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Sunday basketball notes

It’s a case of the NBA having a COVID-19 problem

The Hornets recently had five players test positive for COVID-19, including star guard LaMelo Ball.Stacy Revere/Getty

The NBA’s COVID-19 issues are steadily increasing, a development that may force the league to review its guidelines to prevent outbreaks.

A week after the Bulls were hit with a slew of cases, the Hornets had five players test positive, including star guard LaMelo Ball. The NBA will continue to mandate games be played as long as teams have at least eight healthy players, but the league is concerned.

Celtics forward Josh Richardson, who voiced opposition to vaccinations over the summer, was the latest player to be placed in protocols. The NBA does not mandate players be vaccinated, a point on which the players’ union refused to budge.

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The NBA responded by setting more stringent guidelines for unvaccinated players. Meanwhile, the league claims more than 90 percent of players are vaccinated. Apparently there have been a number of breakthrough cases because several teams are dealing with positives.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri announced in a statement he tested positive after attending a local charity event.

“[Last week the] Giants of Africa held our first in-person event since 2019,” he wrote. “It was organized in compliance with all current public health guidance — everyone who attended had to show proof of vaccination, and to wear masks when not eating or drinking. Unfortunately, after the gala, we learned of positive COVID-19 tests among our guests — and even though I am fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot, I also subsequently tested positive.

“I am now at home, observing the safety protocols by self-isolating for 10 days, monitoring for symptoms, and undergoing testing, and I encourage everyone who attended to please do the same. We don’t want to live in fear of this virus, but COVID is a persistent enemy. Together, we’ll defeat it.”

A false positive kept LeBron James out of a game against the Kings, a process over which the Lakers star criticized the league.Nikki Boertman/Associated Press

LeBron James was yanked from a game two weeks ago against the Kings, only to be told his test was a false positive. He ripped the league for its handling of his case, which included finding his own transportation from Sacramento to Los Angeles and traveling alone. He also said his family was quarantined until he received the news that he had repeatedly tested negative.

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And in case it may have slipped your mind, Nets guard Kyrie Irving has not played this season because he refuses vaccination, and the city of New York will not allow those who are unvaccinated to enter indoor sports facilities. Irving has said he will not change his mind, and he has been away from the team for the past two months.

The NBA released weekly COVID-19 testing numbers last season but has not done so this season, perhaps hoping that there would be no need, but NFL teams are also dealing with numerous cases.

Sixers center Joel Embiid missed two weeks because of COVID-19, which he said caused great discomfort. Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers added that several of his players who had COVID-19 are feeling the effects weeks later.

The NBA pulled off a bubble to complete the 2019-20 season with daily testing and a pristine environment. But with fans allowed in arenas and restrictions loosened, there is a higher risk.

There remains little indication that the Nets will see Kyrie Irving on the court any time soon.Adam Hunger/Associated Press

Even last season, fans were warned to not touch basketballs that rolled out of bounds. That is no longer the case. The league has attempted to go back to normal perhaps without understanding there is a new normal.

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Maybe the league should push back against the players’ union’s refusal to mandate vaccinations.

For Irving, his vaccination status may cause a divorce with the Nets. He is eligible for a contract extension, but it’s highly unlikely Brooklyn would make a lucrative offer if he remains out this season.

And while the Nets are the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, there are varying opinions on Irving and what his decision has meant for a team with championship aspirations. He convinced Kevin Durant to reject the Knicks and Warriors to sign with Brooklyn, and Durant has moved forward and remains one of the league’s top players.

James Harden does not share such an allegiance with Irving, and he pushed for a trade from Houston to Brooklyn because he wanted to win his first NBA title. Irving’s absence means Harden has to play more as a point guard and facilitator, and he is shooting a career-worst 40.1 percent from the field. Irving’s status has been hovering over the Nets and it doesn’t appear that will change any time soon. There was speculation that Irving was waiting for New York to loosen COVID-19 restrictions, but the city apparently has no plans for that.

NOT GOOD ENOUGH

Doncic admits poor conditioning

Luka Doncic's conditioning has affected his play this season.Darron Cummings/Associated Press

Luka Doncic is the best player from the 2018 draft, who landed in the laps of the Mavericks because the Kings instead decided to select Marvin Bagley Jr. second overall. While Doncic has become one of the best players in the world, he is breaking down at times because of a lack of conditioning.

