ATLANTA — You had to know something COVID-19 related would impact Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game.
It has impacted the first half of the season, with games being postponed, and players, coaches, and executives being placed in the league’s health and safety protocols. And the 76ers have been one of the teams impacted the most.
They still are.
Sixers All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons did not play in Sunday night’s All-Star Game due to contact tracing. Before arriving in Atlanta, they were exposed to a Philadelphia-area barber who has tested positive for COVID. They have not been in contact with people here in Atlanta due to the league’s health and safety protocols. Simmons and Embiid have both tested negative and were back in the Philadelphia area while the All-Star Game was being played.
Team LeBron defeated Team Durant, 170-150, at the State Farm Arena. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo led all scorers with 35 points en route to being named game MVP. He made all 16 of his shots for Team LeBron. Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard, also a member of Team LeBron, added 32 points.
Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal paced Team Durant with 26 points.
“It is extremely unfortunate and, from what I’ve heard, they did everything right,” Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine, who played for Team Durant, said of Simmons and Embiid. “They had close contact with their barber and the barber was getting tested daily. And he just popped up as a positive.
“It’s not like they’re trying to hide or they were doing something wrong, they did everything right and they still got at the wrong place at the wrong time. Extremely unfortunate. It’s sad, but I think this is the time that we live in right now; you just can’t be too safe.”
Embiid was scheduled to start at center for Team Durant, marking his fourth straight All-Star start. Simmons, on Team LeBron, was scheduled to make his third consecutive reserve appearance. The Sixers’ coaching staff guided Team Durant as scheduled. The staff wasn’t exposed to the barber.
“Well, I think it’s, it’s very unfortunate that Joel and Ben won’t be able to play on our game tonight,” said Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James, the captain of Team LeBron. “Obviously, they are two worthy All-Stars and this means a lot to all of us even no matter how you feel about having to be here.”
James had been critical of the league’s decision to hold an All-Star Game during a pandemic. The 17-time All Star said he has “zero energy and zero excitement about an All-Star Game this year.”
Los Angeles Clippers All-Stars Kawhi Leonard and guard Paul George, Antetokounmpo, and Sacramento Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox all found fault with the logic behind having an All-Star Game because of safety concerns and the wear and tear during what is already a compressed season.
On Sunday, James didn’t back away from his previous comments.
“Now for me, it’s still the same for me,” James said. “Obviously I love our league and I love playing the game of basketball at the highest level and doing what I love to do. But I just think under these circumstances that what we’re still going through with the pandemic and everything with the season, I just thought we could have looked at it a little bit differently, but that’s out of my hands.”
“I only can control what I can control. And I’m here representing Team LeBron. Obviously, something like that happening [with Simmons and Embiid] is something that we all thought could possibly happen.”
He hates that the Sixers standouts were unable to play.
“So, best wishes to them obviously even though they’re not the ones who tested positive but with the contact tracing all that mess stuff,” James said. “But we are here.”
Tobias Harris, Shake Milton, and Matisse Thybulle were sidelined six days due to contact tracing when Sixers teammate Seth Curry received a positive test result on Jan. 7.
Sixers coach Doc Rivers was unaware of a return-to-play timeline for Simmons and Embiid while addressing the media Sunday morning. The team opens the second half of its season on the road against the Chicago Bulls on Thursday.
Rivers said he was originally notified of the news late Saturday night. Following Sunday’s game, Rivers said there’s a relief that players continue to test negative.
“Now we need some more good news where it’s five days,” he said. “It’s five days [of testing negative and] I think we are in the clear. But I think anything longer, I think they’ll miss some games.”
The coach thinks the five days started on Saturday. If so, they would be available to play against the Bulls on Thursday with five straight days of negative tests. The Sixers’ following game is Friday at the Washington Wizards.
“We start out on the road with back-to-back games with one practice,” Rivers said. “You know, that’s a challenge in itself, right? Then you know, obviously not having those guys , that’s a lot of points, our two best defenders ...
“But listen, we would show up and try to win both games. I can tell you that.”
The coach was asked how disappointed he was for Simmons and Embiid to not get an opportunity to play in the game.
“I would feel more for them [if] they have COVID,” Rivers said. “You know what I’m saying? They get to make the team still. They’re on the team.
“And so not playing, obviously being their coach, I jokingly told them [before the contact tracing], I jokingly told them, I’m playing them each 30 seconds, now I only had one of them.”
He also joked about playing their Eastern Conference competitors 47 minutes as a way to tire them out.
“But listen, you want to be able to play,” Rivers said. “You want to be in the jersey. The fact that they can’t be in there is a bummer for them. But more importantly, obviously, is their health.”
Sixers general manager Elton Brand and team president of basketball operations Daryl Morey talked to the team following Wednesday’s victory over the Utah Jazz about being safe during the All-Star break. The league sent a memo stating clubs and restaurants were off limits. They also told the players to stay home if they can.
Rivers said he’s been surprised and proud of his players for taking the necessary precautions.
“They’ve done great staying out of that stuff, for the most part,” he said. “Let’s hope that they can all do it over this break because the last thing we need is an outbreak to start the second half.
“I mean, it looks like we may be having one as a team. So I’m already concerned.”
Tyrese Maxey and Mike Scott both tested positive COVID before the start of training camp. Curry and Vincent Poirier both missed time during the first half of the season after testing positive. Morey spent time away from the team due to non-team-related contact tracing.
Curry’s positive test forced the team to quarantine and go through contact tracing in a New York hotel after their road game against the Brooklyn Nets.
The Sixers had a game at Oklahoma City postponed 90 minutes before tip-off due to contact tracing. The tracing stemmed from the Sixers’ road game the night before against the Memphis Grizzlies. Grizzlies center Jonas Valanciunas, who played against the Sixers, received a positive test.