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NBA in uncharted waters after unprecedented decision to suspend season

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It was the perfect ending to the season’s longest road trip, another high point in a Toronto Raptors season that has delivered them in bunches.

Undermanned, on the road, playing at altitude and coming off a difficult win the night before in Sacramento, Toronto somehow fought through every excuse laying in front of them and flew home from Utah in the wee hours of Tuesday morning with a win over the Jazz in their pocket, a four-game winning streak on the hop and a couple well-earned days off to look forward to.

It was a professional win by a team aiming at bigger things and they were feeling it.

“I don’t know who makes excuses, but we don’t,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry told reporters after the game. “… Our team is unbelievable with just staying in the moment and understanding what we have to do. … The way we operate, the way we do things, the way we go about our business, we’re pros. Guys come in and do their job and get their work in. There is a real seriousness to what we do.”

Things got serious in a hurry.

Barely 48 hours later, one of the Raptors’ biggest wins was rendered a mere footnote. It wasn’t the result, but who they earned it against that suddenly mattered.

Because Wednesday night, when several members of the team and the organization were celebrating the launch of head coach Nick Nurse’s new charitable foundation, a thunderbolt struck that will reverberate around the Raptors, the NBA and all sports for weeks and months to come.

A Utah Jazz player – widely reported to be centre Rudy Gobert – had tested positive for COVID-19, the highly contagious and, in many cases, lethal virus that has been deemed a global pandemic just two months after it first surfaced in China.

What was the most memorable moment in the Raptors’ win over Utah?

A lot of fans might cite Raptors forward OG Anunoby getting into a close-quarters shoving match with Gobert in the game’s final minute, with both players earning ejections, the moment capturing Utah’s frustration and the Raptors’ unwillingness to bend.

Now it means a lot more.

The Jazz were moments away from tipping off against the Oklahoma City Thunder when the game was postponed and then cancelled once it was learned that Gobert had reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.

Things unfolded quickly after that. The NBA had already been in talks Wednesday about the mushrooming health crisis and the expectation was the league was going to play the remainder of the regular season – about a month’s worth of games – without fans in attendance, with most predicting that the NHL, MLB and MLS would likely follow suit.

But when Gobert reportedly tested positive everything was flung upside down, rending the best-laid plans like deck furniture in a tornado.

Shortly after 9:30 p.m., the league announced it was suspending the season. “The NBA will use this hiatus to determine next steps for moving forward in regard to the coronavirus pandemic,” the release read.

According to sources, it wasn’t long after that the Raptors players and staff were being tested for the virus that has had a mortality rate of about three per cent, globally.

Suspending the season was a move without precedent in the face of a threat almost without precedence in modern times, but the league had no choice.

While much of the literature around COVID-19 focuses on how it might spread in everyday life – picking up residual germs from a handrail, an elevator button or having the bad luck to be close to an infected person’s cough or sneeze – there can’t be a better transmission factory than an NBA game where players sweat and breathe heavily on each other in close proximity for 48 minutes a night.

And when it’s all done? It’s hugs and handshakes all around – the elbow bump hadn’t yet made it to the league.

With games being played every other night by teams travelling the continent like circus full of tall men, the effect of one player or one team being exposed gets amplified exponentially.

Over the course of 10 days – or roughly a timeline consistent with what is believed to be the incubation period for COVID-19 – the Jazz have played six games in five cities and each of their opponents have done about the same. A graphic put together neatly shows how little separation there is between teams and players across the league with the entire 30-team league connected to the Jazz and their opponents in the space of five days.

The Raptors and their team staff – as well as other recent Jazz opponents — have been advised to “self-quarantine” for a period that could be up to two weeks. Maybe by then, the injury plagued team will be healthy. Hopefully by then that will be their only concern.

As the word spread around the league, it was a communal “Oh, [expletive]” moment, with the assistant coach of a recent Jazz opponent finding out over dinner on the road and being thrust into the surreal: a global pandemic hitting home between the main course and dessert.

It made for some instantly iconic moments, like a flower somehow sprouting up between cracks in the concrete. By the time the Atlanta Hawks game against the New York Knicks was winding down, news that the league was suspending play had filtered around the league. It became apparent that there was a very real possibility that Wednesday night could end up being Vince Carter’s last NBA game, winding down an unprecedented 22-year career, robbing him of one last visit to Toronto scheduled for April.

Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce subbed Carter in for the final 19 seconds and the former Raptors icon drilled a three on his first and possibly last touch.

That he was mobbed by teammates and opponents alike probably doesn’t follow infectious disease protocol, but only time will tell how long Carter’s last shot lingers.

