As the world continues to grapple with the heartbreaking consequences of the global pandemic, the pressure continues to increase on the NBA as it attempts to maneuver its way through a regular season outside of the comforts of the Disney World bubble.
The league and clubs are operating with heightened restrictions and stringent health and safety protocols since the season began last month. Players cannot interact with non-household members at home, and no guests are allowed on the road. Pregame meetings in the locker room can last no longer than 10 minutes and social distancing applies throughout along with mask wearing and daily testing.
“All of us put a lot of faith in the league and [Commissioner] Adam Silver that they’re making decisions with our health and our safety in mind,” Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer said prior to a recent game. “It certainly feels like we are being pushed to that limit.”
But the coronavirus is catching up with the league as the number of games postponed continues to grow.
“We are just going to continue to follow their leadership and respect their leadership and vision,” Budenholzer said. “At the same time the numbers are real, what’s happening is real.”
Thus far, the Bucks have been able to avoid serious ramifications of positive tests or contact tracing related quarantine, though their last opponent, the Dallas Mavericks, entered Fiserv Forum on Friday with five key players unavailable due to protocols.
Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle admitted the heavy restrictions on what players can do in their free time have been tough on his team. Maintaining an open dialogue is a priority.
“It’s important to communicate the reasons why and let guys talk about it,” Carlisle said. “Initially there was some venting about it, but as we’ve gone along, our players from top to bottom understand the reasons why we have to do things the way we are doing them. It’s a matter of keeping themselves safe, their teammates safe and their families safe.”
From an on-court perspective, the most notable change is the absence of the now customary sell-out crowds at Fiserv Forum.
“I do think it gets kind of easy to fall into [a lull] because there is no energy from the fans, and when they go on a 16-3 run or something crazy, it just feels the same,” Bucks guard Jrue Holiday said.
That lack of energy has seemingly been accompanied by a disappearing home court advantage. Road teams so far this season have won 51% of games, up from 44% a season ago.
“Not having fans in the stands is definitely different,” Carlisle said. “Even the arenas that have them have so few that it’s not nearly the same as having a full house.
“We all just got to adjust to everything and realize the importance of every single game. You look at the Western Conference, it’s super deep. The East has gotten better. It’s going to be a slugfest. Even though you don’t have fans in the seats, mentally you’ve got to make home court advantage.
Despite the unusual circumstances, the Bucks are making the most of a challenging situation.
“I wouldn’t say [it’s] difficult,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said of the new NBA lifestyle. “We’ve got a lot of great guys on our team, so we’ve enjoyed each other’s company.”
“I think with the pandemic we are spending a lot of time at home by ourselves or being at the practice facility and being on the road together. Out of that necessity, we are definitely coming together and building relationships.”
So, for now, as trivial as it might feel in the grand scheme of things, the Bucks’ focus remains on winning, with the path to a historic championship as cloudy as it’s ever been.
“Even in these unique times and challenging times where there may be even more random circumstances, we just continue to focus on ourselves and building our habits and what we are doing day in and day out,” Budenholzer said. “We bring our competitive nature to the game, and that’s been good for us.”