Will quiet gyms produce better NBA viewing?

Will quiet gyms produce better NBA viewing?

"Bleep him in the bleep, Semih!”

Shaquille O’Neal bellowed from the Boston bench. The un-bleeped version of which drew an incredulous stare from the Philadelphia 76ers big man who had been defending Celtics rookie Semih Erden at that moment.

It was Boston’s preseason opener back in 2010 and the Celtics found themselves in Manchester, New Hampshire as part of their New England tour during the exhibition season. Media, typically stationed a good distance from the Celtics sideline at TD Garden (and most NBA arenas) were positioned on the baseline near the Boston bench at the Verizon Wireless Arena, which afforded the rare opportunity to hear a lot of the courtside chatter.

“He can’t guard you, Semih!”

O’Neal’s words had Boston’s bench cackling. Erden was a supremely raw 7-footer from Turkey who likely didn’t know enough English to even understand what O’Neal was suggesting. O’Neal’s words were more clearly intended to mess with the Sixers young bigs like Marreese Speights and Craig Brackins.

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The 38-year-old O’Neal, making his Boston debut that night, provided more entertainment from the bench than the game itself. His interactions with his new Boston teammates and his sideline commentary offered a unique glimpse into how someone on his last basketball legs could potentially aid a championship-minded team.

As media positions around the NBA keep shifting further back, we’re often reminded of that night in New Hampshire.

There are still some arenas where you get the occasional front-row seat (Oklahoma City and Phoenix jump to mind) but a lot of the chatter between players is still muffled by the crowd noise and arena entertainment. We’re left to settle for some Brad Stevens soundbites when he ventures near the scorer’s table.

Now, as the NBA positions itself for a fan-less return to basketball this summer, we might get to hear a lot more. And while the discussion around empty gymnasiums typically harps on how odd it will be without crowd noise, Stevens noted how hearing more on-court chatter could actually be one of the more intriguing parts of a restarted season.

"The sound will be great for TV,” said Stevens. "I think people would love to hear more of the coaches, players, referees, the dialogue between everybody, so I’m interested to see, if we do get in that scenario, whether the league would decide on pumping in noise or not.

I think the voices of the game would be a whole new world, and a lot of fun. And, to be honest, I think it would be most impactful in [showing] what these guys do, possession to possession, from a basketball standpoint and how much communication goes into it.

Our NBC Sports Boston mics have sometimes caught Stevens using some bleep-filled language of his own (which he likes to joke is then used against him by his teenage son). But quiet gyms will also spotlight the way Stevens quarterbacks his team, from playcalls at the start of offensive possessions to defensive instructions. And, yes, you will hear the occasional emotional outburst to a bad call.

"You will hear coach Brad for sure,” said Celtics big man Enes Kanter. "I’ve worked with a lot of coaches. [Stevens] doesn't cuss a lot. He does’t cuss much. That’s a good thing. He knows how to control himself. I had some coaches, man — I played with nine coaches, I had seven different coaches just in NBA. I worked with a lot of different coaches. Coach Brad is definitely one that can control himself.”

So what else will we hear from the Celtics sideline in a quiet gym?

"You will hear Marcus [Smart],” said Kanter.

Smart, Boston’s defensive coordinator, can often be heard directing traffic on that end of the floor. He’s also effusive in his praise of teammates, especially on hustle plays. On a team that doesn’t have a particularly vocal presence like O’Neal, Smart will be one of the more common voices heard amid the sneaker squeaks.

Whether it’s chatter between teammates, trash talk between opponents, or just conversations between referee and coach, the fan-less gyms could offer us a glimpse of an NBA we don’t typically hear.

It will be an adjustment for both fans and players. Kanter is sure Stevens will figure out a way to have his players focused despite the unique environment.

“Whenever we practice, coach Brad just turns on the loudest music actually in the gym. Because, during the game, it’s so hard to communicate with your teammates, he’s like, ‘Get used to this,’” said Kanter. "Now it’s going to be like quiet, all you're going to hear is coach Brad maybe screaming, and Marcus diving for the ball. I don’t know, it’s going to be very weird.

