Rushed start to season taking a toll on Knicks, NBA

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The virus is at the forefront of everyone’s attention no matter what: life, school, work. For all the cynicism and skepticism that has accompanied sports’ reintegration into our lives the past couple of months, one thing is certain: the leagues take their COVID-19 protocols seriously. They enforce them fervently. And should.

But it’s a funny thing, too.

In the same way the presence of the coronavirus hasn’t eliminated all the other things that litter our lives — the common head cold hasn’t vanished, after all, and neither have sinus infections, or stomach bugs, or bronchitis; they’re all with us — sports isn’t solely reliant on its athletes remaining virus-free to stay viable.

Sports are still so often prone to knees and ankles and hamstrings and quads. And the fact is, a week into the NBA season, it is clear that the shortened preseason has probably helped stack injured lists like wood, has kept a lot of players in street clothes. There’s a reason why NBA camps usually last for at least a month: even the world’s greatest athletes need that long, at least, to prepare for the grind.

It isn’t only the Knicks, of course, though they went into Tuesday night’s opener of a four-game road trip at Cleveland missing both of their first-round draft picks, Obi Toppin and Immanuel Quickley; their most impactful newcomer, Alec Burks; and two members of their point-guard club, Austin Rivers and Dennis Smith Jr.

The Cavs were also missing their first-round pick (Isaac Okoro). And, of course, neither of these things necessarily are related to the shortened camps, but on the same day the Nets found out they lost Spencer Dinwiddie for the year with a torn-up knee, Memphis lost prized point guard Ja Morant when he went down with an ugly ankle injury.

There are others. Many others.

“Usually at the start of the season you look at the entire month as a training camp,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said 90 minutes before game time. “It’s shortened coming in and you don’t know how guys will react when there’s been such a long layoff. Even if you’re diligent staying in condition it’s a lot different than playing, there’s so much contact, so much physicality.”

Cavaliers coach J.B. Bickerstaff agreed, saying that while it’s especially hard for rookies to make the adjustment no matter how much they think they’re prepared for the grind that awaits them at the next level, even vets are susceptible to such a profound change in routine.

“It’s not just the rookies,” Bickerstaff said. “Even the vets who were out a long time. The injury bug is there. The small injuries of rolling an ankle or stepping on someone’s foot, nobody can control. But I would say it’s how much you were able to play? Some of those draft kids didn’t get a chance to play a lot of basketball. They did a lot of individual workouts. But they didn’t get a chance to play much.

“There’s a lot of banging. How many of those guys were playing defense over the last nine months? Have they been in a defensive stance those last nine months? Those are the things your body has to get used to. It’s going to have an impact for sure.”

And Thibodeau says that even the subtle difference between those who were able to stay in prime shape and those a slight step below is noticeable.

“In some ways it doesn’t surprise me,” he said, “Guys who stayed in great shape have an advantage. Guys who came in in good shape and not great shape are at a disadvantage.”

As with the COVID protocols, of course, teams have little choice but to keep their heads down and embrace the grind, because the schedule pauses for none of them, especially for things as mundane and routine as a sprain or a strain. In the time of the virus, those are almost besides the point.

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