‘You got to create your own energy here’: How NBA players, coaches have adjusted without fans in bubble

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The NBA’s best had not played a basketball game in more than four months. But Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James did not just miss dribbling, passing and shooting that round, leather ball. He also missed another sport — football.

So during pregame warmups, James briefly moonlighted as a quarterback, called a play at the line of scrimmage and then threw the ball to a teammate. Seconds later, James rejoined the Lakers’ layup line and threw down a series of dunks.

There was no significance to the Lakers’ win over the Dallas Mavericks in a scrimmage last week. You can take significance, though, with how James handled his first NBA game since the league halted operations March 11 because of the novel coronavirus outbreak. Without fans in the stands, James showed how much his joy and enthusiasm could bolster excitement in a game he had loved for nearly his whole life.

“You got to create your own energy here,” James said. “We understand that there’s no fans. Our wonderful fans are watching this game on the TVs, on the laptops, phones, iPads, whatever the case may be. So it’s about us creating our own energy, understanding what we’re here for and that’s to get better. So that’s what it’s all about.”

Other coaches and players have adopted that attitude entering the NBA’s season restart beginning Thursday with a doubleheader that features the Pelicans-Jazz and Lakers-Clippers, at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

No longer can teams lean on fans to cheer their every move. No longer can teams also depend on fans to boo their opponents. So to deal with the uncomfortable arena silence, they have tried to fill the dead air with loud words and energetic action.

“It’s an opportunity for us as a team to communicate and talk more, especially on the defensive end,” Houston Rockets guard James Harden said. “Our communication helps us be in the right spots and help us with our rebounding and transition defense. I think there are advantages to it. There’s just not as many distractions and you’re focusing on what you’re supposed to be doing.”

That explains why Oklahoma City Thunder coach Billy Donovan likened these scrimmages to “almost like you’re playing in a practice.” Well, never has practice been more entertaining. While the participating 22 teams struggled with rust during their scrimmages the past week, they made up for it with everything said on the court.

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Seat covers are placed on socially distant chairs in the team bench area at a basketball arena at the Wide World of Sports Complex. (Photo: Ashley Landis, AP)

In the Lakers’ scrimmage against Dallas, James proclaimed himself “the fastest player on the planet” after completing several open-court dunks. James barked out to teammates Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma on who they should guard on defense.

When the Toronto Raptors scrimmaged the Portland Trail Blazers on Sunday, the game started as a clinic on how players should communicate on defense. It escalated into players, coaches and even executives on the sideline arguing with officials over calls. When the Raptors bench talked trash, Blazers forward Carmelo Anthony playfully shouted across the court with a few expletives.

“We miss the fans. But when you’re playing in front of fans, that noise drowns out a lot of the trash talk that goes on out there on the court,” Anthony said. “You hear everything from anybody and everybody. Whether it’s players, play calling, you got to be sharp and you got to execute. Everybody is going to hear exactly what plays are being called. It’s the little things you got to give your team the edge when it comes to winning in this type of environment.”

Therefore, coaches have advised their players on how to behave a specific way on the bench. They might be limited with each chair spaced six feet apart to adhere to social distancing rules. That does not prevent them from cheering, though. So coaches have instructed their players to cheer loudly after made baskets, hustle plays and defensive possessions. They might as well do this the whole game.

So when the Philadelphia 76ers scrimmaged the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, the Sixers’ bench figured out a way to encourage their free-throw shooters. After each made foul shot, every player on the bench clapped, stood up and then sat back down in unison.

“I think we’re just in sync,” Sixers forward Ben Simmons joked.

These teams will find out how in sync they are with staying disciplined with their on-court talking and bench support to compensate for the lack of fans. Their season might depend on it.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. 

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