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After last month’s outbreak, Sixers now watch as NBA deals with latest COVID-19 wave

As of Thursday night, nearly 70 players league-wide had been put in health and safety protocols this season, including 52 in December.

Joel Embiid of the Sixers raises his arma to the crowd late in their victory over the Warriors at the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 11, 2021.
Joel Embiid of the Sixers raises his arma to the crowd late in their victory over the Warriors at the Wells Fargo Center on Dec. 11, 2021.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

NEW YORK — The number of Twitter notifications peppering Joel Embiid’s cellphone recently have been comparable to those of draft night, the star big man said.

Except the reason for the constant news-breaking is grim, not celebratory.

The Sixers were the first NBA team to experience a major COVID-19 outbreak this season, when four players including Embiid were in health and safety protocols from Nov. 1 until Thanksgiving. Now, those players are watching as the virus’ wave takes hold across the league.

“At this point, it’s kind of turned into a bit of a joke,” third-year wing Matisse Thybulle added. “You just see Woj [ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski] and almost every other tweet, it’s another player in [protocols]. Yeah, it’s kind of frightening.”

As of Thursday night, nearly 70 players league-wide had been put in health and safety protocols this season, including 52 in December. That growing number has overshadowed this week’s games, including Philly’s 114-105 loss in Brooklyn to a Nets team without seven players, including superstar James Harden.

Philly played for a second consecutive game without reserve forward Georges Niang, who entered protocols before Wednesday’s home loss to Miami, but so far have avoided more spread within the team.

The sharp upswing in cases has prompted the NBA and Players Association to re-introduce daily testing and increased mask-wearing around the Christmas holiday, when more gathering is expected. Still, Embiid on Thursday expressed his displeasure with how the virus has been managed this season.

“We all got to protect each other,” said Embiid, who experienced significant symptoms during his virus bout. “Whether it’s wearing a mask, making sure, whatever you do outside of basketball, that you think about your teammate or their family or your own family. It does suck.

“From the beginning, even when it hit us, I was mad because I thought last year there [were] great precautions in place. And this year, it was just all over the place. I just thought it was unprofessional, and that’s where we are now.”

» READ MORE: Sixers, Doc Rivers are looking for preventative measures to combat COVID-19

The NBA represents a microcosm of society and a unique workplace environment with constant close contact. After the league’s March 2020 shutdown signaled COVID-19′s seriousness to this country and the world, this is now the third season significantly impacted by the pandemic.

The recent surge has reverberated elsewhere in the sports, entertainment and social-gathering world.

Across the border, the Flyers played the Canadiens in an arena without fans because of an uptick in cases in Montreal. The NFL is trying to complete its regular season despite a slew of new cases, most notably in Cleveland, where quarterback Baker Mayfield and coach Kevin Stefanski have tested positive.

In the same city where the Sixers played Thursday, at least six Broadway shows — another close-contact, in-person setting — canceled that day’s performances because of positive tests within casts and crews.

Lakers All-Star Russell Westbrook and Kings point guard D’Aaron Fox were among the players who went into protocols Thursday. Earlier this week, the NBA postponed two Chicago Bulls games because 10 players, including stars DeMar DeRozan and Zach LaVine, had tested positive. Two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo joined Harden in protocols Tuesday. And the list of players does not include head coaches Rick Carlisle of the Pacers and Alvin Gentry of the Kings, along with Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri.

For a league that is 97% vaccinated, the vast majority of the positive tests are breakthrough cases.

The Sixers’ outbreak started on Nov. 1, when standout forward Tobias Harris tested positive about an hour before a home game against Portland. Reserve guard Isaiah Joe and Thybulle joined soon after. Then, Embiid tested positive on Nov. 8. Harris, like Embiid, experienced considerable symptoms, and believes aftereffects have lingered for weeks.

The Sixers went 6-7 during that depleted three-week period, derailing the momentum from an 8-2 start. So when Niang entered protocols Wednesday, coach Doc Rivers acknowledged that “your first thought” is bracing for another outbreak.

As a result, the coach said the Sixers are considering implementing stricter protocols within their own organization that could be in line with the NBA’s from last season, when players and staff were restricted in their movement outside the team’s facility and arena in addition to more frequent testing and regular mask-wearing.

Rivers said he has also fielded multiple calls during the past week from fellow NBA coaches asking for advice on how to try to prevent or manage spread within a team. But the coach could offer no antidote. Only a chuckle that carried a tone of sarcasm and helplessness.

“They asked me what [were] my thoughts,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘There are no thoughts.’ … Everyone asks, ‘Any way you think we can avoid it?’ and I say, ‘Not that I know of.’ But we’ll see. We have to do something because, at this rate, I’m scared to turn on ESPN right now. Just more guys are out.”

Other than Niang’s recent absence — which is an asymptomatic-to-mild case, according to Rivers — the Sixers have fared relatively well in recent weeks. At least, compared with their opponents. Last week, they faced a Hornets team with multiple players, including star LaMelo Ball, in protocols. The rash of unavailable Nets put them just above the limit of available players before games are postponed.

“Is it better to be over the threshold and to not be playing until you have a healthy roster?” coach Steve Nash said Thursday. “Or is it better to have enough to play, but to be shorthanded, and the burden and the toll that takes on these guys and knowing that you’re going to have guys coming back who haven’t been able to practice or play basketball? It is definitely tricky to navigate.”

» READ MORE: Sixers’ lack of sustained competitiveness is on display in 114-105 loss to undermanned Brooklyn Nets

Sixers guard Seth Curry, who had the virus last year and felt lingering effects for much of the season, said, “You kind of knew everybody was going to go through [COVID struggles] at one point or another” in 2021-22. He is also encouraged that most players who have tested positive recently have not gotten seriously ill, and feels safer because he is vaccinated.

“I’ve done everything to take care of myself, as far as getting the shots and listening to the protocols,” Curry said. “… I’m not worried at all. From what I’ve seen, if you get the shots, even if you get [the virus], you shouldn’t get too sick.”

Embiid, meanwhile, reminded the league’s players to protect one another. It is hoped that will diminish the constant Twitter notifications popping into his cellphone.

“Especially after my experience,” Embiid said, “all I can wish is that all those guys, they don’t have any symptoms and they feel good. Because it wasn’t a good time for me.”