After going through their pregame warmups, talking through the game plan in the locker room and huddling up in the hallway, Thunder players down in the Orlando bubble get their minds locked in, as usual. The muscle memory is just so familiar – it’s their same routine at home and on the road.
As the huddle breaks, they rush out in a single file line. A couple of basketballs get bounced with push-ahead dribbles, heads emerge from the tunnel and the bright lights flooding the arena flash into their eyes. The sound they hear, however, is a deafening silence.
“I'm so used to coming out that tunnel and then if we're at home, seeing all the fans,” said rookie forward Darius Bazley.
“The hardest part, I think, was running out,” said Thunder point guard and NBPA President Chris Paul. “It's one of those things a lot of guys on the team say – ‘bring your own energy’.”
Before the Thunder even started playing scrimmages in Orlando, point guard Dennis Schröder said that the team will miss Thunder fans down in the bubble, calling the OKC faithful the best in the league. For a team that has one of the most distinct home court advantages and historically has also been a massive draw for road crowds, the background music and light chatter in the bubble was a bit jarring at first.
It even caused the normally ebullient Steven Adams to consider keeping his thoughts to himself when he’s on the floor, noting that players who can often get away with venting behind a referee’s back don’t have that luxury now.
“You might see an uptick and more technical fouls, because they can hear what players are saying,” Adams smirked.
Much like the rest of their time in Orlando, however, the Thunder has taken any potential hurdles and approached them with grace and opportunism. Gratitude has flowed from Thunder players, recognizing the manual labor by workers and the decision-making by leadership that was required to put the bubble together. When challenges have arisen, the Thunder has taken them on as opportunities to simply recognize them as realities and get better around them.
As a result, the lack of ambient sound on the floor has been an impetus for Thunder players to step up and be loud, and to hold each other accountable with their communication on the floor.
“When you’re not talking, you can hear the silence on the court,” Bazley said.
Whether it’s on defense and the Thunder is trying to get into the right coverage or on offense and the players are getting into correct position with the ideal spacing, being able to talk it out makes a huge difference. In fact, in the Thunder’s first scrimmage game against Boston, a 98-84 win, one OKC player dictated the flow of action completely.
“There’s nobody else in here and Chris Paul dominated the game with his voice,” said Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens.
“One of (Paul’s) greatest strengths is he's an incredible communicator,” said Thunder Head Coach Billy Donovan. “And he's got a lot of years of experience under his belt and the fact that he continues to talk, I think it gives our other guys confidence to continue to talk. So in this kind of venue, where there's not going to be necessarily a lot of crowd noise, communication is really, really critical.”
Throughout the Thunder’s three scrimmages leading up to Saturday’s opening seeding game against the Utah Jazz, the Thunder prioritized their chatter on the floor. It talked through each possession to help manufacture stops on defense and generate the best possible shot on offense.
“Communication, especially on the defensive end is gonna be key especially considering the fact that everybody's going to hear us in the gym,” said Danilo Gallinari. “So the loudest team is gonna have an advantage.”
“Everybody did a great job of adjusting to that new environment,” said guard Andre Roberson, who had even more to adjust to than the rest of his teammates as he returned to gameplay for the first time in two and a half years.
Just as vital as the direction and strategic communication is the enthusiasm and support that has flowed from the bench. It started in that Celtics game with the raucous ovation the bench gave to Roberson when he checked in for the first time, continued through the Thunder’s 24-point come-from-behind scrimmage win over Philadelphia and into a shellacking of the Blazers on Tuesday that featured 20 made three-pointers and 85 bench points.
“Our group is really, really good supporting one another,” Donovan said. “That bench involvement is important for us because I think it lifts guys spirits, especially if things are not going well.”
The energy spilling out of the seats beside the court has been a hallmark of this Thunder team since back in October and despite a four-month hiatus, that connection and camaraderie is still there.
“That's the secret of the chemistry and the secret of the success of this regular season,” said Gallinari.