Restart, but with con­di­tion­ing

How soon play­ers get into game shape will be huge fac­tor

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BY MARK ME­D­INA

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Heat seemed ea­ger to break a sweat and play full-court bas­ket­ball. Af­ter all, they had not done this for nearly four months be­cause the NBA halted the sea­son be­cause of the coro­n­avirus.

When the Heat started their first scrim­mage, though, the team’s coach­ing and med­i­cal staff soon re­al­ized they’d made a mis­take. So only three min­utes into the scrim­mage, the Heat ended it.

“Ev­ery­body was look­ing at us like, ‘That’s it?’ ” Heat coach Erik Spoel­stra re­called. “But ev­ery­body was hunched over and grab­bing their shorts.”

That scene has be­come a fa­mil­iar sight as the NBA pre­pares for its sea­son restart with­out fans Thurs­day at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Com­plex. Not only have the 22 par­tic­i­pat­ing teams fret­ted over fol­low­ing the league’s health and safety pro­to­cols dur­ing the COVID-19 pan­demic, but most also are not in game shape months af­ter the league paused March 11.

“Are we in the kind of shape we need to be in like we were in March? No,” Thun­der coach Billy Dono­van said. “It’s go­ing to take time.”

How much time will that take? The an­swer partly de­pends on the player.

The Lak­ers’ LeBron James and An­thony Davis and the Clip­pers’ Kawhi Leonard and Paul Ge­orge said they healed from var­i­ous in­juries and stayed dis­ci­plined with quar­an­tined work­outs. Nuggets cen­ter Nikola Jo­kic, Rap­tors cen­ter Marc Ga­sol and Rock­ets guard James Har­den re­ported trim­ming body fat dur­ing the hia­tus.

A hand­ful of play­ers also have missed part or all of prac­tices be­cause of pos­i­tive COVID-19 tests or undis­closed rea­sons.

But even for those who trained fre­quently dur­ing the quar­an­tine, the op­tions were lim­ited. Play­ers were con­fined to Zoom work­outs in March and April, teams opened up their fa­cil­i­ties for vol­un­tary in­di­vid­ual work­outs in May, and only a hand­ful of NBA play­ers had ac­cess to a pri­vate hoop or gym.

“We’re not go­ing to rush any guys back,” Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “The big­gest con­cern we have as an or­ga­ni­za­tion is guys sus­tain­ing some of those soft-tis­sue in­juries, which are most preva­lent when you take four months off and you get back to play­ing at a high level.”

That could take a few more weeks — de­pend­ing on a team’s place in the stand­ings.

“I an­tic­i­pate we’re go­ing to try to bring them along at a pace that we’re still us­ing these seedin games to get to where we want to be,” Lak­ers coach Frank Vo­gel said. “We’re not try­ing to force it so ev­ery­body is in mid­sea­son mode by the be­gin­ning of the seed-in games. I think those are still part of the build-up.”

Some other NBA teams do not have such a lux­ury.

“For a team like us and the sit­u­a­tion we’re in, these are the eight most im­por­tant games in a year,” Magic coach Steve Clif­ford said. “With the Clip­pers or the Lak­ers, it’s re­ally an ex­tended train­ing camp for them. De­pend­ing on where you are in the stand­ings and im­por­tance of the games, that dic­tates what pace you will move at.”

Kings coach Luke Wal­ton says he wants his team “to be as close of a peak that we can for July 31st” when it re­sumes its sea­son. The Kings have con­sulted their med­i­cal staff to de­ter­mine when to have light or heavy prac­tices or a day off com­pletely. Though the Pel­i­cans have a young ros­ter, coach Alvin Gen­try plans to ex­pand his ro­ta­tion so he doesn’t tax any of his play­ers with heavy min­utes.

Be­cause the Lak­ers an­tic­i­pate they could play through the NBA

Fi­nals in Oc­to­ber, Vo­gel spent his ini­tial prac­tices fo­cused on in­di­vid­ual work­outs and de­fen­sive slides be­fore grad­u­ally ex­pand­ing to full-court work. With the Clip­pers also deal­ing with the preap­proved ab­sences of Pa­trick Bev­er­ley, Mon­trezl Har­rell and Lou Wil­liams, coach Doc Rivers has recorded his prac­tices on Zoom for any of his miss­ing play­ers to watch.

“There’s no breaks in prac­tice, so you tend to not go as long,” Rivers said. “You feel like you don’t get half the stuff in that you want to get in. So it’s been a chal­lenge.”

Rivers is pleased that his play­ers fol­lowed his mes­sages by “win­ning the wait.” The Heat and Rap­tors had their play­ers com­plete weight check-ins a few times each week to en­sure they stayed dis­ci­plined with their train­ing and di­et­ing.

“I don’t think that’s go­ing to be as big of a con­cern as it may have been,” Trail Blaz­ers coach Terry Stotts said. “The league did a nice job with ad­just­ing the sched­ule to ac­com­mo­date for that.’’

Teams ar­rived in Or­lando, Flor­ida, be­tween July 7 and 9 and have played three scrim­mages — with real games set for Thurs­day.

“All of these guys are do­ing a great job in tak­ing care of them­selves,” Dono­van said. “The med­i­cal staff has done a great job with lay­ing out a plan in let­ting those guys un­der­stand it’s go­ing to take us some time.”

But un­like dur­ing the Heat’s first scrim­mage, they won’t be able to call off the game.

HARRY HOW/GETTY IMAGES

NBA stars Kawhi Leonard (left) and LeBron James said the four­month hia­tus gave them time to heal.

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