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Gary Washburn | On Basketball

COVID problems for Celtics, NBA teams? Get used to it

The Celtics will be without leading scorer Jayson Tatum for up to 14 days.Maddie Meyer/Getty

The NBA came away from the bubble with such a pristine record — no positive tests for players — it instantly became the model for how professional sports leagues should conduct business during the pandemic.

The league knew there would be additional difficulties in resuming a season without a bubble, with players being exposed to travel, family members, friends, and the common interactions of everyday life.

The bubble wasn’t common. Every resident was tested daily. Players weren’t allowed to have family members visit Orlando until the postseason and those members had to quarantine a week prior to arriving and were tested daily while they were there.


It’s no surprise the NBA is dealing with a plethora of COVID-19 issues and those problems have arrived in Boston for more than a brief appearance as the league postponed the Celtics’ Sunday night matchup with the Miami Heat at TD Garden.

Because of Jayson Tatum’s positive tests and contact tracing with his teammates, the Celtics were going to be limited to eight players for the contest. The Heat, however, would have been envious of such a number because they didn’t have enough players to field a team because of contact tracing.

Jayson Tatum would have been out for Sunday's game -- if it had been played.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

The league does not release the names of players who have tested positive for COVID-19. Those players are placed in a 10-14 day quarantine depending on the number and timing of subsequent negative tests.

The league has no plans to postpone the season or return to any bubble. The Heat-Celtics game is only the second game postponed because of COVID issues and the first since Dec. 23, so the NBA believes, by comparison with its professional and college sports counterparts, it has done an admirable job conducting the season under such circumstances.

What is evident is COVID-19 and the NBA’s mandates on quarantining is that teams are going to suffer on the floor. The Celtics are 7-3, tied for the best record in the Eastern Conference, but will be without Tatum until perhaps Jan. 25 and Jaylen Brown, because of contact tracing, until next weekend. They are Boston’s leading scorers.


The best the organization can hope for is it remains competitive during this stretch, try to eke out a win or two and hope it doesn’t cause too much damage to their hopes of winning the Eastern Conference. It’s just the Celtics’ turn.

In Brooklyn, superstar Kevin Durant missed a week with contact tracing protocol — returning on Sunday — while former Celtic Kyrie Irving has missed the past three games for personal reasons that are apparently linked to coronavirus concerns.

The Houston Rockets went through their COVID-19 issues when point guard John Wall missed the Rockets’ first two games because of contact tracing.

Earlier this week, Celtics forward/center Robert Williams tested positive for COVID-19 and teammates Grant Williams and Tristan Thompson are in quarantine because they rode in a car with Williams without wearing a mask.

A handful of players stuck around to work on their game after it was announced Sunday's game was postponed.Maddie Meyer/Getty

The question is whether the NBA should postpone the season but the league doesn’t believe the situation is dire enough to consider that. There hasn’t been a Miami Marlins or St. Louis Cardinals situation in baseball, in which those teams were prevented from playing for extended periods. The league will be content to postpone a game or two because it hasn’t set the second-half schedule, meaning the league will create a window for the Heat to come to Boston again.


The league also shut down the Celtics’ practice facility and it’s uncertain when it will be reopened. The club would love to get a workout in prior to Tuesday’s matchup with the Chicago Bulls, especially with a reformed starting lineup and players such as Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters, and Tacko Fall expected to get major minutes.

How will this affect the Celtics in the long term? Will Brown and Tatum benefit from their time off? Will the Celtics be bitten by any more positive COVID-19 tests for the rest of the season? We have no idea. All the Celtics and the NBA can promise is they will provide all of the guidelines and rules for the players to avoid the coronavirus as much as possible.

That’s a pretty flimsy guarantee, but the league can’t do any better unless it creates another bubble, and that’s not happening. This is what we’re going to deal with at least until the postseason.

The first business is to wish all the best to Tatum and Robert Williams. It’s easy to assume these athletes will recover seamlessly, but the virus has killed more than 350,000 people in the United States.

If they come out healthy and ready to resume basketball, they should consider themselves lucky, and at this point fans should consider themselves fortunate to have the opportunity to watch professional sports during a pandemic. Of course, we would love for the vaccine to be more widely distributed and fans to be allowed into arenas, but for now, those are illusions.


This is the NBA we have to deal with and accept, and there’s little that can be done about that.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.