Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders used caution in recent days when discussing the havoc COVID-19 was wreaking on the NBA season.
Sure, the virus had yet to majorly impact Minnesota’s schedule, but that could change at the drop of a hat.
“You can feel safe at times, but you also can’t let your guard down,” Saunders said. “We try to continue to reassure these guys that that is the mindset that we have to have, because like anything, things can change drastically one way or another very quickly.”
Such was the case for Minnesota. Two days after the Wolves played Memphis at near full strength — with only Jake Layman out because of a personal reason — Friday’s game against the Grizzlies was postponed. The postponement was announced just two hours before the game was scheduled to tip at Target Center.
“Because of ongoing contact tracing within the Timberwolves,” the league announced, “the team does not have the league-required eight available players to proceed with tonight’s game against the Grizzlies.”
Minnesota announced Thursday the team would be without Juancho Hernangomez and Ricky Rubio on Friday in accordance with health and safety protocols. The Athletic reported Hernangomez was entering isolation and would be out for 10 days. On Friday, Timberwolves center Karl-Anthony Towns — whose lost so many loved ones to the virus this year — announced he had tested positive for COVID-19.
Rubio announced back in July that he’d contracted the virus, though it’s well documented by now that you can do so more than once.
Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas said Friday the Wolves have had two players test positive and one player identified as a close contact. The rest of the team, Rosas said, continues to test negative for the virus.
Rosas said the team doesn’t have enough evidence to know if the two positive cases are connected, but he said the team feels like “it’s a pretty isolated, protected situation with those exposures, fortunately.”
But with Towns testing positive prior to Friday’s game, more contact tracing needs to be done and negative tests recorded before Minnesota can re-take the floor. The Wolves are scheduled to play again Monday afternoon in Atlanta.
“We’ve been very vigilant in the contact tracing. We’ve made sure our players and our staff are in the safest environment possible as we go through this,” Rosas said. “But it’s a process, as we all know it takes time. Hopefully this is the worst of it. But it’s not easy for anybody. For us or the other teams that are involved.”
Friday’s postponement is nothing new across the league. It was the 13th game this season to be postponed for “health and safety reasons,” though the NBA’s policy is not to name individual COVID-19 cases. Two other games scheduled for Friday were also postponed — Washington’s game at Detroit and Golden State’s game at Phoenix.
Because of the influx of cases that have led to forced postponements, the NBA ramped up its virus protocols this week, limiting the amount of outside interaction team personnel can have with others with whom they don’t share a home.
But heavy restrictions are not a cure-all for virus containment. Likely the only way to truly lock it out of NBA locker rooms is to go into a bubble like the league did in Orlando, Fla., this summer to play out the conclusion of the 2019-20 season. There is no sign of that coming anytime soon for this year, so it’s likely more postponements will come as teams battle waves of infections and subsequent contact tracings.
“You can do everything right and then your significant other can go to the grocery store and get it, and you sleep in the (same) bed and get it,” Timberwolves forward Ed Davis said this week. “It’s just like a weird thing because when a guy gets it, some people get mad or they’re angry at the person, but they could’ve been doing all the right things. You’ve got some people being irresponsible. It’s just one of those things if someone gets it, just try to protect yourself and protect your family as much as possible. But like I said, sometimes you just can’t avoid it, it just happens.”
All teams can do is follow protocols closely and hope for the best.
“We’ve got to make sure we don’t let our guards down and mask wearing is prevalent and diligence is all around us when we are focusing on playing a game, but also trying to stay safe, too,” Saunders said this week. “We need to really stay true to these protocols.”
Because, as Rosas noted, “the virus is powerful and it’s creative.”
“Basketball is a microcosm of society right now,” Rosas said. “We’re not the only ones dealing with this from the NBA world to the real world. It’s affecting lives and families everywhere.”
As more and more games are postponed and teams are affected, it’s fair to wonder if the NBA should take a brief pause to get the virus under control, at least within the league. Should basketball continue to be played?
“One of our focuses has been to try to move forward as an organization in our market to motivate our fans and to help people know that progress is getting better,” Rosas said. “But with progress, there’s challenges. Today is a very challenging day. I wish I had the answer to that, but the only thing that we can control is what we can control.
“I really feel like we’re doing the right things, Rosas added. “Exposure from this virus comes at different points. We had been very safe for the most part in terms of not having any positive tests. Unfortunately, when it happens like this, it’s unfortunate, and you don’t want anybody to get it, let alone the players and the individuals who have gotten it in our organization. But we’re fighters, man. We’re going to get through this together. We’re in this together and we’ll do the best we can with what we have.”