After losing the the Mavericks on Monday, the Portland Trail Blazers will play their second game with replacement players when they host the Utah Jazz Wednesday night (tipoff scheduled for 7 p.m. on ROOT SPORTS Plus and 620 AM) in their last home game of 2021. But the reality of the situation is that despite the importance these games have on Portland’s chances of making the postseason -- they’re currently tied for 11th in the West -- they are not able to put in anywhere close to the preparation they’d like as they struggle to limit future outbreaks.
For example, on Sunday night the team announced that Jusuf Nurkic, Robert Covington, Ben McLemore, Dennis Smith, Keljin Blevins, Trendon Watford and Cody Zeller (who was already out with a knee injury) were out for Monday’s game versus Dallas due to health and safety protocols. So with CJ McCollum still recovering from a collapsed lung, Portland would be down to eight players for Monday’s contest. To make matters worse, both head coach Chauncey Billups and assistant coach Roy Rogers tested positive as well, leaving Scott Brooks as acting head coach and the rest of the staff scrambling to take on new responsibilities.
To make up for over half the roster being unavailable, the Blazers signed three players from the G-League -- guard Jarron Cumberland, forward Cameron McGriff and guard Brandon Williams -- to 10-day Hardship Exemption contracts on Sunday, December 26. Those players were able to enter the team’s practice facility in Tualatin after returning negative COVID-19 tests, but due to enhanced protocols to limit the outbreak, the team wasn’t able to do much more than meet their new teammates.
“We had a short little get together (Sunday) night and 15 minutes (on Monday), that was about it,” said Scott Brooks. “Don’t know much about them, just know two or all three did not play in an exhibition game -- maybe one played with Charlotte exhibition -- so this is their first time putting on an NBA jersey.”
Only McGriff ended up playing rotation minutes, though with the game all but decided, both Cumberland and Williams played the last six minutes of what ended up being a 15-point loss.
“I like their competitive spirit,” said Brooks. “They’ve never even been to a training camp and now they get to play in the NBA and they scored. We don’t know how long anybody’s career is going to be but they can say they played in the NBA. There’s less than 5,000 players in NBA history, that’s a pretty cool stat, I’m proud to share it with them. I like how they came in. It’s a cool moment for them, unfortunately we didn’t win, but I thought they played hard, they played with some fight.”
While players parachuting in and playing without little preparation isn’t exactly uncommon -- for example, Carmelo Anthony joined the Trail Blazers in New Orleans day of game and started that same night -- typically the staff would spend considerable time with those new players as soon as they arrived and even more time after they got settled.
But with enhanced protocols, players and coaches have to return negative test results before they can hold practices, which means players can’t get in extra work and pushes out when practices can happen (the team usually practices between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., though players always come in earlier and stay later to get in extra work). Those protocols also make morning shootarounds impossible, meaning the team has to rely on walkthroughs at the arena a few hours before the game.
“We can make some adjustments here and there just from the rotation, see who plays better with some of our new guys or some of the guys playing extended minutes,” said Brooks. “We’re going to figure this out on the fly, we’re not going to have a lot of practice time. We can’t practice until late (Tuesday) night and then we have a game, so you don’t want to do too much but we have to do enough to get a little bit better.”
Portland’s coaching staff will have to get another new player up to speed before Wednesday’s contest after the team signed forward/center Reggie Perry, who played 26 games last season with the Nets, though he’s played for Toronto’s G-League team, Raptors 905, most recently, to push their number of available players up to 12. He was presumably available to take part in Tuesday night’s practice and will have a chance to go through the gameplan versus Utah during a pre-game walkthrough at Moda Center before playing Wednesday night.
It’s very possible that multiple players will be able to return to the court sooner rather than later with the NBA dropping the amount of time players must quarantine after positive tests from 10 days to five. But until then, they’ll continue to make the most of a bad situation.
“We know what we’re going through and we know it’s not going to be easy,” said Brooks. “We’ve just got to keep fighting. Chauncey has done a great job of instilling there’s no excuses around here. That’s part of developing, that’s part of growing up in this league.”