“Trading Baskets” is a weekly NBA column written by Reagan Griffin Jr. and Eddie Sun. The writers “hand off” each week’s installment, continuing an ongoing dialogue to challenge the way fans think about basketball.
NBA basketball is back, baby.
Two great games were played Thursday night, each decided by a mere basket. The Utah Jazz bested Zion Williamson and the New Orleans Pelicans, and the Lakers came out on top against the Clippers in their fourth and final regular season matchup. We witnessed Brandon Ingram put on a scoring clinic, Patrick Beverley trash-talk opponents, Anthony Davis dominate on both ends of the floor and LeBron James ultimately seal a victory like we’ve seen him do countless times.
After three months that might as well have been an eternity, 22 teams have entered the Orlando bubble to finish what was already a riveting season prior to the COVID-19 hiatus.
We’ve witnessed the Houston Rockets take their small ball experiment to the extreme, employing a lineup with no player taller than 6′7. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee quietly put together one of the most dominant regular seasons in NBA history. The Los Angeles cross-town rivalry is as intense as it’s ever been, as we await the two teams’ all-but climactic showdown. With the beast that was the Golden State Warriors finally out of the picture (at least for the time being), there has been more intrigue surrounding this season than we’ve seen in years.
And intrigue will define these playoffs. Fans and analysts have their expectations for how things will play out, likely based on what we saw occur during the regular season. That’s the fun part, right?
Maybe, but we might as well all of that out the window. It matters less than we think it does.
Of course, it only makes sense to gauge the bubble teams’ talent based on what we saw before the pandemic sent everyone home — that’s all we can do, really. However, anyone who believes that the playoffs will operate the same as they would under normal circumstances is sorely mistaken.
Never before has NBA basketball been played under the circumstances laid out in the bubble. Dudes are clearly still shaking the rust off from the break. While it is great to have games back, much of the play has been understandably sloppy. Guys who were expecting to hit their peak months ago are now having to hit the reset button. James himself admitted that the stoppage threw off his body clock.
The environment is completely different.
Players are met with silence during their jog onto the floor for layup lines in pregame. The court is lit by bright lights that create conditions that are “more like a Broadway stage than an arena,” according to Pelicans sharpshooter JJ Redick. No matter how much crowd noise gets pumped in or how many virtual fans are displayed, the NBA simply can’t recreate an arena on game night.
That tangible energy that is usually palpable in the atmosphere for games, particularly playoff matchups, is nonexistent.
And those are just the basketball-related irregularities.
These players face the added burden of being removed from their families for an extended period of time. Many of them are separated from the amenities they’ve become accustomed to in daily life. Oh, and of course, we’re in the middle of the most important Black social movement in our nation’s history — and the vast majority of the 344 players at Disney are African American.
All of this is to say is that what we’ll see in Orlando in the coming months will be unusual. There will be teams that we thought would shine that fizzle out early. There will be players who come out of nowhere to play high-impact minutes. There will be shocks and surprises, twists and turns, zigs and zags that you, me or anyone else could have never foreseen. The only guarantee is unpredictability.
If the year 2020 has taught us nothing else, it’s to expect the unexpected. Buckle in, ladies and gentlemen — we’re in for a wild end to this NBA season.
“Trading Baskets” runs every Friday.
This column was originally named “Dribble Handoff.” The name has since been changed.