The NBA and all of sports are now in uncharted waters. There are plenty of questions: When will play resume? What will other leagues do? Will the regular season simply be cancelled, and the playoffs started as everything stands now? Will fans be allowed to watch games if and when it does? Or will the season simply fade away as far greater concerns move to the forefront and stay there?

For now, there are no answers and there may not be for days or weeks or longer.

It’s the most exciting time of the year for basketball, and the Raptors are one of the most enriching stories in the sport.

But none of it seems to matter for the moment.

The NBA with its cool social media presence has always been the league that has “gone viral” in the best and most modern sense.

Going viral this way is all too literal, too sobering and altogether different.

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Rookie Watch: Rangers' Fox best in Metropolitan Division – NHL.com

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The play of several high-profile rookies, including forwards Jack Hughes of the New Jersey Devils and Kaapo Kakko of the New York Rangers, the No. 1 and No. 2 picks of the 2019 NHL Draft, respectively, is one of the major storylines of the 2019-20 season. Each Monday, NHL.com will examine topics related to this season’s class in the Rookie Watch.

With the NHL pausing the 2019-20 regular season March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, we continue our look at the top NHL rookies in each division. This week, the top six in the Metropolitan Division (player ranking on Dec. 3 in parentheses after team):

1. Adam Fox, D, New York Rangers (2): He’s third among rookie defensemen with 42 points (eight goals, 34 assists), first with 57 takeaways and plus-22 and tied for third with 92 blocked shots while averaging 18:54 in ice time in 70 games. Fox needs three more takeaways to pass John Carlson (60 in 2010-11) of the Washington Capitals for most in a season by an NHL rookie defenseman since the League began tracking the statistic in 2005-06. The 22-year-old ranks sixth in Rangers history in points by rookie defensemen behind Brian Leetch (85), Reijo Ruotsalainen (56), Ron Greschner (45), James Patrick (44) and Mike McEwen (43).

“I knew his strengths were going to be able to be influential at this level,” Rangers coach David Quinn said. “I didn’t know to what degree, but I knew he was going to be a good player at this level, he was going to be a smart player who was going to generate some offense and get us out of our end. When you watched him in college you just knew this kid had that special ability that was going to translate.”

Video: NYR@MTL: Fox nets wrister through screen in front

2. Martin Necas, F, Carolina Hurricanes (4): The 21-year-old right-handed shot leads Metropolitan Division rookies with 16 goals and 11 even-strength goals in 64 games. Necas ranks seventh among all rookies with 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists) while averaging 14:10 in ice time. The Hurricanes control 51.9 of all shots attempted at even strength with Necas on the ice, first among rookie forwards in the division with at least 10 games played.

“I know when I first came over here at 16 (from Russia) it was so hard for me,” Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov said. “The game was so much faster and more physical. I think last year helped him so much to get ready for the NHL. As far as his skill, he’s so fast. When he gets the puck, you expect he’s going to do something good with it and have a good moment.”

Video: CAR@TOR: Necas roofs backhander home from the slot

3. Elvis Merzlikins, G, Columbus Blue Jackets (NR): The 25-year-old is tied for second among goalies with five shutouts (Marc-Andre Fleury, Vegas Golden Knights; Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins). He’s a big reason the Blue Jackets are tied with the Hurricanes for the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. Merzlikins is 13-9-8 with a 2.35 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in 33 games.

“Merzlikins played a lot of games by the way of the injury to Joonas Korpisalo and was lightning in a bottle for them on a team that is still in contention,” NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes said. “Especially considering the fact that Korpisalo was selected to the All-Star Game this year (but didn’t play because of injury). Merzlikins has taken the League by storm.”

Video: NYR@CBJ: Merzlikins slides across to stone Zibanejad

4. John Marino, D, Pittsburgh Penguins (5): Marino ranks third among division rookies with 26 points (six goals, 20 assists), 77 blocked shots and 37 takeaways while averaging 20:15 in ice time in 56 games. The 22-year-old had seven points (one goal, six assists) in a six-game point streak (Nov. 16-27), the longest among rookies this season.

“Marino (6-foot-1, 181 pounds) is big and strong, he can really skate, defends well, has a good stick, and he is brave,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “He’s willing to take hits to make plays. He can hang onto the puck, take a hit and make a subtle pass, a four-foot pass that helps us get out of our end clean with possession.”

5. Mackenzie Blackwood, G, New Jersey Devils (NR): Blackwood leads rookie goalies in wins (22), starts (43), saves (1,328) and shots against (1,452). He is 22-14-8 with a 2.77 GAA, .915 save percentage and three shutouts in 47 games. The 23-year-old was 8-2-2 with a 2.28 GAA and .936 save percentage in his past 12 games prior to the NHL pause March 12.