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When the Celtics played the Mavericks in November, Doncic, who is listed at 230 pounds, looked a step slow but got by on his immense skill set. He’s good enough to dominate at his current weight, but fatigue is affecting him late in games.

Doncic admitted after a recent loss to the Nets that his conditioning is an issue. It’s bizarre because Doncic carried the Slovenian national team in the Olympics and played most of the summer. But then he reported to training camp six weeks later in subpar shape.

“I think I had a long summer, I relax a bit [after],” he said. “Not taking care [of myself], but I’ve got to do better. I took three weeks off, rested a bit. Maybe too much. I’ve got to get back on track.”

After a promising start the Mavericks have lost nine of their last 12 games, and the issue has been the offense. Dallas still has not gotten Doncic adequate offensive complements, making his life more difficult. Kristaps Porzingis is averaging 19.5 points but has missed eight games. The Mavericks’ primary offseason acquisition, Reggie Bullock, is averaging just 6 points per game and shooting 28.2 percent on 3-pointers.

“We can’t shoot straight from the 3-point line,” coach Jason Kidd said. “It’s like a broken record. We have to be better. We have to take responsibility at some point that we have to make shots. We’re doing everything by getting the ball in the paint and we’re making the extra pass. We’re just not making shots. And then transition defense, when we don’t make shots, we don’t get back [on defense].”

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The Mavericks lost Friday to their former coach, Rick Carlisle, who was essentially pushed out to make room for Kidd. In that 106-93 loss to the Pacers, Dallas was 4 for 29 from the 3-point line and scored just 13 points in the fourth quarter.

“[Friday] was a perfect case,” Kidd said. “We score, they come right back at us. That’s just effort, communication. We didn’t do a good job of that.”

The Mavericks, like the Celtics, are playing below expectations. Kidd believes perhaps it’s about more than execution.

“At practice we’re working at it, but sometimes it becomes a mental thing,” he said. “We know we have guys struggling shooting the three. So we have to stay positive and keep working at it and it will turn. There’s too many games left in the season for it to stay this way.”

When asked what the Mavericks can do to solve their shooting woes, Kidd went old school.

“I think the best answer to that question is maybe we watch the movie ‘Major League’ and get a bucket of chicken and we start chanting,” he said. “It’s hard to get wide-open looks in this league and we’re a team that creates a lot of them. I think we live with the shots that we’ve gotten and we just have to make them.”

Doncic is shooting just 32.5 percent on 3-pointers after his 1 for 8 on Friday.

ETC.

Reeve ready when Staley stepped down

Cheryl Reeve will take over Team USA from Dawn Staley after the Americans took another Olympic gold in Tokyo.Anthony Souffle/Associated Press

Dawn Staley maintained that she was done with international coaching. After Team USA won its seventh consecutive gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Staley said she was done, and she has lived up to her word.

Team USA named Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, one of Staley’s assistants in Tokyo, as its next head coach, taking over the most dominant team in history. The US women generally aren’t challenged, and despite losing an exhibition game last summer they swept to another gold.

“We have a tremendous amount of talent in the WNBA and the college ranks,” Reeve said. “I know there will be some new faces.”

Staley took over Team USA from UConn’s Geno Auriemma, the most successful women’s college coach in history. When Staley decided to step down, Reeve pushed for a professional coach to be considered. And when she was offered the job, she gladly accepted.

“It’s an opinion of someone who happens to be a pro coach,” she said. “My dad didn’t raise no dummies. I wanted to make sure I had a shot at it. I just thought it would be the case with professional players mostly, and we have some good pro coaches and I wanted to make sure we were front and center for these opportunities, and I’m appreciative.”

Staley, 51, was fairly young to step down, especially after just one Olympics, but she was sincere about walking away.

“I wanted to make sure she knew I thought she would remain coach and I would love to continue to be part of it with her,” Reeve said. “Dawn is a tremendous mentor to so many people, she has put me in this position to take the reins. Only a few people get this opportunity. The culture matches what we preach in Minnesota. The winning part is fun, but more than anything it’s how we do it.”

Team USA should be loaded again for Paris in 2024. Despite the retirements of Sue Bird (official) and Diana Taurasi (likely), Tina Charles, Britney Griner, Breanna Stewart, and Aj’a Wilson are expected to return. And there will be an influx of new candidates, led by New York Liberty star Sabrina Ionescu.

