There is no good comparison for playing competitive basketball games away from the outside world during a pandemic.
That didn’t stop a handful of Sixers over the last week from putting the NBA's planned resumption in familiar terms, though.
“It’s going to be like the AAU tournament of the century, kind of,” Josh Richardson said.
“I think it’s the richest summer camp in the history of basketball,” Alec Burks said.
Of course, AAU tournaments and summer camps aren’t played with NBA championships at stake, and players there don’t usually have to adhere to stringent health and safety rules. If everything progresses smoothly at Disney World, the Sixers will transition from an in-room quarantine in which their neighbors’ identities were a mystery to high-stakes competition in a three-week span.
The Sixers’ first practice is scheduled for Saturday, and they have scrimmages set for July 24, July 26 and July 28. Their first game after the league’s hiatus is scheduled for Aug. 1.
While there’s a chance to adjust, it’s not a ton of time to acclimate to the isolated, fan-less atmosphere.
“I think the first games will just be weird,” Matisse Thybulle said. “I think a lot of the energy that we’re used to getting from the fans will have to come from the bench. We have amazing guys on our team across the board so I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. … I think with this, it’s going to be a cool challenge and it can also help us.”
Several teammates agreed with Thybulle’s view that the bench would need to inject energy. Richardson even thought the competition might be something like a lethargic regular-season game — a December matchup against the Wizards, as an example — where the playoffs are far away and it’s difficult for players to find motivation.
I feel like that’s the same in a regular game ... because teams can come out flat and there’s always got to be a guy or a few guys to get guys’ heads in the game or to rev everybody up a little bit,” he said. “I think we’ll definitely have to bring our own energy. It’s going to be like scrimmages, I guess, the whole time. … But I’ll be one of those guys trying to bring energy. I know (Kyle O’Quinn)’s going to be a big energy guy for us. So hopefully some guys will step up, get a little uncomfortable and be able to help us in a different way.
The Wells Fargo Center crowd won’t be behind the Sixers, which they'll surely miss after going an NBA-best 29-2 at home. The roar of the fans when the Sixers are on a run and taking control won’t be there anymore. But the grumbling, tension and boos when the team is playing below its best and on the verge of letting a game slip away won’t be either, and it’s possible that will be the greater loss. The Sixers often seemed to respond to that collective demand for better effort by sharpening their focus.
How will that in-person pressure from thousands of people no longer being present affect the players? If it feels like one’s playing a scrimmage or a pick-up game, it wouldn’t be surprising to see certain players operate with a little more looseness, a little less apparent knowledge that the game they’re playing in matters. That could mean a higher willingness to fire jumpers for players sometimes reluctant to take them, or a bit more flash and bravado from someone who gets hot and is having a good time without as strong an awareness of the score and situation as he might otherwise have.
So, while the notion of energy exclusively coming from the bench sounds like it could be great for the Sixers for their “road” games, given how much the team struggled away from Philadelphia this season (10-24), the bench also may need to provide somewhat of a moderating influence, along with strategic input. We should be able to clearly hear everything, from coaches and players shouting out adjustments in pick-and-roll coverages to instructions that a player should keep a tighter handle on the ball.
The bench obviously won’t be a single, homogeneous entity. Norvel Pelle won’t be shouting out the same things to his teammates as Thybulle.
“Everybody’s bringing their own energy in a different manner,” Pelle said. “I know I’m a little out there with the (air) guitar and all the extra stuff. It just brings smiles to people.”
In these odd circumstances, the Sixers might appreciate a little levity.
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