After dodging COVID-19 for months, the Raptors are feeling full force of pandemic

·4 min read

The Toronto Raptors had largely dodged COVID-19 for the first half of an NBA season reeling from the global pandemic.

But the Raptors are feeling the full force of it now, preparing to host the Detroit Pistons with a skeleton roster and coaching staff.

Starters Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby, plus Malachi Flynn and Patrick McCaw have all been ruled out of Toronto's rescheduled game Wednesday against visiting Detroit, along with head coach Nick Nurse and most of his coaching staff.

Asked what he's learned from the team's first major brush with the virus, GM Bobby Webster said: "That you don't ever want to go through it again.

"It’s what you can imagine," Webster said in a Zoom call with media on Tuesday night. "It's the emotional stress of having colleagues that potentially, obviously, can be sick. The enormous amount of stress everyone feels, everyone's walking a bit on eggshells here in the locker room and you can't necessarily be as friendly . . .

"The basketball will go on, we'll play the games, but just to maintain everybody’s belonging and familiarity is really important."

Assistant coach Sergio Scariolo, who guided Toronto to a 122-111 win over Houston on Friday, will act as head coach again Wednesday.

Webster said players were cleared to do some individual work on the court Tuesday.

The big takeaway, he said, was that the team's had "multiple days of no new cases."

"It's been a tough couple of days, to get to here and be able to practise, we had to clear a number of hurdles," Webster said.

Webster believes the five players out Wednesday will still be unavailable for Thursday's game in Boston. Jalen Harris and recently-signed big man Donta Hall joined the team from its G League affiliate, Raptors 905.

Scariolo said he'll likely play De'Andre Bembry and Harris at point guard along with Kyle Lowry.

The Italian, who coached Spain to the 2019 World Cup title, said there was a definite mood of concern around the players who are cleared to play.

“Before practice we were always wondering how our buddies were doing — at home, and everybody is in touch with almost everybody," he said. "(But) at this point the ones that are left have to focus on the basketball task and leave everything that happened out of our gym, at least for that hour, hour and a half, and (Wednesday) in those three hours.

"Even work harder to try to do our best for the guys who will not be able to be with us.”

The game was originally slated for Tuesday at Tampa's Amalie Arena — the Raptors' home this season due to Canada's border restrictions and COVID-19 health protocols in Ontario — but was postponed due to what the league said was "positive test results and ongoing contact tracing within the Raptors organization." Sunday's game against the Chicago Bulls was also postponed.

The Pistons plane was delayed more than two hours leaving Detroit as the Raptors awaited the green light from the NBA.

Toronto had been one of just four remaining teams in the league that hadn't had a game postponed until Sunday's game against visiting Chicago.

The league has now had 31 games scrapped due to too few healthy players. There was a sense of not if but when it would hit the Raptors, particularly making their homes in Florida, a COVID-19 hotspot.

Assistants Adrian Griffin, Jama Mahlalela and Jon Goodwillie are all still sidelined under health and safety protocols, while Webster said one other assistant who coached Friday is now unavailable. He didn't reveal who, but it would be either Jim Sann, Mark Tyndale, or Jamaal Magloire.

Webster said keeping the team's spirits up has been a priority.

"It's difficult, you can't really see people, right? So a lot of it is done via Zoom, we held an all-staff Zoom (Tuesday) just to check in on people," he said. "Some of it's really as basic as just seeing everyone's face and having some laughs and doing that.

"Nothing super complicated, nothing super psychological, just actually being there for people and having them know whether they're in quarantine or they're not in quarantine that they're still part of the team."

The Raptors at least have some time off coming up. Boston is their last game before the NBA all-star break.

Toronto tips off the second half of the season March 11 against the visiting Atlanta Hawks.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press