LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA – SEPTEMBER 17: Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat and Daniel Theis #27 of the Boston Celtics compete for a jump ball during the fourth quarter in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2020 NBA Playoffs at AdventHealth Arena at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports Complex on September 17, 2020 in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The performance that the LA Clippers put forth during their final three games against the Denver Nuggets was pitiful. After a season of being one of three NBA championship favorites and pundits picking them to win the mighty Western Conference, the Clips were bounced in the second round after holding a commanding 3-1 lead. They squandered 15+ point leads in Games 5 and 6, choke jobs that clearly resonated through the psyche of the roster given their performance in the decisive game on Tuesday evening and they were summarily ejected from the NBA bubble.
It wasn’t just that the Clippers came out flat and shot poorly. That happens to plenty of good teams come playoff time. The issue was that they seemed unmotivated and borderline uninterested, especially when they began losing. Instead of playing to win, it looked like LA was trying to simply get the game over with, almost like a group of school children watching the clock on a Friday afternoon. A tweet from Marc J. Spears during the game reported that the Clippers family members “seemed to be more enthusiastic about this deciding game than the actual players are.”
But is it understandable on some level? While the players are certainly not losing on purpose, the current situation begs the question of if being homesick is somewhere in the back of their minds.
The remaining four teams in the playoffs have now been in the NBA bubble for over 70 days. The world is in the middle of a health pandemic, and there are racial and political tensions dividing populations. Being cooped up and relegated to one small, mostly quarantined location without loved ones is likely taking its toll. Can we blame guys for missing their families and their usual ways of life?
No matter how luxurious the accommodations are or how many amenities they have access to, cabin fever is likely setting in if it hasn’t already.
Yes, there are some family members that are being allowed into the restricted space. We’ve all seen the pictures of Deuce Tatum and the rest of the NBA babies sitting courtside on the laps of their masked mothers. But many of these players have families and circles that run deeper than just a spouse and a child, and some have children who have their own lives outside the bubble.
LeBron James, for instance, has opted to not have his children visit him, two of whom are teenagers. “There’s nothing for them to do here,” James explained. Despite his decision, he surely longs for his children and likely won’t see them for over three months when all is said and done.
There have also been disputes about who players and staff can and can not bring in. Denver Nuggets coach Michael Malone went on a well-publicized tirade about coaches not being able to have visitors, and players themselves are only allowed a select number of people to invite to the bubble. These guys are used to a certain comfort and way of life, both of which have been severely compromised.
Compound those with the weight of the issues that currently encompass the country, players becoming stir crazy is understandable. “Win or Go Home” has long been a slogan for the playoffs, but the latter option in the quote has never been more appealing to guys who haven’t been home in over two months.
But does it lead to losing basketball? Are guys playing with homesickness in the back of their minds?
The answer could lie in the following hypothetical query, though the theory is obviously unproven: Does the age of the team matter in the bubble? Are older guys with wives and families more likely to catch homesickness? Do the young teams with core guys under the age of 25 have more incentive to stay put and win at all costs?
Here are the average ages for each of the four teams remaining in the NBA Playoffs:
The outlier of the group is obviously the Lakers, who are the third oldest team in the NBA. But they have Anthony Davis and a hyper-focused LeBron James, two superstars to lead them to the position that they are in. Their presence in the Conference Finals is expected, no matter how old the surrounding players are. As for the Heat, they are actually a bit younger than they appear. If you take 40-year-old Udonis Haslem (who played 44 total minutes this season) out of the picture, then the median age drops to 26.0.
And then there are the Nuggets and Celtics. They are regarded as being two of the best young teams in the league, and the players who have led them to this point are all age 25 or younger. Jayson Tatum (22) and Jaylen Brown (23) have both established themselves as budding stars during the postseason for the Celtics. Nikola Jokic (25) and Jamaal Murray (23) have each been instrumental in the Nuggets’ unlikely run to the Conference Finals. Even Michael Porter Jr. (22) has had a few big moments. The only player on Denver’s roster that was born in the 1980s is Paul Millsap.
So the young squads are advancing. What about the teams who have been eliminated? Two teams that suffered second-round disappointments were the Houston Rockets and Milwaukee Bucks, who happen to be No. 1 and No. 2 on the list of the oldest NBA teams. The top four minute-getters on Houston’s roster are all 29 or older, including 34-year-old P.J. Tucker. Of the 10 Bucks players who average 16 or more minutes per game, seven of them are over the age of 28. Eight of their players were born in the 1980s.
Now, this is not to say that younger players don’t have families, or that older guys aren’t single. Tatum has a child. Brown has a girlfriend. But as is true in everyday life, the older the player, the more likely they are to have commitments like children or spouses.
It doesn’t always have to do with family and business, either. There could be players who are struggling with mental health inside the bubble for understandable reasons and simply want to go home. There could be guys that miss their routines: the people, the workouts, the establishments. They might miss the lemon pepper wings. Whatever the case may be, these guys are completely out of their comfort zones, and 70+ days is a long time.
All of this is of course conjecture. Until a player comes out and says that he played poorly because he just wanted to go home, we’ll never have our answer. But there have been some odd things happening in the NBA bubble: Young teams knocking off overwhelming favorites, back-to-back 3-1 comebacks, huge scoring nights from unusual suspects.
They could all be a coincidence. 2020 is a wild enough year that these things seem to fall in line with the craziness. But if there is some underlying factor at play, it could very well be the simple desire that players have to get out of the NBA bubble and go home.
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