If the NBA bubble were a movie, it wouldn’t be a Disney cartoon. It would be “Groundhog Day.” And Nuggets center Nikola Jokic, a bigger joker than Bill Murray, would be cast in the lead role.
Don’t get me wrong. The NBA bubble is not a bad place, but it’s definitely a weird place.
Every morning, now 68 or 69 days in a row, Jokic awakes in a luxury hotel and throws back the covers of his 800-thread count sheets. Then Joker retraces exactly the same steps from bathroom to breakfast to ‘Rona test to bus to arena to bus to video game to sleep, all accompanied by the never-ending beat of Sonny and Cher singing: “I Got You Babe.”
“It’s kind of: ‘Uhh!’ Just chillin’,” Jokic said Saturday. “It’s a little bit boring.”
Against all odds, and despite all the boredom, what’s keeping Denver alive in the NBA playoffs?
“The bubble’s not easy. It’s really not,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “To be down here 67, 68 days now away from our families makes it extremely hard.”
So why hasn’t Denver packed it in and left?
I call it the Punxsutawney Phil Plan.
One way or another, the Nuggets live to see another Groundhog Day.
For what seems like an eternity now, every day is elimination day for Denver. Lose and the Nuggets can go home.
Yet they stubbornly refuse. Heading into Game 6 against the Los Angeles Clippers, Jokic and his teammates are 4-0 when facing the end of their playoff run.
Not to suggest the Nuggets might be losing a grip on reality after being held captive in the House of the Mouse for more than two months, but Joker began tripping while trying to determine the source of his newfound skills as a shot-blocker.
“Last two days, my vertical grows so much. It’s amazing. I don’t know how much. I am jumping so high,” Joker cracked.
The Joker? A gravity-defying skywalker?
Get out of here, Dumbo. What are you going to tell me next? That an elephant can fly?
“His vertical did not improve, I can tell you that much,” said Nuggets guard Torrey Craig, bringing Jokic gently back down to reality.
OK, I know what you’re thinking. During a year when nearly 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and millions more have been left unemployed by the pandemic, nobody’s going to cry a lazy river for rich athletes holed up at Disney World.
Having visited the campus 10 days myself, however, I can authoritatively report: The NBA bubble is an alternate reality capable of messing with anyone’s mind.
There’s the fake crowd noise pumped in during games, the arena that feels more like a game-show studio, and this confession from Lakers star LeBron James: “There’s not one person who hasn’t (thought): “I’ve got to get the hell out of here.’”
Hanging out at Disney with Aladdin for a long weekend might be the vacation of a lifetime. But after six weeks of living in “It’s a Small World,” the normalcy of sweeping the garage back home starts to look like heaven.
“To be honest,” Jokic said, “a little bit in the bubble, every day is the same.”
There is a moment in Groundhog Day, the classic 1993 comedy, when a TV weatherman portrayed by Murray sits in a diner, lamenting the possibility of being stuck in a cold, gray Pennsylvania town, where nothing changes from day to day, for eternity.
“I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank pina coladas. At sunset we made love like sea otters,” muses Phil Conners, hand wrapped around a cup of stale coffee at the counter. “That was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get that day over and over?”
Now, I don’t pretend to know if Houston Rockets forward Danuel House had a hankering for lobster. But he got booted from the tourney for violating bubble protocols.
Not judging, just saying: What Denver has done to stay alive is even more amazing than you might think.
The Nuggets fell behind 3-1 in the opening-round series to Utah, yet refused to leave.
Down 3-1 in this series against the heavily favored Clippers, Denver won Game 5, despite trailing by 16 points in the first half.
“When you find yourself in elimination games, the easy thing to do, the convenient thing to do would be to let go. Say: ‘You know what? Put me out of my misery, Get me out of here. I want to go home,’” Malone said.
“The fact that our group has found the intestinal fortitude, that toughness, that grit to say: “You know what? I do not want to go home and see my family. I am tired of being in the bubble, but you know what? I love our team. I love my teammates. And we’re going to fight.’”
The Nuggets might never be NBA champs.
But they’re already the kings of Groundhog Day.