing we take away from this is we all heard Chris Paul dominate the game with his voice,” Stevens said.

For the defensive-minded players, being able to hear everything is the single silver lining of playing in an empty gym. Calling out screens, rotations and conducting the defense in front of you is often a difficult task, especially in tense situations like the playoffs when the crowd is at their absolute loudest.

“I can actually hear my teammates and they can hear me better,” Rudy Gobert said after the Jazz’s first scrimmage on Thursday. “Like during the playoffs with the fans singing ‘de-fense, de-fense,’ it’s hard to hear each other. Now it’s easier. It’s the one positive about having no fans in the stands.”

Of course, even the one silver lining comes at the expense of something. Communication is absolutely key in the bubble, but with no fans to drown out voices that means that everyone can hear everything, even when the speaker doesn’t want to be heard, especially by the opposition.

“My first play I called out I was like, ‘Whoa,’” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said after the Raptors’ first game. “I finally found myself not even doing it, because it was like, ‘Well, everybody in the whole place is going to hear this thing.”

Add communication to the list of things the players and coaches will have to learn to balance while living and playing in the NBA bubble.

While the game is largely the same, the weirdest moments are the time before the game, when there’s a stoppage, the time spent sitting on the new socially distanced bench or when the building goes quiet during a timeout.

Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell described coming out of the tunnel with an in-arena emcee announcing the team, only to be able to hear a pin drop once he ran on to the court. Not exactly what the All-Star is used to hearing when introduced.

“It was a weird feeling for me checking into the game and you could just hear so much,” Jazz sixth-man Jordan Clarkson said. “You can hear people in the background moving around and all that. Especially when you’re at the free throw line it’s really quiet. It’s definitely different.”

Even when a crowd quiets as a player approaches the charity stripe, there’s a murmur that remains when thousands of people are packed into a building. Not anymore. Not in the bubble.

“It gets quiet in moments that it usually never gets quiet,” Mitchell said.

Although players are used to playing pick-up ball in empty gyms, practicing in fanless practice facilities, and trained in tuning out the noise that comes with the atmosphere of an NBA game, the new test is learning to live the opposite — tuning out and fighting the stillness that creeps into the game.