The 2019-20 season was on again as the Clippers and Magic got the season restart underway with the first scrimmage held at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida.
Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, heard the familiar voice of Clippers’ home public address announcer Eric Smith after every made basket and the same in-game music piped into Clippers’ home games, including the “DE-FENSE” chant. He also saw the Clippers’ digital signage, such as one that read “LA Our Way,” and players’ likenesses all over the large LED boards surrounding the court to give it a more intimate feel.
But then there was the odd sight of an NBA game at “The Arena” void of fans.
“I heard the ‘defense’ chants, but once I was actually on the floor, I didn’t hear it, I didn’t feel it, I didn’t see it. I was locked into the game,” Williams said. “[But] I don’t know who that [in-game] experience is for, because there are no fans in the arena, but it definitely went well.”
And there was the unusual sound of this NBA scrimmage.
“It was really quiet, so you’ve got to bring your own energy,” Orlando’s Aaron Gordon said. “You can hear everything that’s being said on the floor. … It kind of has a Summer League-type feel to it, and you’ve really got to bring your own energy.”
Welcome to the new normal in the NBA, at least for the next four months.
The Clippers — playing without Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell, Landry Shamet and Ivica Zubac — beat the Magic 99-90. But the final score was meaningless. The scrimmage was really more about the first trial run of a basketball game on the NBA campus.
Clippers coach Doc Rivers had three assistant coaches sitting alongside him, though they were socially distanced. And Rivers and Orlando coach Steve Clifford had three rows of socially-distanced assistants and staff members wearing masks seated behind them, while the nearby scorer’s table had a large shield between the table and the court.
It didn’t take Rivers long to realize that without fans, he didn’t even need to stand up and raise his voice to call out plays or talk to referees like he does usually.
“Maybe I will have a better voice by the end of this,” Rivers said. “Who knows?”
For months after the coronavirus brought the sports world to a halt, many wondered how an NBA game would look again amid a pandemic. So far, the plan the NBA has in place is working. Two days after the NBA and NBPA announced that there were no positive tests for coronavirus out of 346 players tested since July 13, the NBA had its first day of action with four scrimmages.
“I thought it was much more comfortable than I thought it would be,” said Clifford, who talked with Rivers before the game about things like playing more zone defense in this scrimmage to help each team prepare for the upcoming restart. “I think the teams that can adapt to playing in a unique, kind of different environment without all of the fans, whoever can get the right mindset so they can just concentrate on playing will have a big advantage.
“But the NBA has done an incredible job the way they’ve organized everything, and set it up to be as comfortable as possible for the players.”
The Clippers and Nuggets started it all off, and play was understandably sloppy initially after the league’s unprecedented hiatus. Players tried to get their basketball wind back after months of running on Pelotons, treadmills and local tracks.
“Lou was saying, ‘Man, I’ve been running my butt off for two months, but it is nothing like the game,'” Rivers said of Williams, who led all scorers with 22 points. “You could see the first three or four minutes, everyone was tugging. They were a little tired. The wind will catch up quickly. I think the rhythm will come.”
Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic needed some time to get used to the new environment of playing in a non-NBA arena with no fans.
“It was a little weird, but overall the NBA did a great job,” said Vucevic, who had 18 points and 10 rebounds. “They put a bunch of screens in the arena, making the arena dark around us so it doesn’t feel empty, so there’s something going on. It was pretty good for a first game, but not too bad overall.”
Vucevic noted how the players’ bench area is now three rows of socially-distanced seats for players to sit when they are not on the floor as opposed to the normal single bench where teams normally are seated courtside. Kawhi Leonard and other Clippers players had their own designated seats with a name sign on their seats.
“It’s obviously different because depending on where you are sitting it’s kind of hard to be as involved in what’s going on as you usually when you are sitting right there on the court,” Vucevic said. “So it’s a little different, but with everything going on the NBA wants to make sure to take the precautions and set the example to the rest of the world that if we can do it here, we can do it everywhere.”
But once the game got started, Williams and Rivers said the atmosphere fell into the background and things felt like a basketball game again.
“Once you get in between the lines, you can make a case that’s probably as comfortable as the players will ever be, as normal as everything will ever be,” Rivers said. “You could see that. You could see the rust and all that. For them, they were back in their natural habitat.”
Some players like Williams were worried that the NBA restart would distract or drown out the fight for social justice and protests against police brutality with basketball serving as entertainment. But the players played on a court that featured Black Lives Matter written along the top of the court above the center court NBA logo.
“I am excited to be a part of a company that is standing along a lot of players that feel strongly about their beliefs,” said Williams, who was “50-50” about coming to Orlando to play until Clippers players voted to all play as a team. “It is extremely important for Black Lives Matter to be on the floor. I’m just proud that we are part of it.
“I hope people understand the message that we are trying to get across, we are fighting for equality. We are going to continue to build but I was extremely proud to see it.”
ESPN’s Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.