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Player mental health the focus of the NBA as league heads to restart bubble

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NEW ORLEANS — Jrue Holiday expects basketball to be the easy part.

The Pelicans guard will be living in the NBA’s “bubble” when 22 teams gather near Orlando, Florida, this month to resume their suspended season.

Holiday’s wife, Lauren, a former U.S. national team soccer player, is pregnant with the couple’s second child at a time when much of society has been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. The veteran New Orleans player might be away from home for more than a month.

Meanwhile, Memphis rookie Ja Morant expects to miss his daughter’s first birthday next month. Boston’s Gordon Hayward may leave the team when his fourth child is born in September. And players like Washington’s Bradley Beal and Portland’s Damian Lillard wonder how intense NBA restrictions on player movement will be received.

These are but a few examples of why the NBA, its teams and the players’ union are making mental health and wellness resources available to players now and once they arrive at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.

“It is going to leave the guys with a lot of time on their own, and challenges with families, newborns and whatever else they have going on in their personal lives are going to be magnified because they’re going to be in confined spaces for prolonged periods of time,” said William Parham, a Loyola Marymount psychology professor and director of the National Basketball Players Association’s mental health and wellness program. “There’s no way around it, so I would anticipate some increased anxiety, some increased tension, some increased restlessness.”

There will be no fans at Disney. There also will be restrictions on where players can go, plus rules keeping families away until at least the second round of the playoffs. The hope is to significantly limit exposure to COVID-19 inside the bubble.

Even under normal circumstances, Holiday sees family time as a cherished respite. Life at Disney will clearly complicate that.

“This is one of the mental parts about it that guys have to adjust to, where someone like me, I go home and it’s where I kind of relax,” Holiday said. “I try my best not to bring my work home with me so I can hang out with my wife, my dog, and my daughter and I can do things like that. … I think that’s going to be a little bit of a challenge, especially after like seven to 10 days.”

Likewise, Beal said living in the bubble will hardly be “a walk in the park.”

“We can’t just leave. We can’t just order whatever food we want. We can’t just do activities we want to do. We can’t go to our teammates’ rooms,” Beal said. “You’re restricted, and you can’t do the things that you’re normally used to doing.”

The Pelicans’ mental health and wellness program is led by team psychologist Jenna Rosen, and New Orleans general manager David Griffin calls it “critical.”

“Let’s not kid ourselves. This quarantine situation is going to be very difficult,” Griffin said. “We will work through mindfulness training with Jenna literally every day. … It’s going to be about who can keep themselves in the best frame of mind, quite frankly.”

Mental health has been a priority for the NBA and the NBPA, especially after players like Cleveland’s Kevin Love and San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan opened up about their inner struggles.

DeRozan knows it won’t be easy at Disney.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You’re taking guys who’ve been with their families every single day for the last few months and all of a sudden separating everybody into this one confined space and taking away a lot of joyful things that we do outside of basketball.”

Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has played for Greece’s national team, said being away for three weeks during international tournaments was challenging. This trip to Disney could last three months if the Bucks make the NBA Finals.

“Not being able to see your family, being there for three months, playing games with no fans, it’s going to be mental,” Antetokounmpo said. “You’ve got to push yourself through this.”

Daniel Medina, the Wizards’ chief of athletic care and performance, said some players are concerned that an interrupted season might make them more prone to injury, which could be career-altering to players with expiring contracts. Some have decided not to play, notably Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.

Parham, who helped launch the NBPA’s mental health program in 2018, expects many players to handle the resumption well. He noted that after three months of relative isolation at home, they’ll be eager to satisfy their appetite for competition.

Still, the unprecedented nature of the bubble, born out of a pandemic blamed for about a half-million deaths worldwide, will present challenges. Another issue, Parham said, is how the restart coincides with the political and social upheaval spawned by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in police custody.

“Prior to COVID, and prior to these social justice demonstrations, there were sufficient daily distractions for people to not really even think about their stuff. They were just sort of on automatic pilot,” Parham said. “You know what they say: A person will never see their reflection in running water. It is only when the water is still that their reflected image begins to emerge.”

Grizzlies’ Ja Morant says he added 12 pounds of muscle, will ‘prove people wrong’ at restart

Ja Morant
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Ja Morant has taken advantage of the NBA’s hiatus, adding 12 pounds of muscle to help absorb contact when the NBA’s likely rookie of the year fearlessly attacks the basketball.