6. Jack Hughes, F, New Jersey Devils (1): The No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Hughes ranks first among division forwards in shots on goal (123) and average ice time (15:52) and is third among division rookies with four power-play goals. The 18-year-old, who has been asked to do a lot in his first NHL season in a top-six role, has drawn 16 penalties and ranks second among division rookies with 42 takeaways.

[RELATED: Top Atlantic Rookies | Top Central Rookies | Top Pacific Rookies]

Head to Head comparison

Hughes and Kakko each have spent much of the season learning what it takes to experience NHL success and though it may have taken longer than many have expected, there’s no doubt the future looks bright for each player. The Devils (average age, 25.7) and Rangers (average age, 26.0) are the two youngest teams in the NHL.

Kaapo Kakko, F, New York Rangers

Games: 66

G-A-Pts: 10-13-23

Shots on goal: 109

Average ice time: 14:16

Telling stat: Tied with Fox for fifth among rookies with 13 power-play points. 

Jack Hughes, F, New Jersey Devils

Games: 61

G-A-Pts: 7-14-21

Shots on goal: 123

Average ice time: 15:52

Telling stat: Ranks fourth among NHL rookies in face-offs taken (462) and sixth in face-off wins (167), leading all first-year players with 38 wins on the power play.

Morreale’s Calder Trophy frontrunners

1. Cale Makar, D, Colorado Avalanche: Leads rookies in points per game (0.88) with at least five games played, and all rookie defensemen in goals (12), power-play goals (four) and even-strength goals (eight). 

2. Quinn Hughes, D, Vancouver Canucks: First among rookies with 53 points (eight goals, 45 assists) and 25 power-play points (three goals, 22 assists) in 68 games.

3. Dominik Kubalik, F, Chicago Blackhawks: First among rookies with 30 goals, 38 even-strength points and 157 shots on goal and third with 46 points in 68 games.

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Short Shifts Greiss offers food, supplies to people affected by coronavirus – NHL.com

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Thomas Greiss wants to do whatever he can to help people affected by the coronavirus.

The New York Islanders goalie offered to share food, order supplies or help anyone suffering during the pandemic in a post on Instagram on Saturday.

Instagram from @thomasgreiss1: More information

“Please don’t go to sleep with an empty stomach or worry about doing without,” Greiss said in the post. “Don’t be afraid or embarrassed. Just send me a private message. We might not have it, but (we) will be more than happy to share whatever food or supplies we have.” 

Greiss’ good deed came after fellow Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov led his teammates in donating 3,000 N95 masks to Northwell Health system on Long Island that were delivered Thursday

“We are all in this together,” Greiss continued in the post. “Be kind to one another. This is temporary and [we’ll] get through this together.”

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NHL players help health care workers in fight against coronavirus – NHL.com

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NHL players have united to help health care workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Artemi Panarin of the New York Rangers, Sergei Bobrovsky of the Florida Panthers and Semyon Varlamov, along with his New York Islanders teammates, purchased and arranged delivery of N95 masks to hospitals in their market over the past few days to aid health care workers in the fight against the coronavirus.

The players arranged the purchase of the masks and the donations. The NHL season has been paused since March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.

Panarin, a forward in his first season with the Rangers, donated 1,500 masks to Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. They were delivered Friday.

“We are so grateful for Artemi Panarin’s incredibly generous gift of N95 masks to HSS,” said Dr. Bryan Kelly, the surgeon-in-chief at Hospital for Special Surgery. “Along with his teammates, Panarin also created a video thanking HSS for our commitment to helping NYC during this pandemic. On behalf of every clinical staff member at HSS, we would like to offer our heartfelt thanks to Panarin for his generosity during this time. Additionally, we’d like to thank Jim Ramsay, head athletic trainer for the Rangers, for his help coordinating their efforts.”

Bobrovsky, who in his first season as Panthers goalie donated $100,000 to help BB&T Center workers stabalize their situations with no events at the venue, donated thousands of masks to multiple hospitals in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida area.

Varlamov, also a goalie in his first season with New York, led his Islanders teammates in donating 3,000 masks to Northwell Health system on Long Island that were delivered Thursday.

Tweet from @GiveToNorthwell: A heartfelt thanks to the @NYIslanders for supporting our Northwell Health #healthcareheroes with your delivery of N95 masks this week! pic.twitter.com/VKCHLZga1T

“A heartfelt thanks to the @NYIslanders for supporting our Northwell Health #healthcareheroes with your delivery of N95 masks this week!” Northwell Health Foundation tweeted from the @GiveToNorthwell account.

On Sunday, the Vegas Golden Knights announced that they would provide over 7,500 meals to doctors, nurses and employees of hospitals in their area. The program will be funded by various Golden Knights players and staff as well as the Golden Knights Foundation.

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