Erik Spoelstra, the Miami Heat coach with two NBA championships, has been on the big stage before. But he hasn’t been on this big stage — the giant elevated square the NBA constructed for news conferences in the social-distancing age, with reporters and cameras spread out on a practice court, waiting for the man on stage sitting on a single folding chair to talk about these NBA Finals.
“Totally different,” he said of the 2020 NBA Finals. “Yeah, like, everything that we’re experiencing right now is unprecedented. It’s extraordinary. Like, the fact that the two franchises, the teams that have been here for over 80 days, just, you know, if you step back and think about that for a second, that just seems incredible.”
With that, he put his hands by his head to mimic his mind being blown. It’s all a bit much here inside the bubble.
The NBA did its best to make Wednesday night not feel like last Wednesday night. Or the one before that. But it was mostly fruitless, especially with the Lakers blowing out Miami 116-98.
The court design changed, the corporate Finals logo in the middle of the floor. Twenty-foot images of the Larry O’Brien Trophy now greet the players when they run off the court, and the banners of the 22 teams that lined the walkways inside the ESPN Wide World of Sports campus have been reduced to two. And the Heat and Lakers jerseys have a special decal on the back, right at the top under the collar.
President Obama was courtside. But so were Paul Pierce, James Worthy, Bill Walton and a host of other celebrities jammed onto a video board behind the scorer’s table, a virtual A-list for the Finals opener.
But on the floor, in a lot of ways, it felt like just another day — the Lakers being too big and strong, the Heat unable to withstand it and the rout inevitably on.
It’s not a criticism that the league wasn’t able to re-create what the Finals normally feel like. It’s more a compliment to the environment they’ve been able to create throughout the postseason. Competition has been the gasoline for everyone inside the bubble, and that was just as true Wednesday.
It just never got to another, special, level.
Had Game 1 been played at Staples Center, the crowd would’ve erupted into a frenzy when Lawrence Tanter announced LeBron James from St. Vincent-St. Mary High. Instead, someone merely turned the volume up on the piped-in crowd noise.
The energy, like it’s had to be for the last three months, all had to be created on the court by the players. James doing so much of what he normally does, right down to spending the first possessions of the game trying to stretch his jersey out across his chest. The pregame routines didn’t change — the Lakers still threw football passes from one corner of the court to the other, still waited for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to swish a three before moving on with warmups.
It’s all done in an effort to fill the void that the empty stands leave. Finals games percolate with energy in the hour leading up to tip. Here in the bubble, it’s just loud music covering up the sneaker squeaks.
“It feels like a regular game in the bubble, even though the pressure from the Finals is still there,” Anthony Davis said.
And while one of these two teams will be crowned a champion, it’ll be for more than just winning 16 playoff games. It’ll be for surviving a three-month journey full of hardship and isolation. And the Lakers and the Heat have embraced it more than most — if not all.
“Obviously, I miss my family dearly,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said before the game, almost like he knew what he was about to say might get him in trouble at home. “But I really enjoy the group of guys that we have. And the element I’ve tried to embrace as a positive is that it’s been all basketball, which is just fine with me, you know, because this is my life and this is my passion. I have enjoyed that aspect of just round-the-clock study and watching games and getting back after it the next day.
“… Obviously when you’re winning, everything in life is better. Everything’s better.”
With no fans outside of some family who made the trip and handled quarantine, the only way it could truly feel like the Finals came from within the players on the court. And for someone like James, who has been through a lot in the last two-plus years to get here, the environment didn’t matter.
“It felt great,” James said as emphatically as his team played.
Maybe these Finals won’t ever feel like a normal Finals — what’s normal anymore anyways? But whoever survives bubble ball will leave with a trophy that no one else has earned quite the same way.
It is, after all, totally different here.