After Months Of Social Distancing, Trail Blazers Prepare To Return To Contact Practice

by Casey Holdahl
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Almost exactly four months after their season was abruptly halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trail Blazers are finally returning to practice. 

After taking the cross-country flight from Portland to Orlando on Thursday and then spending the next 36 to 48 hours under strict quarantine at their hotel on the Walt Disney World campus, the Trail Blazers will hold Saturday afternoon, their first since March, as they prepare for their eight-game restart schedule. 

“I'm really looking forward to being a part of it, to be honest,” said Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts of the restart in Orlando. “I think the league is doing something that's obviously never been done and to be a part of that, I think we're all really hopeful that that we can pull it off. But there's a little bit of anticipation, maybe a little bit of anxiety, but I think overall, I’m really glad that that we're going to be a part of it.”

The team will start off by holding daily practices in Orlando before moving on to scrimmages versus the Pacers, Raptors and Thunder scheduled for July 23, 26 and 28, respectively. After that, they begin their eight-game schedule by facing the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that leads the Trail Blazers for the eight-seed by four games, in arguably their most important contest of the restart on July 31.

“We don’t have the luxury of not being focused,” said Stotts. “We play Memphis to start with, we all know that, so we don’t have a luxury of not being focused and not being ready to play.”

Given their record, restart schedule and the fact they’ll be integrating Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins back into the lineup, the Blazers will have quite a bit do address in practice, something Stotts and his coaching staff have already considered. 

“We’ve had coaches meetings about how we want to develop our practices,” said Stotts. “How much to do early, how much to do late, how much to alternate hard practices. We’re going to change some defensive concepts with the addition of Nurk and Zach, so there will be a little more teaching some concepts defensively. The contact will work itself out and the good thing is we’ve got three weeks of practice to build up and I think the league did a really good job of using these two weeks, from a COVID standpoint and testing, and then having the three weeks of practice to get ready for our games.”

While players have been able to go through solo workouts with assistance from the coaching staff for roughly the last two months, no contact has been allowed since the NBA suspended the season on March 11. Given that, Saturday’s practice constitutes the first time player will have officially participated in anything other than “one-on-none” workouts in 123 days. 

“It’s something, when you talk about contact, we’ve got to get out and play, there’s no question,” said Stotts. “But we’ve got to make sure that we don’t fall into a trap of trying to do too much, too early.”

With the NBA imposing strict limits on practice time -- players will not be able to linger after practice to shoot shots and the bull, something that is common in practices under normal conditions -- Stotts and his staff have already done advance work to make sure every minute is properly accounted for. 

“We’ve mapped out our practice, I think it’ll be good to get them out and play,” said Stotts. “We’ll do some teaching. If the quarantine is over early enough, I’d like to have a meeting in the afternoon at the hotel and go over some video of some of the things we’ve been working on. I think we have to kind of wait and see, but we’ve mapped out our first three practices.”

Despite the team observing social distancing since the shutdown, Stotts said he wasn’t concerned about players being reluctant to participate in contact drills and scrimmages. One might think the physical contact that is part and parcel of playing NBA basketball might be bit of a shock after avoiding even high fives and hugs for the last four months, but Stotts said the time the team has spent together at the practice facility, even at a distance, makes returning to contact practice of little concern.

“We haven’t been that isolated in that, for the last two months, we’ve been at the practice facility, we’ve seen each other, so we haven’t been isolated where we’re not talking to people,” said Stotts. “The only contact we’re missing is on the court.”

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