Shelf life for coaches?

It’s not often that a professional sports team pushes out a coach that just reached the finals, but the Phoenix Mercury did just that by agreeing to part ways with Sandy Brondello after eight years. Brondello was coming off a WNBA Finals loss to the Chicago Sky and led the Mercury to the title in 2014.

“My first move after taking over as general manager in 2013 was to hire Sandy Brondello as our head coach, and the basketball success we’ve achieved in that time is a credit to her, her staff, our players, and the culture she was part of building,” Jim Pitman said in a statement. “Our 2014 championship, two Finals appearances, eight playoff appearances in eight seasons, six semifinal berths, and nine single-elimination playoff wins in that time all speak to the consistently high results her leadership and signature preparation brought us. She oversaw our program with the utmost integrity, and I’m sincerely grateful for her partnership and friendship.

“At the same time, we understand that an eight-year tenure for a head coach is an exception in any professional sport, and we are confident a new voice is necessary for our team at this time. Our expectation is to compete for championships now and in the future, and the search to find the head coach who can help lead us there has already begun.”

So, the question is whether Pitman is right, is eight years long enough for a pro coach before a change is needed. The Celtics’ Brad Stevens thought so, but apparently Brondello didn’t. She wants to coach in the WNBA again soon and is a candidate for the vacant Liberty job.

Best in the West

Monty Williams and the Suns hammered the Celtics on Friday.Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

The Suns routed the Celtics Friday night without two of their best players (Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton) and continue to dominate with brilliant offense and stifling defense. Monty Williams, again a top candidate for Coach of the Year, gave his team two consecutive days off of practice this past week for the first time in his career.

“You need the talent for sure, but there are nights during the season where the style of play, the standard of play, can help you sustain when you have so many guys out,” he said. “There was a bit of a wear-down effect. I thought we were fresh [against the Celtics]. I think guys are going to ask for two days off a lot, even when there’s only one day off they might ask for two.”

The Suns used their complementary players to pound the Celtics, an embarrassment for Boston but an indication of Phoenix’s depth.

“We’ve said that a number of times. In order for us to be the team we want to be, other guys are going to have to play with a great deal of confidence,” Williams said. “Because as we saw in the playoffs a number of times, teams are going to either try to take Chris [Paul] out so he can’t initiate, they’ll blitz [Booker], they’ll trap Book when he has the ball, and guys have to be able to make plays. I think, especially when you’re winning, it feels good, but from a program standpoint and building confidence in our team, I think it’s important that guys learn how to play in those environments, because that’s what we’re going to see from good teams.”

Layups

The Lakers briefly quieted critics with their best performance of the season in last Tuesday’s over the Celtics. They received sparkling performances from LeBron James and, yes, Russell Westbrook, who has been hearing it from Lakers fans because of his uneven, turnover-prone play. Afterward, James was asked about the job status of coach Frank Vogel, who has been under fire, with the criticism increasing over the past few weeks, because of a 13-12 start despite what some observers believe is a loaded roster. James said the Lakers have good coaches and neither he nor the players are worried about the Vogel talk. It wasn’t a ringing endorsement, but it was an indication that James is not fed up with his coach. There are two candidates on the staff in case general manager Rob Pelinka decides to make a move. Former Knicks and Grizzlies coach David Fizdale is in his first season as Vogel’s assistant, replacing Jason Kidd, and Phil Handy, who worked wonders with the likes of Kyrie Irving in his time in Cleveland, would likely be OK with James if a move is made. The Lakers spend considerable time on the road over the next few weeks, so if the losses pile up a change could be made. This team was built to win a championship this season, but the Lakers aren’t close to the likes of the Warriors and Suns right now … One coach who may have saved his job is the Rockets’ Stephen Silas, whose club started out 1-16 but had won seven straight (despite the absence of lottery pick Jalen Green) before Friday night’s loss to the Bucks. The Rockets are in a rebuild but there were questions as to whether Silas was fostering progress with the young core. One move he made was removing former Celtic Daniel Theis from the starting lineup — eliminating the double-big combination Stevens tried last season with the Celtics — and allowing Christian Wood to play center full time. The Rockets play hard and are scrappy and those characteristics are going to get wins in today’s NBA. They recently beat a Kevin Durant-less Nets team after a strong effort from Josh Christopher who was the 24th overall pick by the Rockets..


Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.