NBA teams that keep focused on their game thriving in the bubble

In the hallways outside the convention center ballroom that the NBA has turned into a practice court, Boston coach Brad Stevens swatted away a question like he was Bam Adebayo waiting for Jayson Tatum.

Down 1-0 to Miami, the reporter wondered, could his young core of Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart play with even more confidence knowing that they had been tested in meaningful playoff games long before the birth of this bubble.

“I think that all that stuff is helpful but you know, when the ball tips off tomorrow, probably meaningless. You’ve just got to play well tomorrow,” he said dryly. “None of the stuff you’ve lived in the past matters. None of the stuff that you dream of in the future matters. It’s just about what you need to do on this possession right now. I know that sounds cliché, but that’s really the only way to go through these things. Two years ago, we kept saying there was a power of naiveté. So now we don’t have that. So, whatever.

“Spin it however we want to. We’ve just got to play well tomorrow.”

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Simplicity is a bit of a theme here inside the NBA bubble, where days repeat like the chorus of an annoying song. Finding it is tough, staying with it even harder and bouncing in and out of complexities a must.

“There’s nothing to do here,” a clearly sullen Dwight Howard said after the Lakers wrapped their first practice preparing for the Denver Nuggets.

There’s only basketball, and for those truly invested, it can be wonderful. Before his team exited the bubble, Toronto coach Nick Nurse, the NBA’s Coach of the Year, said he loved it. He played music, rode a bike around campus in the Florida sunshine and he got to compete and coach basketball games every other day.

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Consider who Nurse is, though – someone who loves basketball so much that he spent much of his adult life chasing it around gyms in England, Belgium and America’s minor leagues. That hustle was rewarded Tuesday with a multi-year extension with the Raptors.

The bubble can be an immersive basketball experience if you want it to be, and the teams that are left have bought into it. They’ve been adept at promoting social justice while still playing, about being heard but still performing.

Howard’s mood notwithstanding, the Lakers are typically a joyful group of people on the court. For the portion of practice open to the media on Wednesday, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Quinn Cook competed in a shooting contest with assistant coach Jason Kidd and general manager Rob Pelinka grabbing rebounds.

Wednesday, Brown threaded that needle perfectly, delivering passionate remarks about Breonna Taylor and the settlement her family reached in between questions about foul trouble and the Celtics’ late-game offense.

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“I think that ‘reform’ is a word that we use a lot and we want to constantly see reform, but we’ve been saying that for a long time, to be honest. We’ve been saying it for years,” Brown said. “If I wanted to reform my house, I might upgrade my kitchen. I might change my garage. I might even do something outside. But it doesn’t change — the house is still the same.

“So I think we need to start using different words other than reform because reform is not the right energy, I think, that we are trying to convey. I think that if we use ‘create,’ ‘dismantle’ and things like that, words that we should maybe use, because it’s obvious that this incrementalism in this system has just been stringing us along.”

That’s how a lot of this has gone – players talking about injustice in one breath and ball movement in another as they try to keep focus on what truly matters outside of the bubble while making sure their competing inside it.

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No team has embraced that attitude quite like the Heat.

“I want to make sure that we all stay as present as possible,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This is such an extraordinary time and opportunity. We do have a lot of different personalities with this group, but we share the same values about competition. Guys are very serious about their approach to competition and competing.”

Maybe that’s the secret, to just try and play, to forget gimmicks and piped-in crowd noise and just go hoop.

“At the end of the day it’s just guys playing in between those lines and who executes better and who plays the whole 48 or 53 or 58 minutes,” Stevens said. “Or however long it takes.”

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