The most welcome takeaway from the first week of the NBA playoffs is that they've felt like the playoffs again.
Now that COVID-19 vaccines are available to pretty much anyone who wants them in the United States, most states have loosened their restrictions on indoor events, clearing the way for NBA teams to allow many more fans into their buildings for the postseason—with some teams nearly filling their arenas by requiring proof of vaccination for fans.
The change in feel of these games has been undeniable even through the television. With last year's playoffs taking place in a crowdless bubble at Disney World, and the majority of the 2020-21 regular season taking place in arenas that were either empty or greatly reduced in capacity, the energy and spontaneity of a high-pressure game in a packed house has been missing from the NBA for a while.
Now the buzz is back, and players are noticing.
"Honestly, it's definitely real," says Phoenix Suns forward Cam Johnson. "You go back to the early games in the season where there were no fans, and compare that to [the playoffs] and it's a different atmosphere. Obviously, these are playoff games so you get up for them no matter what, but it's great to have the fans there cheering. There's a real buzz."
Buzz like what the New York Knicks have seen in their first two playoff games. Because the Knicks have one of the league's most legendary buildings and most notorious fanbases, and the team was making its first playoff appearance in eight years, the talk of the series was the return of life to the Garden. Spike Lee was on hand, and the team sold 15,000 tickets, with many of them in fully-sold sections that required proof of vaccination.
Even though the Knicks lost Game 1, the defining moment—Hawks guard Trae Young's game-winning bucket—was followed by him quieting the fans that had had such an impact on the game up to that point. And Game 2, a thrilling comeback win, got so loud that LeBron James took notice.
That kind of moment of player-fan interaction would not have been possible in the bubble last season, or for most of this year when fans were seated sporadically, away from the court and required to wear masks.
With the return of player-fan interactions, however, comes the return of occasional bad actors, like the fan in Philadelphia who dumped a bag of popcorn onto Russell Westbrook as he exited the court for the locker room during the Washington Wizards' Wednesday night blowout loss to the Sixers.
In the aftermath of the incident, James called on the NBA to do more to protect players, echoed by fellow players, fans and analysts. Wells Fargo Center president of business operations Valerie Camillo issued a statement condemning the fan.
Back in New York, a fan was later seen spitting on Trae Young from courtside seats. Thursday, the Knicks announced the fan would be banned from games indefinitely.
Now that fans are back in arenas, these are issues the league will have to deal with once again, on top of navigating the health and safety aspects of large crowds returning to indoor arenas.
The differences between games with and without fans have been glaring all season. As with every other aspect of the country's handling of the pandemic over the past year, rules have varied state to state, and that's trickled down to what NBA teams have been allowed to do.
At the beginning of the season in December, six teams—the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors (who played their home games in Tampa, Fla. due to Canadian border restrictions) and Utah Jazz—allowed limited-capacity crowds, with more teams joining them throughout the year as the vaccine rollout increased and restrictions in other states were lifted.
The Jazz, Knicks and Brooklyn Nets each allowed over 13,000 fans for their opening playoff games, and the numbers are still evolving in other cities. For the first two games of their first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Denver Nuggets had 7,750 fans (roughly 40 percent capacity); the team announced on Wednesday that number will increase to 10,500 for Game 5 and beyond.
The Blazers, meanwhile, were the last of the NBA's 30 teams to allow fans during the season. For their final four regular-season games, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown approved the team to sell 10 percent of the Moda Center's capacity, which is a little under 20,000. This week, the team announced their capacity will increase with vaccinated sections, and team president and CEO Chris McGowan said in a radio interview that around 8,000 tickets will be sold for Games 3 and 4 this week.
Blazers stars Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum were outspoken on social media about their desire to play in front of fans, with McCollum advocating for vaccinated sections before the team's announcement.
"I think teams with fans have historically played well," McCollum said after the team's Game 2 loss in Denver. "I know we had a better record on the road than we did at home, and I think not having fans played a factor in that. Looking at some of the teams, the Utah Jazz had a great season, and they've been having 10,000 fans for basically half the year. The Phoenix Suns have had fans, a lot of teams in the South have had fans."
Those are what makes the playoffs feel meaningful, and it's what the league had been missing since the 2019-20 season shut down last March.
"I watched the Knicks game and thought it looked like a 2017 game, or a game from last season before the pandemic hit," Lillard says. "When our fans are in the building and the building is noisy and our fans are into it, we've got one of the hardest buildings to win in. And it's the playoffs, so we need that. So I'd love to see our building have the same amount of fans that a lot of these other teams have, because you can tell that they're feeding off of it."
The NBA has chosen to let individual teams set their capacities based on local restrictions rather than standardize it across the board for the sake of competitive balance, a departure from their previous approach to the pandemic, where all 30 teams followed the same health and safety protocols regardless of location.
"Since the onset of this unprecedented season, we've recognized the pandemic could result in different circumstances for teams," league spokesman Tim Frank told B/R. "But by following state and local public health guidance, along with the NBA health and safety protocols, teams have established environments for our fans to gradually return to our arenas. It's exciting for our fans to be able to attend games again, and adding a rule that would have required all teams to wait to increase capacity until every other team could do so didn't feel in line with serving our fans."
As the playoffs progress, the differences in crowd sizes will become more noticeable, and could potentially swing series via disparate home-court advantages.
"It's going to be challenging for teams that can't have as many fans," says Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson, whose team won both of their first two games on the road against the Los Angeles Clippers and now return home to play in a nearly full-capacity American Airlines Center. "That will be a big factor. It's a different feel for sure. It's a different type of atmosphere. But once we step inside the lines, I don't really recognize anything that's not on the court."
The impact of an engaged crowd on a game is wide-ranging, and it goes both ways. After a season without it, players are about to remember what that feels like.
"It impacts the home team more than anything, because it feels like a pick-me-up," Lillard says. "And I think it does the opposite for the visiting team. Every time the other team makes a shot, it feels worse than it is. Every time you have to call a timeout when they make a run, that walk to the bench feels worse than it is. I also think when things are going well for the home team, it puts the visiting team in a position where they feel like they have to respond. You have to have great decision-making. If you make a few bad decisions to respond to what the crowd is making you think, it might make things worse."
Differing crowd sizes will be just one more thing that makes this playoffs, and this season, unlike any other the NBA has ever seen. But varied crowds are better than no crowds at all—for fans and for players.
"I like the crowd," says Suns forward Jae Crowder. "I like 20,000 people either cheering or booing. I don't like to play the game in silence. I like the talk. I like to feed off the energy. I like the emotions it brings out of players. That's what you play for. That's what it's all about, just to feel the energy of the game. Feeling alive and feeling the moment.
"Count me in for 10, 11, 12 thousand people booing or cheering. I want to play in front of that crowd."
Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.