And the Memphis Grizzlies point guard knows exactly what he wants when he leads his team to Orlando.

“Going out there to win, prove people wrong,” Morant said Thursday in a Zoom video call with reporters.

Morant, the No. 2 pick overall in the 2019 draft, already has taken advantage of Zion Williamson missing much of the season to make his case as the league’s top rookie. Morant is the Grizzlies’ leading scorer averaging 17.6 points in 59 games played compared to just 19 for Williamson with the Pelicans.

With Morant leading the way, the Grizzlies won four of their final six before the NBA stopped play March 12. Memphis goes into Orlando’s seeding games sitting in the eighth spot in the Western Conference with a 3 1/2-game lead trying to clinch the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2017.

Morant, who turns 21 on Aug. 10, didn’t just spend his downtime during the coronavirus shutdown spending time with his family and baby daughter waiting to hear when the NBA would resume play.

Nope, Morant said he worked in the weight room and gym adding the 12 pounds of muscle since a loss to Orlando on March 10. That helped fend off worries that the season – and all the work he had put in – was over.

“I just took it as an opportunity to get even better, even though I didn’t know how it would play out,” Morant said.

The extra pounds not only make Morant stronger, but the guard listed at 6-foot-3 and 174 pounds when play stopped expects he will be able to absorb contact better.

“Able to use my body more, get through different screens,” Morant said. “That’s why I’m just looking to do, go to Orlando to be able to do the things I’ve been doing before but better.”

The added muscle is noticeable, at least to his teammates. Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins said a couple Grizzlies were talking about Morant being bigger Wednesday.

“Gaining strength has been a priority of his and continues to maintain his supreme athleticism,” Jenkins said.

Morant went into his rookie season recovering from arthroscopic surgery to clean up his right knee before the 2019 draft. The time off means he has no pain in his knee, which is easy to see when he’s on the floor.

“Feel like I’m actually leaving the floor easier and jumping higher,” Morant said. “I’ve just been taking this time to just focus on my body, make sure everything’s good so when it’s time to go out and play, I’ll be fine.”

Ja Morant apologizes for promoting ‘F— 12’ Grizzlies jersey

Grizzlies guard Ja Morant
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The NBA will reportedly allow players to replace their last names on their jerseys with a statement on social justice.

Ja Morant – No. 12 on the Grizzlies – initially delighted in an idea for his uniform: “F—.”

“F— 12” has become shorthand for “F— the police.” The phrase probably stems from the old TV show “Adam-12” or a belief that a narcotics unit was Unit 12. (The phrase sometimes means more specifically, “F— the police narcotics unit.”)

Regardless, Morant is backtracking after re-posting a picture of a Memphis “F— 12” jersey and saying he wanted to wear it during the NBA’s resumption at Disney World.

Morant:

The NBA was obviously never going to let Morant wear “F—” on the back of his jersey. Presumably, Morant was aware of that and joking around.

There are multiple battles being waged. Addressing “bad” cops is the smaller one. The larger focus of the current protests: Reforming how police operate. So, when some people say, “F— 12,” they don’t always mean all individual officers – but the policing system at large. (Some people mean all individual officers.)

But police and their supporters too often take any criticism, however harmless or even constructive, very personally. It’s a symptom of the out-of-balance power dynamic between police and the people they’re sworn to serve and protect.

So, it’s unsurprising Morant felt compelled to apologize. He also might have had more specific familial reasons.

Yet, it says something about him that, even in his apology, he continued to advocate for change.

Seven must-watch games from NBA Orlando restart

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The NBA is back… almost.

The plans are agreed to, the schedule is out, there’s a decision to focus on social justice, and now tip-off of the restarted season is a little more than a month away. Concerns are rising along with the coronavirus cases in Florida, but Friday Adam Silver said it would take a “significant spread” of the virus inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble to shut down the league again.

Which means we can start to focus on the must-watch games on the NBA schedule.

And that new schedule is stacked. Remove the eight worst teams from the mix, throw in the race for the eighth and some important seeding games, and every night there is a matchup worth watching. There are a lot of games with weight and meaning.

Here are our seven must-watch NBA games of the restart.

