The NBA’s Christmas Day slate seems to lack some of its usual lustre as the league grapples with the rise of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
The Golden State Warriors, led by NBA three-point king Stephen Curry, travel to Phoenix to take on the Suns in a battle of the league’s top two teams.
It looks to be the highlight of the five-game programme that will be lacking some of it’s expected star power with Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant and likely Dallas’ Luka Doncic among the dozens of NBA regulars sidelined by Covid-19 health and safety protocols.
There was a glimmer of good news on Friday, when ESPN reported Milwaukee’s two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo had cleared protocols.
But last season’s Finals MVP was reportedly still to test his conditioning before deciding if he’d play against the Boston Celtics on Saturday.
“Well this is the unknown,” Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James said of dealing not only with injury absences but with the sudden unavailability of players who test positive and must isolate from their teammates.
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“I say every year has its own challenges and this is another year where you can literally have one guy one night and the next night you won’t. You really don’t know, it’s up in the air.
“It’s literally a crapshoot every single time you take a test at this point on who is negative and who is positive. You’ve just got to see who is available and go from there.”
The Lakers host the Eastern Conference-leading Nets — who have had three games postponed as Covid-related absences left them with too few players to field a team.
– ‘So many guys out’ –
Nets coach Steve Nash said he didn’t expect Durant to be cleared to return before Saturday, although Brooklyn have been able to welcome back James Harden.
“It’s a game that both teams want to win, no matter what circumstances,” James said. “Is it going to be one of the premier games that I’m accustomed to playing on Christmas Day? No. So many guys out.
“You know this whole protocol thing has gotten a lot worse for a lot of the teams in the league right now.”
The NBA has made changes to allow teams to shore up their depleted rosters with players from the developmental G-League.
They have also discussed tweaking the return-to-play requirements for those who land in Covid protocols that might let vaccinated, asymptomatic players get back on the court more quickly.
In other Christmas Day games, the New York Knicks host the Atlanta Hawks at Madison Square Garden, the NBA champion Bucks host Boston and the Utah Jazz host the Dallas Mavericks.
The Mavs had seven players sidelined by Covid concerns in their loss to the Bucks on Thursday, when the Jazz beat a Minnesota Timberwolves team that was also missing seven regulars.
“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,” Utah forward Joe Ingles noted Thursday.
But Jazz star Donovan Mitchell said he was still looking forward to his second Christmas Day game.
“I don’t care,” he said of the depleted rosters. “We’re playing on Christmas. So you’ve got to go out there and put on a show and have fun.”
For the Warriors and Suns it’s a chance to gain an edge in a race that many see leading straight to the Western Conference finals.
The Warriors were just wishing it was happening on their home floor, after they travelled to Milwaukee last Christmas.
“I do think there should be a rule in the NBA that you shouldn’t be on the road two years in a row, just making that clear,” said Warriors coach Steve Kerr.