TORONTO – In the midst of a truly hellish week, and playing without five players – including three key starters – and seven members of their coaching staff, the Toronto Raptors didn’t look like a team that had basketball on the brain when they finally returned to the court on Wednesday, and who could blame them?
After multiple positive COVID-19 test results within the organization, days of extensive contact tracing and quarantining, and two postponed games, it shouldn’t be hard to cut them some slack.
In a contest that was initially scheduled for the night before, the Raptors fell to the Detroit Pistons, 129-105, at Tampa’s Amalie Arena. They were missing Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Patrick McCaw and Malachi Flynn, as well as head coach Nick Nurse and six of his assistants – all of whom are away from the team because of the league’s health and safety protocols.
Even undermanned, they weren’t overmatched, or at least they shouldn’t have been – the Pistons came in with the worst record in the Eastern Conference and were also missing several rotation pieces, including their best player, Jerian Grant. However, with only 12 active bodies – including two that were recently recalled from the G League – and just three coaches left on the bench, they were thoroughly outplayed.
Although their three best available players – Kyle Lowry, Norman Powell and Chris Boucher – combined for 75 points, or 71 per cent of the team’s total offence, on 24-of-42 shooting, the shorthanded Raptors got just 30 points (on 10-of-35 shooting) from everybody else, and most of that came in garbage time.
“This is the first time we’ve had to deal with [positive tests and postponements], so now it’s kind of like we’re trying to figure out how to manoeuvre and navigate it,” Lowry said afterwards. “It’s a little bit difficult. It’s unfortunate it happened and whatever happens we just got to make sure we compete a little bit better on the basketball floor.”
For the second time in less than a week, it begged the question: should they have been playing at all?
The team is limited in terms of the details it can release, due to privacy reasons, but given the information that is available, here’s an approximate timeline of events.
The Raptors did not hold a formal practice following back-to-back games – losses to Philadelphia and Miami – earlier in the week. At some point in the late afternoon, it’s believed that one of Toronto’s coaches tested positive for COVID-19. Several other members of the staff, including all of the team’s front-of-the-bench coaches, were deemed to be close contacts of that individual and told to quarantine, in accordance with the league’s health and safety protocols.
With Nurse and five of his assistants in the protocols and ruled out for that evening’s game against Houston, Sergio Scariolo was named acting head coach. His availability was a fortunate coincidence. Scariolo had been away from the team, coaching Spain in a couple of FIBA qualifying games in Poland. After returning to the United States earlier in the week, he cleared quarantine Friday morning. He was one of just four coaches on the bench in the 122-111 win over the Rockets. Siakam was a late scratch after returning an inconclusive test before the game, but everybody else was available that night.
At that point, the Raptors were one of just four teams in the NBA that had not missed a game due to postponement this season. Rightly or wrongly, the league felt comfortable going forward with the contest because enough players had tested negative multiple times throughout the day.
Presumably, sometime between when Friday’s game ended and Sunday morning, at least one other member of the team – likely a player, or players – tested positive, triggering contact tracing throughout the organization.
On Sunday morning, the league announced that the game between the Raptors and the Chicago Bulls – initially scheduled for 7:00 p.m. that evening – was postponed. Due to positive test results and ongoing contact tracing within the organization, the team would not have the minimum required eight players available. All players, coaches and staff were asked to quarantine at their respective homes in Tampa, leaving only to undergo testing a couple times per day.
Test results revealed no new positive cases. Some players who continued to test negative and were not subject to contact tracing went through individual workouts at the team’s practice facility. Later, it was announced that Tuesday’s game against Detroit was also postponed but would be tentatively rescheduled for Wednesday night, pending test results.
After going multiple days without a new case, the Raptors were cleared to hold an evening practice and given the green light to go ahead with Wednesday’s rescheduled game. In addition to Siakam, four other players (VanVleet, Anunoby, McCaw and Flynn) and one more coach (Jim Sann, who was on the bench for Friday’s game) entered the protocols.
“In that situation, whatever happens, if you have [the virus], you have to quarantine, be safe, be smart,” Lowry said. “Of course you’re anxious just because they’re your brothers, they’re your friends first and foremost, and you want to make sure they’re healthy. Whatever it is, if they’re in contact tracing, you just want to make sure you talk to them and say, hey, how you feeling? Just check on them on an every day basis, just make sure their mind is strong.”
Earlier in the week, it was looking like the Raptors may get shut down until the second half of the season, which begins on March 11. Instead, with Wednesday’s rescheduled game and Thursday’s previously scheduled contest in Boston, they’ll play a difficult back-to-back without a third of their roster and most of the coaching staff prior to the upcoming all-star weekend – a tough break for a team in desperate need of some time off.
Ultimately, the NBA is in charge of making that call, and the decision to go forward with this week’s games isn’t entirely surprisingly, given the precedent that the league has set throughout this unusual campaign. Although 35 games have already been postponed, 31 of them due to COVID-19, it’s generally been a last resort. For the most part, if a team has been able to dress at least eight players, the expectation is that they take the court, regardless of which players they’re missing or what they’ve had to endure.
“I don’t think we should [play], but it’s not for me to express that,” 76ers coach Doc Rivers said prior to his team’s January 9 loss to Denver, a game in which Philadelphia used just seven players and was forced to dress an eighth who was injured, with nine guys unavailable (five because of the health and safety protocols).
The obvious benefit of playing these games now is you don’t have to make them up in an already jam-packed second half of the season. Following the break, the Raptors are scheduled to play 35 games in 67 days – one of the lighter remaining slates in the league – and will only have to make up the postponed contest against Chicago. Still, if that’s the biggest reason for squeezing games in this week, it’s not going to sit well with a lot of people.
Even after all these months, it’s still unclear why some players are subject to contact tracing and some are not. If the Raptors didn’t have enough players available to play on Sunday, as a result of contact tracing, how is it that they have enough to play now, when most players in contact tracing have generally been given precautionary seven-day quarantines this season? Presumably, some players were not deemed to be close contacts of the individuals who tested positive, but what is considered a close contact? Does sharing the court or a locker room with somebody who has the virus make them a close contact? If not, shouldn’t it?
The reality is, we’re all still learning about the virus, and the league is no different. The protocols, which started out as a 134-page manual ahead of a training camp, have expanded throughout the season, as restrictions on players and staff – where they’re allowed to go and with whom – have tightened significantly.
They’re trying to keep the season moving, while balancing a couple of priorities – health and safety, as well as the financial implications of missing games – that don’t always align. The Raptors get it, even as they find themselves in the middle of that tug of war.
“That’s the business of our league,” said Lowry. “We had guys that were tested negative and that were not in contact tracing. Health and safety is first and foremost, and the league has done a good job. We continue to learn about the virus and learn about what we can do and how we stay safe. That’s our business, we go out and do our job and that’s that.”