Jayson Tatum’s opening-night game winner. Kyrie Irving’s return to TD Garden. Tacko Fall dunking on one end and blocking Robin Lopez from behind on the other. Jaylen Brown dropping 42 points on Memphis. Throw it all the way back to Marcus Smart’s series-saving block Norman Powell to win Game 7 against the Raptors.
Several unforgettable moments that crowd reactions would cement in Celtics lore have become murkier by way of absent witnesses and COVID fog through the quarter point of this season. Few can say they were there for that.
January marked 10 months without fans in NBA stadiums, casting cool air, muted sideline responses and gaping rows of seats as a backdrop for an incredible time in Boston basketball. Now, as Tatum and Brown get their first shot at LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the champion Lakers as two of the top 15 NBA scorers — James knows it won’t be the same. Even the Bubble had special effects, a surrealness and frantic pace into the postseason, plus only good teams were allowed.
“It won’t feel the same on Saturday,” James said. “It’s going to be great to play against another game and play against a very good team, but it won’t have that rivalry feel. The fans are so much a part of that rivalry if you could just imagine, and go back and watch those games, how key the fans were to those battles over the years.”
One year ago, as the coronavirus entered the US, the notion that NBA stadiums would need to close to fans in certain parts of the country arose, but drew doubts. The Warriors eventually announced they’d play in front of empty seats, while LeBron, Kemba Walker and others laughed, not realizing that the league would close completely within weeks. James said he wouldn’t play without fans.
Saturday will mark his 49th time performing for seats and cameras, with no end in sight. Vaccines don’t project to reach the general public until the spring, when the NBA Playoffs begin, while the NBA stands firm that its staff and players won’t cut the line on the elderly and front line workers. Certain teams have allowed limited attendees in cities like Tampa and Miami, with limited impact on games.
The absence of crowds allowed an unprecedented look at how fans impact sports games. NBA results have been uncharacteristically balanced so far, with 20 of the league’s 30 teams within four games of .500.
“Once you tip, I think that it’s a game,” Brad Stevens said. “I totally understand what he’s saying, from a standpoint of first game of the season walking into TD Garden getting ready to play Milwaukee, it was like man I wish the other 19,000 people were here with us. Even on the road, when you on’t get a chance to play in those environments. A road win is one thing, a road win in a raucous environment in front of fans is a totally different experience.”
“It’s not as good without fans.”
Celtics and Lakers basketball took on the form of Celtics vs. LeBron James last year. LA hadn’t made the playoffs since 2013 and Boston didn’t reach contender status until 2018. A mediocre year for both in 2019 led to both sides nearly meeting in the NBA Finals a season ago.
Tatum dunked on Cleveland LeBron as a rookie and used several battles against James to vault his visibility in the league — a 41-point road performance the highlight. Brown unloaded a two-handed slam on James in a blowout win at TD Garden last January.
All featured the audible “boooooo” from fans in green when LeBron touches the ball.
While both team’s pairings are the most enviable in the league, the sample size of play is limited between their supporting casts — Gordon Hayward left the Celtics and Rajon Rondo the Lakers. Kemba Walker is only a year into playing playoff basketball. Anthony Davis made his first deep run a year ago.
These teams are largely new and only play twice per year. Payton Pritchard is out. Without crowds, it represents a challenging foe for both sides on their east and west-coast swings, another night defending LeBron — reminding Stevens of some lopsided past meetings on larger stages in Boston — and highly-touted individual matchups.
Unless you’re Mike Zarren.
“I know we have to come out and be ready,” Smart said. “A couple years ago, in that Game 7 here, when LeBron took us on and put the daggers in us himself, I just remember him on me, late down in the shot clock, I’m up in his grill and he takes a 30-footer fadeaway, shot clock running down and hits it.”