SALT LAKE CITY — It sank in when Mike Conley ran out of the tunnel for the first time on Thursday. There was no cheering, no booing, no… anything.
“It was kind of surreal,” the Utah Jazz point guard said.
The whole situation was, on Thursday during the Jazz’s first scrimmage in the NBA bubble in Orlando — a 101-88 loss to Phoenix. Players were spaced out on the sideline with their own personal stations, the workers at the scorer’s table were kept behind hockey-like plexiglass, and, of course, there were no fans in attendance.
And, for some players, that last fact was especially strange.
Flashback to just over two years ago: a rookie Donovan Mitchell was giving a walk-off interview following a first-round win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he couldn’t get a word out — not one that could be heard at least. The home crowd showered down with screams of jubilation and he could do nothing but stand there and smile.
Then, in his second year, Mitchell urged Jazz fans in the first few rows to help force a five-second violation at a key point during a game. The fans accepted the challenge and when the violation was committed, Mitchell joyously high-fived the members of the crowd.
And there has been more than one occasion when Mitchell has been fueled by an opposing fan talking a little too much.
So, yes, Mitchell likes to play for a crowd. And, yes, it was an odd feeling to be playing in a nearly empty arena.
“For us, having such a great home-court advantage and then coming to play with really nobody there, I think that's one of the biggest things (that was different),” Mitchell said. “We have a great fan base, as far as being in the crowd and them getting loud and everything, so I go from that to when you run out and hear, ‘Here come the Jazz’ and then it's just silence. I think that's one of the craziest things to get used to.”
But that’s the challenge of the bubble. The three scrimmages each team will play will be used to not only get their basketball legs back but also to get accustomed to what games will be like in the bubble.
Will players who tend to feed off the crowd’s energy suddenly lose a gear? Will celebrations be more muted without thousands of people cheering? Will games feel as important in a place that feels like an AAU tournament?
The Jazz got their first taste of what things will be like on Thursday — and after some initial weirdness, they think they’ll be able to adjust to the new environment. Jazz center Rudy Gobert credited the NBA for filling the silence with music and filling the emptiness with giant screens.
“The sound system is really good,” Gobert said. “The big screens filling up the empty space is very good too. I think the NBA did overall a very good job of trying to fill out the emptiness of not having fans.”
Which in turn, allowed the players to focus on the game. Conley said once the tipoff happened, it was simply basketball. And Gobert said that once he’s on the court, he focuses in on the game — not who’s watching it.
“We were just focused on what's going on on the floor and kind of zone out of what's around you,” Gobert said.
With nothing much around, that zoning out might be easier than ever. And while large screaming crowds elevate the intensity, Jazz coach Quin Snyder said the competition alone should still be able to create an atmosphere that will be familiar to the players and the fans.
“The games are what make the atmosphere and the competition and that's the same,” Snyder said. “I think everybody will get used to it even more. And you'll see teams, regardless of whether you're playing in the gym or on the blacktop or whatever it is, you're going to see teams get after it and really compete.”