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Column: ‘It’s just a crazy time’: COVID taking a toll on Lakers, sports world

Lakers' Russell Westbrook (0) was able to play against Minnesota on Friday.
After producing a pair of negative tests, the Lakers’ Russell Westbrook was able to play against the Timberwolves on Friday.
(Tony Gutierrez / Associated Press)
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How quickly NBA teams get their COVID test results back has become more crucial than how rapidly they can bring the ball upcourt, and the most important data they analyze now concerns how many players, coaches and staff members are in COVID protocol and unavailable for games.

There was a sense early this season, as arenas and stadiums reopened their doors to fans, that even though COVID hadn’t disappeared, sports and life were becoming less perilous. Vaccines had become widely available. Elaborate rules had been put in place to help keep athletes and fans safe. We could eat at restaurants again. We got to exhale.

Now, we’re holding our collective breath again. The surge of the Omicron variant has pushed the world back into a state of uncertainty and is compromising the quality of competition in every sport. None of the major leagues has paused play — that’s a drastic step after two seasons of pandemic-reduced revenues — but for the hard-hit NHL, at least, taking a break doesn’t seem far off.

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The NHL has reintroduced stricter COVID-19 protocols that include daily testing and other steps in a bid to limit a growing outbreak.

The Lakers’ progress, already complicated by their status as an old team that often seems more suited to win an all-star game than a championship, has been slowed by the ups and downs of COVID’s vengeful return. Rosters change from hour to hour and minute to minute as players enter or leave the NBA’s health and safety protocols.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel started planning for Friday’s game at Minneapolis believing he’d have Malik Monk in the lineup but wouldn’t have Russell Westbrook. The opposite proved true. After taking a blissful afternoon nap, he was told rookie guard Austin Reaves had entered the protocols. Vogel’s nightmare occurred after he awoke.

“It’s just like a revolving door of what-ifs so far,” LeBron James said Friday, after the short-handed Lakers were outmuscled and outplayed by the slightly less depleted Timberwolves in a 110-92 loss at the Target Center.

The core of James, Anthony Davis and Westbrook should have been enough for the Lakers (16-14) to put together their first four-game winning streak of the season. But their defensive play, which had been improving, was ineffective against Karl-Anthony Towns, who rampaged his way to 28 points and 10 rebounds. Losing Davis briefly to a first-half ankle injury and later to a knee sprain that will keep him out at least four weeks also prevented the Lakers from getting much-needed continuity. The “next man up” philosophy is tough to sustain when you first must introduce yourself to that new next guy. “Every year has its own challenges, and this year is the COVID cases once again, positives, false positives, inconclusive. Don’t know what to make of it,” James said before the Lakers traveled to Chicago to face the Bulls on Sunday.

Vogel said the unpredictable nature of players’ health status is unlike anything he has dealt with before. “It’s just craziness. There’s chaos involved,” he said. “Like, every few hours you’re hearing a new guy is out — or in this case, a new guy is in that you thought was out. It’s just a crazy time. But we’re not letting it impact us in terms of trying to win games. No excuses, man.”

Lakers forward LeBron James questions a referee during the third quarter of the Lakers' loss to the Timberwolves on Friday.
(Bruce Kluckhohn / Associated Press)

On Friday alone the Lakers regained Westbrook (who had arrived from Dallas at midafternoon) but didn’t get Monk back, as they’d expected, because he had been cleared to travel but not to play. Losing Reaves’ three-point shooting and energy hurt. Remember the jubilant scene created when the rest of the Lakers hugged Reaves after he hit the winning three-point shot at Dallas on Wednesday? It was exhilarating for him and for them, but it might also have contributed to him entering the protocols.

With Monk, Talen Horton-Tucker, Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard out, the NBA allowed the Lakers to sign veteran guard Isaiah Thomas to a 10-day contract with a hardship exception. Thomas had 19 points in just over 21 minutes on Friday. In a unique double, there was a Chaundee Brown Jr. sighting in the first half and a Jay Huff appearance in the second half.

COVID’s impact on the Lakers has gone beyond the roster and the absence of assistant coach Phil Handy: Radio analyst Mychal Thompson tested positive and said in a tweet on Friday he was feeling terrible, and TV play-by-play voice Bill MacDonald missed the game at Dallas because of a positive test. MacDonald had a subsequent negative test and could rejoin the Lakers in Chicago if he produces a second negative result.

That’s if Sunday’s game takes place. The Bulls’ previous two games and team activities were canceled last week after 10 players entered the protocols. The Bulls were cleared to practice on Saturday but still had seven players in protocol, including Zach LaVine. DeMar DeRozan’s return to active status might get them to the minimum of eight available players, but how fair is that to them or to fans who are paying to see what will be a glorified G-League game?

COVID clearly isn’t finished with the sports world, or the world as a whole. Unvaccinated Brooklyn Net Kyrie Irving entered the protocols on Saturday, as did teammate Kevin Durant. The Big Three of Irving, Durant, and James Harden are reunited — in protocol. College basketball games are widely being postponed or, for UCLA’s men’s and women’s teams, canceled entirely. Even the NFL relaxed its the-show-must-go-on stance and postponed three games this weekend, including moving the Rams-Seahawks game to Tuesday.

Only unvaccinated players and those experiencing possible symptoms of COVID-19 will be tested under the NFL’s revised protocols.

The NHL schedule has been shredded by the postponement of more than 20 games. About 30 Calgary Flames players and staff members have been in protocol and the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday had 16 healthy skaters, two short of normal. On Saturday the NHL said the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators will be shut down at least through Dec. 26. Nine Bruins players were in protocol as of Saturday afternoon. Kings backup goaltender Cal Petersen on Saturday joined teammate Drew Doughty in protocols.

Health authorities in Canada ordered the Montreal Canadiens to close the Bell Centre to fans last week. Next week, the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators and Vancouver Canucks will play to 50% of capacity but no food or drinks will be sold at games involving the Senators or Maple Leafs (and their NBA co-tenants, the Raptors). The NHL and NHL Players’ Assn. agreed to increase testing and revert to tough measures from the last two seasons, recommending players avoid restaurants and bars that are open to the public, skip holiday parties, autograph sessions and charity events and “reduce their interactions with the community as much as possible.” Shutting down is the next logical step.

Will the NBA take a break? “I’m not sure,” Westbrook said.

That’s the problem. We’re back to a world of uncertainty, with all the physical and mental toll that will bring. Sports are supposed to be fun and games, but the “fun” part is fading fast.


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