Tuesday night’s Heat-Sixers game was exactly the type of game that I love. A normal NBA season is such a protracted grind that it can’t help but deliver the occasional weeknight showdown between a pair of under-manned teams. This abnormal season gave us an even more extreme one yesterday, as Philadelphia and Miami had a total of 18 players available between them—eight for the Heat and 10 for the Sixers. The Heat were down bad, missing Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Goran Dragic; the Sixers have been down a number of important contributors for a while now.
The action on the court was about what you would expect. Joel Embiid dominated the proceedings, both teams turned the ball over a shit-ton, Ben Simmons fouled out, and Tyler Herro carried the Heat. In the end, the Sixers survived in overtime, riding Embiid to a 137-134 win. It was great fun to watch in the way that these random crappy games can be great fun to watch. Or at least it was when I wasn’t thinking about exactly why these teams were so sluggish and under-manned.
Miami’s Avery Bradley was ruled out of Sunday’s game against the Celtics due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols surrounding the coronavirus. That led to a chain reaction that knocked out eight players, due to contact tracing. On the Sixers’ end, they played a game with the minimum of eight players on Saturday, thanks to a COVID-19 debacle of their own. Sixers coach Doc Rivers said the team should not have played that game, and he only activated Philly folk hero Mike Scott so they would not have to forfeit. Philly only played with seven players in a 115-103 loss against the Nuggets.
Though Philly got Embiid and Simmons back on Tuesday, the team still trotted out just eight players against Miami, leaving both teams with tight playoff rotations. In a normal situation, that could be extremely fun; after all, putting players on the floor that otherwise have little business taking such big part in an elite Eastern Conference matchup can lead to fun performances; this is what is cool about these kinds of games, when they’re cool. Tuesday’s game was no exception in that regard, as “Gabe Vincent” went nuts for Miami.
I consider myself a pretty passionate Heat fan, and I had no idea who Gabe Vincent was before Tuesday. He played at UC-Santa Barbara, never in the NCAA Men’s Tournament, and went undrafted in 2018. Basketball Reference tells me he also played nine games for the team last season and one this year, in Miami’s December 30 win over the Milwaukee Bucks. His lack of exposure didn’t matter on Tuesday, though, as Vincent went off against Philadelphia, knocking down nine of his 20 shots for 24 points, including 12 in the second quarter to keep Miami in the game after they went down 11 early. He also notched a ludicrous three-point play while simultaneously fouling Simmons out with three and a half minutes remaining.
Heat rookie Precious Achiuwa also had his best game of the season, going 7-of-10 from the field and finishing with 17 points and 13 rebounds. The Sixers got 16 from their own rookie, Tyrese Maxey, four days after he exploded for 39 against Denver. They also got a game-clinching three-pointer from Dakota Mathias, who I can now confirm is also a real NBA player. Sure, Embiid put up 45 and dominated the overtime to help them come back for the win, and Danny Green added 29 on nine three-pointers, but both teams’ under-used and under-heralded players had their run of the floor on Tuesday. That should have ruled, and in its own uncomfortable way it did.
In a way, Tuesday’s game reminded me, uncharitably, of the bubble that closed out last season. I was thrilled to get basketball back into my life after months of solo isolation and the attendant withdrawal symptoms, and it obviously didn’t hurt that the Heat made it all the way into the Finals. I won’t pretend that I really objected to the league’s effort to finish the season and crown a champion; there’s enough evidence on this site against me. But while it was fun in the moment, it always felt like what I was watching wasn’t strictly necessary, or appropriate, or in some way worth it. And that was in a bubble, with everyone involved healthy and safe! It was as unobjectionable as sports-during-a-pandemic could get, and I still couldn’t get fully behind it.
This current season, to say the very least, does not have that going for it. With teams traveling everywhere to play in empty arenas, it was only a matter of time before the virus began to ravage the league’s rosters. That process is ongoing, and unfolding more or less as it was always going to go. The impact that the coronavirus has had on the NBA’s schedule this season has been written about plenty, here and elsewhere, but Tuesday’s game, for me, amounted to both the most compelling argument for suspending the season and for keeping it going.
There is no logical excuse or ethical justification for forcing teams to play under these conditions, on the one hand. And yet it was a blast to watch Miami try to keep up with a Sixers team that had its two stars (even if Simmons didn’t do much of anything before fouling out on the aforementioned Vincent three-point play). That cognitive dissonance is only going to intensify as more teams experience either similar outbreaks or forays into the coronavirus protocols. I sincerely doubt that the league’s new rules will do anything to curb it, either. This is just how this is going to go, if it’s going to be allowed to continue to go on like this.
Which is to say that this is just how watching sports is going to be. It’s something I’ve struggled with the NBA—I’ve watched fewer games to start this season than in any I can remember—and the Premier League. Our own Drew Magary struggled with it, alongside other valid NCAA-related reasons, when it came to college football. The NFL plowing through weeks of COVID-19 positive tests has been well-documented, as have the attendant shitty vibes. Another of my teams, the Miami Marlins, almost derailed the last MLB season before it even truly began due to an incompetently managed outbreak. As someone who watches all this, you can either fully check out—and I don’t blame anyone who does—or you can try to find joy in Gabe Vincent going nuclear in a random January game.
This is meaningless, but also it’s not. It will only get harder to accept that these games should be happening, and so for those committed to the long and irrational season ahead, it makes sense to get the practice in now. The NBA’s handling of the coronavirus has stripped me of a basic and reliable joy, which is finding out that random dudes I’ve never heard of actually whip ass in games no one will remember come playoff time. I’ll never forgive it for that, but hey. The Heat play the Sixers again on Thursday. I’ll be tuning in, because what else am I going to do? It’s a long season for everyone. The slog is non-negotiable, now more than ever; the challenge is to get accustomed to it.