NBA players are creatures of routine — and this season has been anything but routine.
Coaches inevitably will say “it’s still basketball” as 22 teams converge on the Walt Disney World property in Orlando for the restart of the NBA season, but we all know this format is different. A three-month lay-off in the middle of the season, no fans at games, everyone from 22 teams living in one hotel/area, “seeding games,” and a condensed schedule. No player has been through anything like this before.
It’s going to take a unique mindset to win in that environment, according to 1990s Warriors and Heat star Tim Hardaway.
“It would definitely be tough, but I love to play basketball,” Hardaway told NBC Sports. “I think the guys that love to play basketball and not thinking about the fans and not thinking about what’s going on, that’s the team that’s going to win.
“You got to get the clutter out your brain as soon as you get there. You got to get that clutter out. When it’s time to practice, all this is over: the speculating this, what if that, if we didn’t go here, or if we not doing that. All that has to be out your mind….
“We can’t go in there with a clouded mind. You can’t go in there with other things on your mind, this has to be the sole thing. If you love to play basketball, it will be quick. If you don’t love to play basketball… if you have doubts, you’re not going to be ready to play, you’re not going to help your team.”
Players have been working out at home — with varying quality of equipment — and many players didn’t have a hoop at home. However, with a month of getting up shots in team facilities, followed by weeks of training camp both in their home market and in Orlando, expect players to be in shape. Their shots, their handles will come back. That is muscle memory, Hardaway said as part of a wide-ranging discussion that included how Michael Jordan dominated a Warriors practice before his comeback.
For the teams with title dreams — the Lakers, Bucks, and Clippers in particular — the mental side will be more important, Hardaway emphasized.
He added that players are used to playing games without fans in the building, just not with these kinds of stakes.
“Without fans? Yes, it’s going to be hard, no question,” the former All-Star and All-NBA player said. “But, to me, it’s just like pickup basketball—real pickup basketball, like we did in the ‘90s. We don’t care who is out there on the court, we gonna play, and there was no fans in the seats then, so if you lost you off the court, but if you won you stayed on the court. That’s the way this is.”
In the end, it’s about a clear mind and the ability to focus.
“Who can get the clutter out of their mind the quickest? That’s what they have to do, get the clutter out of their mind…
“It could be anybody, it could be a young guy, it could be a veteran, it could be a five-year guy. Whoever is like. ‘let’s go ball, let’s try to win a championship… Time to play. We can’t control nothing else but this right here on this basketball court.’”
That’s the team that will hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy.