NBA referees
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Referees gearing up for their return to NBA games, too

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — NBA referees have not had the same opportunities as players have to knock off the rust from the shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Players have been back on the court for a few weeks, with the majority of that time spent getting in individual workouts before practices could resume when the 22 teams arrived at the Walt Disney World bubble.

The referees didn’t have that chance.

Right now, there’s a healthy amount of nervous anxiety for those who operate the whistles at NBA games with exhibition contests – the first opportunity for refs to call anything in roughly 4-1/2 months – set to begin next week. Like the players and coaches, referees are at Disney and quarantining for what could be a stay of at least a few weeks for most and potentially as much as three months for those who will be assigned to work the NBA Finals.

“Our referees are pros and they’re going to come here ready to work,” said Monty McCutchen, the NBA’s vice president and head of referee development and training. “From the mental side, we never took any time off, quite frankly.”

It will largely be business as usual for referees – though with two notable differences. The first of those is how the NBA Replay Center will still be operating in Secaucus, New Jersey, but the referees assigned with actually assisting in those situations will be on-site at Disney. The reason is because it didn’t make much logistical sense to send referees into the greater New York City area and have them adhere to local guidelines there by quarantining for 14 days before working games.

The replay-tasked referees will be working from a trailer in the broadcast compound outside the three arenas that will be used for games – with allowances, of course, made for social distancing.

“It’s important that we follow that process because, you know, we want the best working now who have earned that right,” McCutchen said.

The other difference will be the noise, or lack thereof.

It’s no secret that there is a level of banter between players, coaches and referees during games. When arenas are filled with 20,000 people, the din of crowd noise muffles much of those conversations from the general public. But at Disney, there will be no fans and that means some off-color talks might get picked up on broadcasts.

McCutchen isn’t worried.

“We’ll look for a collaboration with coaches and players and I think coaches and players, they’ll figure out how to communicate,” McCutchen said. “A lot of yelling that goes on does go on because there’s crowd noise and in a passionate moment you want to be heard you want to be listened to. Without the crowd there, I expect our players and coaches to have an occasional burst, but because they can be heard in a different way, they will communicate in a different way.”

There’s a rhythm for players, and the same goes for referees. The NBA sent workout materials to referees during the shutdown – things like resistance bands, jump ropes, and yoga balls – to help them keep in shape. But much in the same way that it’s hard for players to get into game shape without really playing, the same holds true for referees.

Veteran referee Eric Lewis said he’s looking forward to the exhibition games, just to get in some work.

“We really need those,” Lewis said. “We really depend on our eyes and having that consistent practice of movement and moving them where they need to be. You don’t see that level of play every day, so now we have to get to where we catch up with the players. Even running – running those sprints in games and stopping and going are very different than jogging on a treadmill or on the street.”

McCutchen and the league’s referee development advisers, a group of top former officials, have been holding regular Zoom calls during the shutdown with the current referee staff to study situations and techniques. There have also been tests and other video study done internally, just to keep minds sharp during the weeks away from the court.

“There is not the same rhythm that our teams and referees and coaches have been accustomed to,” McCutchen said. “There’s going to be a ramp-up time for everyone. That doesn’t excuse bad work, though. We’re going to be grading our officials on the standards of the NBA and to our standard of excellence.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo suspended, ramifications on Western Conference playoff race

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Giannis Antetokounmpo headbutted Moritz Wagner.

OF COURSE Antetokounmpo was getting suspended for that.

NBA release:

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo has been suspended one game without pay for headbutting Washington Wizards center Moritz Wagner during a stoppage in play, it was announced today by Kiki VanDeWeghe, Executive Vice President, Basketball Operations.

Antetokounmpo will serve his suspension Thursday when Milwaukee faces the Memphis Grizzlies

This is a huge game for the Grizzlies. If they win, they’ll make the play-in. Lose, and they’d need both the Suns (to the Mavericks) and Spurs (to the Jazz) to lose in order to advance.

Obviously, Antetokounmpo is a force. But Milwaukee has nice depth and has been quite good without him. On the other hand, Bucks have also already clinched the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and might take it easy tomorrow, regardless. On the other other hand, Milwaukee – with a chance to reach the NBA Finals – might be one of the teams trying to get the top-seeded Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup in the West.

That’s not Memphis, which has limped to the finish. The Grizzlies are just 1-6 in seeding games. Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow are all injured.

Memphis has a chance against the Bucks tomorrow. Antetokounmpo’s unavailability only increases it. But it’s not as if this suspension suddenly gives the Grizzlies a shoe-in victory.

As has been the case all along, they’ll have to earn their way into the playoffs.

Russell Westbrook suffers strained quadriceps, out Friday, could miss playoff games

Russell Westbrook injury
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The Houston Rockets are going to be a trendy pick to make a deep in the West playoffs, but that will be hard to envision if Russell Westbrook misses time.

Rockets GM Daryl Morey announced that an MRI revealed Westbrook has a strained quadriceps muscle in his right leg. He is not playing today (Wednesday) against the Pacers and will be out Friday against the 76ers as well. He will be re-evaluated before the playoff tip-off next week, but his status for those games is unclear.

Westbrook has been just a little off at the restart. He averaged 27.2 points per game during the regular season, but that has been down to 24.3 in the Orlando restart. His 53.6 true shooting percentage for the season (near the league average) fell to 50% in the bubble.

The Rockets have been a strong 4-2 in the bubble with their small-ball system and have held on to the four seed, but they haven’t completely found a rhythm yet (as we saw pre-shutdown. In a likely first-round matchup with Oklahoma City, Houston would need Westbrook and his explosive athleticism.

Without Westbrook expect more of Eric Gordon, who just returned to the rotation Wednesday from injury, plus Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore, even maybe Jeff Green — with a switchable roster Mike D’Antoni has a lot of options to soak up those minutes.

He just doesn’t have anyone as good.

Celtics sign coach Brad Stevens to contract extension

Celtics coach Brad Stevens
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The Celtics shocked by hiring Brad Stevens from Butler in 2013. He was a mid-major college coach, and even big-time college coaches rarely translated to the NBA. In fact, Stevens was viewed as such a college coach, rumors of him returning to that level persisted for years.

But Stevens has turned into a quintessential NBA coach. Despite taking over amid a rebuild, Stevens has won 56% of his games with Boston. It’s difficult to see him anywhere else.

Especially now.

Celtics release:

The Boston Celtics have signed head coach Brad Stevens to a contract extension, the team announced today.

Stevens, who previously signed a contract extension in 2016, is one of the NBA’s top coaches. He implements crisp schemes on both ends of the floor and communicates roles clearly to his players. At just 43, he could rival some of the longest coaching tenures in NBA history.

There are still questions about Stevens’ ability to coach stars. They might become more pronounced as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown ascend.

But that’s a first-world NBA problem – having a coach who raises his team’s level and premier talent young players who could lift it even higher.

Another week, still zero players test positive at NBA restart

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It’s starting to sound routine, but it shouldn’t — that the NBA is pulling off an impressive feat keeping COVID-19 outside the bubble (just watch other sports try to come back).

The league announced that 342 players were tested for COVID-19 on the NBA campus in the past week and there were zero confirmed positive tests. The league has had no positive tests inside the NBA bubble since it started.

It’s a testament to the tone Commissioner Adam Silver set (working with Chris Paul and the players’ union) setting a tone of patience and — to use a coaching cliche — not skipping steps.

The NBA began testing players in their home markets before they arrived in Orlando (that’s where a number of players tested positive, and were quarantined/treated in those markets). Once teams arrived in Orlando, players were quarantined and tested again.

The idea was simple — to keep the virus outside of the bubble — but the execution was not. Nor was making sure there was buy-in from the players (and, for the most part, there has been).

At least so far. There are about two months of games remaining through the end of the finals, and when family members arrive next month there will be new ways the virus could penetrate the bubble.

It isn’t time for an NBA victory lap yet, but so far so good.