James Harden’s quarantine beard is, well, his normal beard.
The Houston Rockets guard, one of the NBA’s toughest defensive assignments and the league’s best scorer, had just finished with his first practice with the Rockets on Thursday after a late arrival to the Disney World campus when a hint of excitement crept through the forest of hair that grows on his face.
The Rockets are scheduled for three scrimmages and eight seeding games, but for Harden and most of the teams in Orlando, Florida, the real tests start in mid-August when the playoffs begin. With no travel or hostile crowds, the playing field has been leveled.
“It’s like home-court advantage? There’s no home-court advantage,” Harden said on a video conference call Thursday. “Everybody doesn’t have any fans. It’s you versus us and we’ll just have to figure it out.
“… For us, it’s about getting into shape and making sure our offense and defense are crisp and we’re all on the same page. We’ll play anybody.”
While home-court advantage cannot be replicated when none of the teams are actually playing on their home courts in a bubble environment, “home” teams will still have some familiar touches.
On Wednesday, Dallas coach Rick Carlisle took a peek inside of one of the playing venues on the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
“Well, there’s going to be fans in the stands. It’s just not going to be … it’s going to be virtual fans,” Carlisle told reporters. “There are going to be digital boards all over the arenas. There are going to be home team sounds. … It’s really going to be a compelling situation.”
The home team sounds for the Los Angeles Lakers? Ideally, it’ll be just like a Staples Center home game, organ included.
“I expect (it) to be very similar to a game – without fans – if that makes sense. I do think that you’ll have some crowd noise. They’ve talked about it,” Lakers forward Jared Dudley said. “I’m expecting a Lakers chant, the music when we come out for our intros, how it has the (organ), the different vibe, different stuff during the game.”
People with knowledge of the situation said final details are still being planned out for the full game-day experience. League executives inside the Orlando bubble are expecting a walk-through in the upcoming days. While some Randy Newman here for the Lakers and some “Dos Minutos” there for the Miami Heat are nice touches, they’re certainly not worth going all out for during those eight seeding games.
Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens said those seeding games can provide his team an opportunity to start to rebuild and move toward the postseason with as much going right as possible.
“You’re always preparing to play the next game and win the next game. And that’s it. And you fall where you fall and you play the playoffs,” Stevens said earlier this week. “Obviously, home-court advantage is something that would take on greater importance because of the impact of crowds. But I still think the goal is to be peaking. The goal is to be playing well. The goal is to be playing good basketball. And I don’t think you can just turn that on.”
In the West, the seeding games will largely be irrelevant for the Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, who are cemented at the top and almost guaranteed not to meet until the conference finals. And while the games will determine who makes the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, they could shuffle the No. 3-6 teams, who are separated by only two games in the loss column.
Teams in those positions could be tempted to try to work themselves into more favorable matchups by resting players at “strategic” times, though coach Mike D’Antoni said the Rockets won’t be one of them.
“I don’t think we’ll be matchup conscious. Every time you try to do that, it goes sideways because you never know,” D’Antoni said earlier this week. “These are all going to be really good teams. I think what we’re going to look at is (whether) our guys need to play 30 minutes. … Do they need to play 40? Do they need to sit out? Whatever they need is what we’re going to try to do.
“The only thing you can do is what’s best for your team.”