It would be nice if Thursday night’s win by the Utah Jazz against the visiting Minnesota Timberwolves existed in a basketball-centric vacuum, and could be viewed solely through the prism of its many merits.
A thunderous rising-through-traffic jam by Jordan Clarkson. An Olajuwon-esque turnaround fadeaway from Rudy Gobert. More sharpshooting from Bojan Bogdanovic. Steady playmaking from Mike Conley. Clutch bucket-scoring from Donovan Mitchell.
The thing is, we’re not in a vacuum. The NBA’s not even in a bubble, anymore.
And with the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus sweeping through the league — to the point that seven regulars from the Wolves were in the league’s health and safety protocols Thursday, as were seven more players from Saturday’s Christmas evening opponent, the Dallas Mavericks — it’s getting progressively more difficult for the actual basketball being played to take precedence over the ever-more-tenuous roll call.
“It almost feels like we’re getting back to two years ago when it first started, just with the amount of players that are in the protocol at the moment,” forward Joe Ingles said after Thursday morning’s shootaround.
He’s not wrong.
Among those absent for the Wolves were four starters — Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards, Patrick Beverley, and Jarred Vanderbilt. Luka Doncic is likely to be sidelined when the Mavs visit Vivint Arena on Christmas night in what was slated to be a marquee, nationally televised game.
It’ll still be nationally televised — it’s the marquee-ness that’s now in question.
Not that Mitchell is buying that particular argument.
“No, it’s Christmas. No way,” he said after the 128-116 victory over Minnesota. “This is my second Christmas game; as a kid, you grow up, it doesn’t matter who could be out there — you could be out there playing against me! I don’t care. We’re playing on Christmas. It’s a blessing to be able to play on that day. You have your family in town, [you’re] in front of a lot of people. It’s something that I grew up watching, from 11 a.m., 12 p.m. to 10 o’clock at night East Coast time. You’re staying up watching those games, you’re on Christmas break.
“So you got to go out there and put on a show and have fun. It doesn’t matter what’s going on,” he added. “Obviously, it would be nice if everybody was out there and healthy, but we control what we can control, and I’m gonna be excited to play out there. I know my teammates are. I know the Mavs are. It doesn’t matter what’s going on. It’s a special day, it’s a special game, and it’s an honor to play on that day.”
It’s an honor, and it’s special, sure. But it’s also increasingly something of a guessing game as to who will actually be available to participate.
For now, the Jazz have been among the lucky teams, the rare outfit yet to lose a player to the health and safety protocols thus far this season. But with the highly-transmissible Omicron raging, it’s beginning to feel like an inevitability that even the 100% vaccinated Jazz will feel its touch soon enough.
“I think we’re all kind of prepared for, at some point, it to creep in, because it’s everywhere,” said Conley. “And right now, it’s on all of us to be responsible and to try to practice our social distancing; we’ve got new requirements from the league in order to help with that around our locker rooms and in public. So, just trying to wear our masks and do our best to not catch it.”
Every Jazz-affiliated person who’s spoken about the lingering coronavirus pandemic threat has touted the importance of “controlling what we can control” — adhering to general safety practices as well as the league’s guidelines, wearing masks, social distancing, testing when symptomatic, et cetera, et cetera.
Problem is, there are “a lot of different variables to consider,” as coach Quin Snyder put it.
Ingles noted that he could potentially be exposed to it by virtue of his young children being in school. Plus, there are families coming together from all corners for the upcoming Christmas holiday. Then there are the risks inherent in the Jazz simply going about the business of being basketball players.
“We’ve played in front of thousands of fans every night, we get on planes, we get on buses,” Gobert pointed out. “Sometimes it’s things you can’t avoid, but you can try to reduce the chances, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
We’re now, as Ingles put it, “two years down the track, give or take,” of the coronavirus pandemic being a part of our daily lives.
Snyder, asked about the mental fatigue that players might be experiencing after having a season shut down, postponed, re-started in a bubble environment, undergoing subsequent schedule changes, playing in empty (or nearly so) arenas, being subjected to frequent testing and omnipresent questioning about their individual vaccination status, and so on, said it’s part of his job to keep tabs on if the team is in a good place.
“This is, as all of us know, unique,” Snyder said. “The more we can communicate about the situation — not that it becomes an obsession, but I think all of us understand that this is a reality, and that’s the best way to kind of ferret out some of those situations, and let guys know that it’s OK to talk about the toll that it may take on them individually or in their families, and have people in place that they can feel comfortable voicing those things to.”
And on the flip side, as Gobert succinctly put it: “We don’t want to be in a state of fear, at the end of the day.”
They also don’t want to be in a state of denial.
And so they’ll continue to say and do all the right things, and hope that their luck holds out. They, like pretty much everyone else at this point, have no real sense of whether that will be enough.
“We’re all human, and no one’s trying to catch this on purpose, or transmit or pass it on on purpose,” said Ingles. “We’ve just got to do the best we can. I don’t want to jinx anything, but so far we’ve been pretty good at doing that as an organization, so we’ve just got to keep on that trend, and see where that takes us, to a certain extent.”
Sooner rather than later, it may well be out of their hands — whether they’re doused in sanitizer or not.
“Just as much as we can, use our masks, stay safe, stay healthy, and honestly just pray it doesn’t spread throughout the team,” said Mitchell. “I think we’re all doing the right things, trying to do everything we can, but you know, it’s wild what’s happening. It’s unprecedented.”