Under normal playoff circumstances, focus is everything. Coaches devour video for hours, players lock in on their opponent, and nothing else matters.
So here’s the great irony about the NBA’s playoff bubble: The fewer the so-called “distractions,” the more distracting it’s been.
And under these abnormal playoff circumstances, with the teams hermetically sealed not only from a pandemic but, to date, from their families and friends and pets but unable to escape the turbulence of society, the team that has dealt with so much already this season may have the edge.
Advantage, Lakers? It certainly was Saturday night.
They closed out their first-round series with a 131-122 victory, against an undermanned Portland team that had nothing to lose and threw everything they had at the Lakers. This, after an unplanned three-day hiatus in which many of these players spent little time actually thinking about basketball while discussing among themselves how this platform could be an even larger agent of social change.
Other players on other teams might find their attention split. The Lakers should be used to it by now in a season that has bounced from one moment of turbulence to another.
“I said this (Friday), we have a Ph.D in handling adversity, and we’ve been through so much as a group this year,” coach Frank Vogel said on a Zoom conference before Saturday’s game. “And we have been able to rely on those experiences as a group throughout the year, to hopefully take our minds off of what we’re doing because of what’s happening, and (to) center and refocus.
“This is just the next in a long list of things that has happened to our group this year. So I’m confident that we’ll be able to get back to where we were.”
A recap of this doctorate level course in making the best of things:
• They found themselves in a bubble of sorts in the exhibition season in Shanghai, China, after Houston general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet supporting protesters in Hong Kong outraged the Chinese government. The NBA still isn’t totally back in China’s good graces, but at least the Lakers got out of the country unscathed.
That seems so long ago, doesn’t it?
• Then came the end of January and the death of Kobe Bryant. Not only the Lakers organization but all of Southern California treated it like the loss of a member of the family, and in a sense it was.
• Then, as a memorable season was about to kick into playoff gear, it stopped. From March to July, there was no certainty there would be a championship awarded. The establishment of the bubble seemed to be a solution, but sometimes you just have to be careful what you wish for.
• And as of this past Wednesday night there still was no certainty there would be a championship awarded, after the Milwaukee Bucks players said they wouldn’t play that afternoon and a rash of other postponements followed in multiple sports. Meetings and debates and more meetings took place over the past few days, with James playing a significant role as one of the league’s elder statesmen, and an upshot was NBA owners agreeing to actions supporting the players’ emphasis on social justice.
One of those actions involves making the league’s arenas available as voting sites this November. The Lakers confirmed before Saturday’s game that Staples Center would be among those sites, with the cooperation of AEG, the arena owner, and the L.A. County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk.
“I pick my battles,” James said. “And I kind of listen and see what’s going on and things of that nature, then I voice my opinion and what I believe is the best.
“You got to understand that for me personally, it’s not just about me, because in this league it’s about the other 300 plus guys that I got to look out for as well, same way that the OGs and the vets looked out for guys like myself, (Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh) when all of us came into the league as well.”
His point: There will be an NBA long after he’s gone, and he wants to see the guys who are youngsters now taking the initiative after he’s retired.
“I just want to leave it in a better place as much as I can when I’m done,” he said.
Saturday’s games probably could have been termed the NBA’s restart restart. While the three-day hiatus resulted in further conversations about social justice issues, it also provided a necessary deep breath for players who have been in the bubble for what must now seem like several forevers. The Lakers got to Orlando July 9 to begin their quarantine, and they were one of the last teams to get there.
“There’s a lot of tension in this bubble,” guard Danny Green said on a Zoom call Friday. “We’ve been here without our families for two months, locked up in a small area – I shouldn’t say locked up, but we’re confined to a very small radius. Guys get a little antsy, guys get a little tense, emotional.”
It has an effect, especially when you aren’t playing well and your only connection to the outside world is a social media app filled with people ripping you. “If you’re not playing well, as an individual or a group, it’ll get dark in here quick,” Green said.
And you don’t have to be playing badly to feel the walls closing in, either.
“I’ve had numerous days and nights when I’ve thought of leaving the bubble. I think everyone has, including you guys,” James said Saturday night, half kiddingly, pointing at the reporters on site in Orlando. “I don’t think there’s one person that has not had a mind to say, ‘Oh, I gotta get the hell out of here.’ “
Under those circumstances, the Lakers should have been even more motivated to close things out. Players on teams that reach the second round are allowed to have family members join them in the bubble after a quarantine period.
“I think that will lift everyone’s spirits,” Vogel said.
Really, all Vogel needed for a pregame speech was one word: “Families.”