TORONTO — COVID-19 outbreaks, cancelled games, and reduced crowd capacity has dominated news around the Toronto Raptors this week.
It's conjured memories of March 11, 2020, when the NBA promptly closed shop after Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive. Like dominoes, sports events and leagues around the league followed suit. The NBA didn't resume until July in a bubble at Walt Disney World in Florida, nearly four months later.
With case numbers rising across the league, there's been speculation about another pause in playing.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse said despite the recent doom of gloom, he can't see that happening.
"I don’t see them leaning, just my gut here, as long as they can they are charging forward with these games, man," Nurse said after practice Friday. "When you've got (the league-minimum) eight guys you are playing. That's the way I feel they are going right now."
The Raptors host the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night in the first major Ontario game to see capacity capped at 50 per cent. The provincial government also announced Friday that concessions at games won't be open to help enforce mask mandates.
The NBA had more than 50 players in health and safety protocols by Friday afternoon, with that number growing.
The NBA is ramping up its testing and safety protocols to levels not seen since last season, but the Raptors were already ahead of the game, prompted by team president Masai Ujiri's positive COVID-19 test. Forward Precious Achiuwa was also in protocol due after a close contact, but is available Saturday.
"When they call me up in Brooklyn at 8 a.m. (on Tuesday) and say, ‘You’ve got to come take two tests right now.’ And then I go, ‘Uck.' And then I go down there and do it and I’m OK. Players do the same.
"(They complain about) ‘two tests before you get in the building, a test when you get in the building' for five seconds and then they realize it’s just gotta be done. Overall, the mood is good, man. This is a good-natured group for the most part."
Ontario has seen cases climb this week due partly to the rapid spread of the new Omicron variant.
Nurse admitted there is nervousness around playing amid an outbreak.
"In general, when we’re around together, once we kind of circle up to start practice, it’s all about what’s on the floor. But to say there’s no nervousness about playing? No, there was a nervousness about going to Brooklyn the other night when we knew there was an outbreak there," said Nurse. "Of course, I think like anybody who is around situations where there have been positive cases, there are thoughts going through your head. You do everything a bit sharper in the protocol."
On the plus side, the Raptors could get some reinforcements soon. OG Anunoby, who's missed 13 games with a hip injury, Khem Birch (knee swelling) and Dalano Banton, who missed one game due to a non-COVID illness, all practised Friday.
The status of Anunoby and Birch for Saturday remains questionable.
"They looked good," Nurse said after practice. "I think, of the three, OG, Khem and Precious, I thought OG and Khem were pretty good (conditioning-wise) and in rhythm somewhat and not too affected. Precious was full of energy, flying all over the place, so we shall see."
Already a top defender, Anunoby was averaging a team-best 20.1 points to go with 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 steals a game before he suffered a deep bruise in practice when he hit Achiuwa.
"It’s frustrating because you want to play," Anunoby said, describing his time on the sidelines. "Like I want to play, wish I could, but I know it could be worse and just thankful I know it’s going to heal and get better. I'm just waiting for them, support my teammates the best way I can while I’ve been out and just try to get better."
On whether he'll play Saturday, Anunoby said: "We'll see."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 17, 2021.
The Canadian Press