More NBA games off, as league continues struggles with virus

Another three NBA games were postponed Friday, including one in Minnesota only a couple hours before game time, as the league’s struggle with increasing coronavirus numbers continued.

Among the revelations Friday: Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns , whose mother and six other relatives have died from COVID-19, said he has tested positive. The Washington Wizards said that they have six players who are positive as well, and another three players out because contact tracing data suggested they could have been exposed.

“I pray every day that this nightmare of a virus will subside and I beg everyone to take it seriously by taking all of the necessary precautions,” Towns wrote on social media.

The Timberwolves’ game with the Memphis Grizzlies was called off, as were what would have been Wizards’ home games Sunday and Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“The NBA’s been pointing to this period for quite some time, that this was going to be very difficult,” Wizards general manager Tommy Sheppard said. “And they weren’t kidding.”

The current tally of postponements: 13 since the start of the season, 12 of them — involving 16 of the NBA’s 30 teams — since Sunday alone. Washington has seen four of its games pushed back, Boston and Phoenix have had three postponements. The Celtics returned to the floor Friday night against Orlando, Boston’s first game in a week.

“We’re all very grateful to be here and get a chance to play and compete,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Miami — which lost two games at Philadelphia this week with only eight players available — could get as many as six of its eight COVID-affected players who have missed time this week, largely because of contact tracing, back Saturday for a game against Detroit. All-Star Jimmy Butler will remain out, the Heat said, as will Avery Bradley.

The Wizards are just hoping to be able to have players in to resume workouts. No basketball has been played in their facility for most of this week; between COVID-related issues, and injuries to Russell Westbrook and Thomas Bryant, Washington has six players available right now.

The Wizards last played Monday, against Phoenix. The earliest they’ll play again is this coming Wednesday in Charlotte — and even that would seem iffy, based on what will likely be a lack of practice time in the coming days. The Suns had a three-game homestand wiped away because they didn’t have enough cleared players.

“I think four teams have missed multiple games,” Sheppard said. “I think that’s a small victory considering what’s going on out there around the league.”

Minnesota’s next game on the schedule is Monday, the league’s traditional game on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Atlanta. The news that any player has the virus would be crushing, and that it was Towns was particularly so given what his family has endured.

“Karl is the most important part of this organization,” Timberwolves President Gersson Rosas said. “For what he’s gone through, what Karl Sr.’s gone through, it couldn’t be more heartbreaking today.”

Postponed games, when possible, will be made up in the second half of the season, which will take place from March 11 — the one-year anniversary of last season shutting down because of the pandemic — through May 16.

The NBA said earlier this week that 16 players tested positive in recent days, which was more than the NBA had seen in the last five weeks combined. Given the developments since, next week’s report has the potential to be even worse.

Even coaches know they have to increase their own efforts. The NBA gave Orlando coach Steve Clifford a call recently, telling him he had to do a better job of keeping his mask on during games.

Clifford didn’t argue.

His response to the call? “Yes, sir,” he said.

Nobody would argue the need for utmost of caution in the NBA right now.

The league and the National Basketball Players Association earlier this week stiffened the protocols that players must live by during these delicate times, and coaches aren’t exempt from saying they need to be more diligent on the safety front as well — particularly when it comes to properly wearing their masks.

They’re now required on sidelines, for both coaches and players. But when coaches feel the need to yell, many still succumb to the urge to tug the mask down and make sure their voice is heard without whatever muffling can be caused by a thin piece of fabric.

“It isn’t always easy,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said. “Sometimes I’m in the huddle or on the floor, and I’m doing all kinds of things to try to keep my mask on (and) let guys hear me, and after the third time they say ‘Coach, I can’t hear what you’re saying,’ you try to pull it down quick.”

Clifford is a big-time mask proponent, and has been since even before the league restarted last season in the Walt Disney World bubble near Orlando. He has been preaching the values of mask-wearing for months.

“I think there were seven of us who got a call from the league about ‘Keep your mask on,’” Clifford said. “So, I’m going to do better, no matter what. I have some masks that are easier for the guys to hear than others. I’m just going to wear the right mask. I’ve got to do better.”

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AP freelance writer Brian Hall in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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