Jayson Tatum scored 28 points, including a go-ahead baseline jumper late in the fourth quarter, and the Celtics prevailed for the sixth time in eight games Thursday night with a 110-107 road victory over the Memphis Grizzles in a satisfying bit of suspended disbelief.
Ja Morant led the Grizzlies with 21 points.
All right, so this isn’t actually an NBA game story. And Tatum’s late heroics and Morant’s quest to hold off the Pelicans’ Zion Williamson for NBA Rookie of the Year honors weren’t what one would call real.
But you probably knew that. The real NBA, like just about everything else non-essential in our daily lives, is on hold indefinitely while the COVID-19 pandemic sweeps frighteningly through our country.
Any actual NBA news right now — such as ESPN broadcaster Doris Burke’s news Thursday that she has tested positive for the virus — has to do with matters far greater than the outcome of basketball games.
But as we work from home and diligently practice social distancing, sports — real, live, suspenseful sports — are missed. They may not seem important right now, because they are not, but there is a void, and a fan can only watch so many classic games before longing for the real thing.
So about that Celtics-Grizzlies matchup from Thursday night — no, of course it wasn’t the real thing. What it was, was a welcome simulation, featuring a live online radio broadcast that sounded remarkably similar to the real thing, almost cathartically so, right down to having play-by-play voice Sean Grande and color analyst Cedric Maxwell on the call.
It was the brainchild of the CLNS Media Network, which is becoming increasingly prominent in the Boston market. In trying to bridge that sports void, CLNS has decided to broadcast simulations of every postponed Celtics game on the night they were originally scheduled, right on through the playoffs. It also features a halftime show; former Celtic Kendrick Perkins was a guest via satellite Friday.
The play-by-play of the games are broadcast on CLNS’s live streaming service (CLSNMedia.com/StreamLive) and released as a podcast the next day.
“A lot of sports networks are looking to fill that void, and spending a lot time on classic games — which are great of course — but I think above all else fans right now are desperate for real game action and to see this season play out,’’ said John Zannis, CLNS Media co-owner, senior vice president, and director of content. “This simulation is as close as you can get. It sounds and feels like the real thing.”
It does, thanks mostly to the presence and effort of Grande and Maxwell (who also has a popular podcast on the CLNS network). The Celtics’ long-running radio broadcast tandem is on board to call the remaining games, which are simulated on the website nbagamesim.com. CLNS actually plans to simulate the entire NBA season on that site, while updating standings and stats on its own website, CLNSmedia.com.
In Thursday’s game/sim, Grande and Maxwell made it sound strikingly real, even with crowd noise that sounds faker than what the Indianapolis Colts used be accused of piping into the old RCA Dome. When Carsen Edwards checked into the game in the second quarter and hit a simulated 3-pointer, Maxwell featured the same authentic enthusiasm that makes him enjoyable on the radio: “Any time you get into a game, young fella, make a splash, make a splash!”
“These guys [Grande and Maxwell] aren’t watching anything,’’ said Zannis. “We simulate the plays, pick spots where the action is lively, creatively draw up some scenarios to add a little color, and the rest is the magic of Grande and Max who are calling it blind. It’s amazing how talented they are. You would never know they’re not calling a real game.”
It’s not an easy task; Grande said he and Maxwell have to ad-lib off a simple detail provided by the sim.
“With the score and a box score, I get one line per play — “Tatum makes 2-point shot” — and I have to invent the rest,’’ said Grande. “It’s really challenging, because instead of telling story in real time, you’re writing most of it, as well.”
Grande said he thinks it will be even smoother after a couple more broadcasts (the second game was Friday versus the Rockets). And it’s something, he says, that might bring fans a little bit of joy right now, even if these Tatum game-winners and Kemba Walker slashes to the hoop are only a substitute for the real thing.
“I think it’s got potential,’’ Grande said. “For me, the primary reason [to do it] was because we were getting so much response on social media from fans just wanting to hear our voices and feel some normalcy. It seemed a fun way to do it.”