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“We’re going to be playing a little bit of telephone out there for a little bit”: How J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cavs are communicating with masks on

It’s all about communication.

Indiana Pacers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

On Saturday, after the Cleveland Cavaliers played their first game in nine months, J.B. Bickerstaff’s excitement was palpable, even if the team looked rusty.

“When we stepped on the court tonight, obviously there was a high level of excitement,” the Cavs’ head coach said. “But you saw us throwing the ball all over the place, it felt like that. And personally, I have to get my rhythm.”

Despite all of the weirdness surrounding the Cavs’ return — no cheering fans in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, no DJ Steph Floss-selected music blaring pre-game, no booming t-shirt cannons during timeouts — Saturday’s Cavs-Pacers preseason game felt normal given the circumstances. There, though, is one change everyone is going to have to get used to here is one change everyone will have to get used to, though: communicating clearly while Bickerstaff and the other coaches are wearing masks.

“It’s tough, to be honest with you. And at the end of the day, we’ve just got to figure it out,” Bickerstaff said. “When you’re at the other end of the floor, guys can’t really hear you when you’re muffled by the mask. So we are going to have to get creative and probably do more things with hand signals.” He added that despite no fans in the arena, there’s still background noise that makes it difficult to hear.

Properly-worn masks are part of the coach’s attire for this season and not just during games. Per the NBA’s release, masks would be worn “at all times,” including practices and while traveling and inside the team facility. Masks are critical in helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus, according to the CDC. Studies show masks help limit the reach of respiratory droplets, which is how the virus is transmitted between people.

From a basketball perspective, masks present a communication challenge. Just like when someone orders a coffee or food or checkouts at the grocery store with a mask on, a mask muffles speech and keeps people from reading lips.

“There were a few times where I’m standing in the corner and looking [at J.B.] and am like, ‘I can’t hear you. I straight can’t hear you. I don’t know what we called, I don’t know what defense we are in.’ It’s definitely going to take some getting used to,” Cavs forward Larry Nance Jr. said Monday. “But it’s got to be one of those things where the closest man to him, whether that’s Darius [Garland] or myself or Andre [Drummond] — whoever is closest to him — actually hears what he’s saying and has to vocalize that and tell the rest of the team. We’re going to be playing a little bit of telephone out there for a little bit.”

Even in a quieter arena, Bickerstaff’s voice doesn’t carry as far as it would because of the mask. That means that when he’s offering instructions from the sideline, his words aren’t coming through as clear as they normally would. The team did get some practice with this during training camp, but the game environment is different and requires different solutions.

“I think the less he tries to yell, the better,” Cavs wing Damyean Dotson said. “I think more so, everything should be said in the huddle. That’ll make it easier on him because if I’m in the corner and he’s on the other side of the floor, I’m probably not going to be able to hear him. Even though there’s nobody at the games, I probably won’t be able to hear him. I think everything should be attention to detail, focused on in the huddle and getting everyone on the same page. That’ll make everything easier.”

There are workarounds. For one, NBA teams use hand signals to communicate certain calls and that will eliminate some miscommunication. For huddles, as Dotson noted, it is largely the same. There also are players communicating with each other — Nance dubbed playing telephone.” Bickerstaff will need a player — say Garland or Collin Sexton or whoever happens to be closest to him — to hear what he says and disperse the information to the rest of the team.

It’s all part of the new normal.

“Sometimes it’s hard, but if Darius Garland hears it, he’ll come and tell me or I know some of the hand signals,” Cavs rookie Isaac Okoro said. “It gets easy.”