"Ball bouncing and shoe squeaking. I think it's going to be weird for sure. And it’s not going to be the same. It’s definitely not going to be the same. But I feel like we’ll take anything.”


Why Pablo Torre believes ex-Celtic Al Horford is 'useless' on 76ers

Why Pablo Torre believes ex-Celtic Al Horford is 'useless' on 76ers

Al Horford joined the Philadelphia 76ers in free agency last summer to be a veteran presence alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid on what looked like a legitimate contender.

But expectations haven't exactly met reality -- in part because Horford and Embiid have mixed like oil and water.

The former Boston Celtics big man has seen his shooting percentage drop from 53.5 percent in 2018-19 to 44.9 percent this season while both he and Embiid have discussed the growing pains they've had sharing the court together.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

ESPN's Pablo Torre joined NBC Sports' Tom Haberstroh on "The Habershow" podcast and cut right to the chase about the Horford-Embiid dynamic.

"The whole, 'Let's break up Joel and Ben' eternal conversation ... we should be talking about breaking up Al and Joel," Torre told Haberstroh. That is the relationship that is irrevocably broken. That's the one that is a non-starter. That's the one that's doomed. We have all sorts of evidence now, but the eye test and statistical, to prove this. ... In no world does Joel Embiid and Al Horford as a pair make sense."

Horford fit well in Boston and thrived in Brad Stevens' system by doing a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor. But Torre believes the 34-year-old doesn't bring much of anything to Philly.

"I just hate watching Al Horford play basketball. I just hate it. It's infuriating," Torre said. " ... We've had four extra months to really contemplate how useless Al Horford is to the Sixers' ambitions. ... Part of it is because (head coach) Brett Brown and the Sixers took forever to admit that he should not be playing with Joel. ... It's just Groundhog Day. It's just endless. I don't hate anyone in the NBA. But I hate watching Al Horford play basketball."

That's a pretty harsh assessment of a five-time All-Star. But as the Sixers stumble into their first-round playoff series against the Celtics without star point guard Ben Simmons, Torre believes Horford's poor on-floor chemistry with Embiid will be exposed.

"When he was with the Hawks, with the Celtics, throughout his very long career, what he could do -- space the floor, facilitate defend -- all real skills," Torre said. "But they're utterly negated when Joel Embiid is the other guy."

Check out more of Haberstroh and Torre's conversation on "The Habershow" here.

How 76ers' Al Horford feels about seeing Celtics in first-round series

How 76ers' Al Horford feels about seeing Celtics in first-round series

Al Horford has been around long enough to know not speak ill of his opponents -- especially when he used to play for them.

Horford's 76ers are locked into a first-round NBA playoff matchup with the Boston Celtics, where he spent three seasons from 2016 to 2019 before signing with Philadelphia in free agency last summer.

So, how does the veteran big man feel about facing his old mates in his first playoff series with the Sixers?

"What are the odds?" Horford told ESPN's Rachel Nichols, adding he's glad the teams will meet in the neutral setting of the NBA bubble to spare him returning to a hostile TD Garden crowd.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Wizards, which begins Thursday at 11 a.m. with Celtics Pregame Live followed by tip-off at noon. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Celtics fans indeed won't have the chance to boo Horford this postseason, and he's not giving them reason to, anyway. Here's what Horford added to Nichols about the red-hot Celtics:

"In my eyes, they’re playing the best of all the teams in the bubble right now.”

The undefeated-in-the-bubble Phoenix Suns may disagree with Horford's assessment, but the C's are hitting their stride at the right time. They've won four games in a row -- three by double digits -- and routed the defending champion Toronto Raptors last Friday.

The Sixers, meanwhile, have lost three consecutive games since losing All-Star guard Ben Simmons to a season-ending knee injury and appear in danger of flaming out in the first round.

If Horford has any regrets about leaving Boston for Philly last offseason, though, he's certainly not letting on.

"For us, it’s a great opportunity," Horford told reporters Wednesday in a video conference, via The Boston Globe's Gary Washburn. "... It’s part of the business. Obviously, we’ve already played them plenty of times this year so that effect is out of the way, so now we can go out there and compete. It should be a fun series."