1) July 30: Los Angeles Clippers vs. Los Angeles Lakers 9 p.m. (TNT)

Opening night we get the Hallway Series — just played 2,500 miles from the Staples Center hallways. It’s a matchup of (arguably) the two best playoff performers in the NBA right now — LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard — it’s the top teams in the West, two teams sharing a city, and a budding rivalry. That said, this could look a lot like two NFL teams meeting in week 16 knowing a playoff matchup looms — nobody wants to tip their hand. If there’s a matchup Doc Rivers loves, he’s not going to wear it out in this first game of the restart. Same with Frank Vogel. Expect some lineup experimentation and not too many minutes for the stars.

That said, it’s still opening night and both teams want to get off on the right foot. The Lakers need to find rotations that work without Avery Bradley and have some work to do. These are the best teams in the West, and fans or no fans the competitive juices will be flowing.

2) July 31: Boston Celtics vs. Milwaukee Bucks 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo has been clear-and-away the best team in the East this season, led by the best defense in the NBA. Boston has been the team on the rise this season, another top-five defense and with an emerging star in Jayson Tatum the Celtics look like the biggest threat to the Bucks Finals run. Milwaukee doesn’t have to worry about losing its seed, but it would love to make a statement — as would the Celtics.

3) Aug. 2: Milwaukee Bucks vs. Houston Rockets, 8 p.m. (ABC)

This will be pure fun. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. a skinny James Harden. The small-ball, bomb-from-three Rockets against the best defense in the NBA — a Bucks defense predicated on taking away the paint and forcing teams to beat them from three. Every game will matter for a Rockets team in the middle of a seeding fight in the West, but mostly this game just should be as entertaining as basketball gets.

4) Aug. 3: Memphis Grizzlies vs. New Orleans Pelicans, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

An easy addition to the NBA’s must-watch games list. It’s more than just Zion Williamson vs. Ja Morant… although it is that too. Zion was making a push in the Rookie of the Year race despite playing just 19 games — 40 fewer than Morant — and his only hope of catching the Grizzlies point guard is to completely outplay him in the restart and get the Pelicans into the playoffs. (Even that may not be enough.)

New Orleans had the easiest schedule remaining in the NBA when the league was forced to shut down. The league replicated that as best it could heading to Orlando — New Orleans is the only team where the cumulative records of their opponents are below .500. Throw in a healthy Zion ready to shock the world and the Pelicans are the biggest threat to get into a play-in tournament with the Grizzlies. Picking up a head-to-head win would be a huge plus for the Pelicans in that chase.

5) Aug. 7: Boston Celtics vs. Toronto Raptors, 9 p.m. (TNT)

These two teams are the second and third best teams in the East — but in what order? Toronto has been an elite defensive team this season, Pascal Siakam has taken a step forward, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol are still making veteran plays, coach Nick Nurse has been nothing short of brilliant, and the Raptors look every bit the dangerous defending champions. But do they have an answer for the emerging Tatum and an interesting, switchable Boston team on the rise? Bet the under in this game, both defenses are far better than the offenses.

6) Aug. 10: Denver Nuggets vs. Los Angeles Lakers, 9 p.m. (TNT)

Skinny Nikola Jokic is for real — but are the Nuggets for real? Denver will likely finish as the third seed in the West, but in NBA circles there is a sense this team is headed for another early playoff exit in a tight West. Denver’s defense looked good on paper early in the season, but a lot of that was just teams missing shots they usually hit (looking at the NBA’s Second Spectrum tracking data). The Nuggets have to find that defense and answer other questions, such as can Jamal Murray step up and be a No. 2 option on a dangerous playoff team? There would be no better time for Denver to make a statement before the playoffs than beating LeBron James and the top team in the West.

7) Aug. 12: Toronto Raptors vs. Philadelphia 76ers, 6:30 p.m. (ESPN)

Philadelphia is the dangerous darkhorse in the East. They are long, they can defend (sixth-best in the NBA this season), they have an elite big man in Joel Embiid who can carry the team for a stretch, they get a healthy Ben Simmons back, and they got one of the softer schedules in Orlando. If the Sixers can just find enough shooting to both score and space the floor, watch out. This will be a good test for them, going against the defending champs and a team with both talent and a real identity.

Toronto knows who it is, does Philadelphia.

Ja Morant goes WAY above rim for windmill alley-oop dunk (video)

Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant
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Not a video of decades-old plays. Not a video game.

But a new highlight featuring a real-life NBA player?

It feels like we haven’t gotten one of those in forever.

Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant provided an electrifying refresher of what high-level basketball looks like:

I want to just marvel at how high above the rim Morant got.

But amid the coronavirus pandemic, I’m having trouble getting past people exercising together indoors or sitting with little space between them.