Basketball

Giannis ready for ‘toughest’ ever NBA challenge

Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo believes winning this season’s NBA crown will be harder than ever, dismissing suggestions a championship victory will be diminished by the Covid-19 shutdown.

As 22 teams prepare to head for Orlando, Florida, for the NBA’s restart on July 30, some critics have argued that the four-month pandemic shutdown means there will forever be an asterisk against the eventual winners.

Antetokounmpo, however, is in the opposite camp insisting that the unique circumstances of the campaign make it the “toughest” NBA championship in history to claim.

“A lot of people say that there’s gonna be a star next to this championship,” reigning NBA MVP Antetokounmpo said on a conference call according to ESPN.

“At the end of the day, this is gonna be the toughest championship you could ever win – because the circumstances are really, really tough right now. So, whoever wants it more is going to be able to go out there and take it.”

All the teams playing at the Walt Disney World Resort for the remainder of the season will be kept in a “bubble”, with limited family contact, but the 25-year-old Greek star believes that will only add to the challenge over the final months of the season.

“As I said before, this is the toughest title,” said Antetokounmpo, whose Bucks side are leading the Eastern-conference with a 53-12 record.

“You go somewhere without your family for four months, three months, and you haven’t played basketball for 3½, four months. Whichever team want it more, have to be mentally prepared for all the situations and gotta go out there and execute.

“Whoever wants it more, whoever is mentally prepared for all this, what’s going on in Orlando, that’s the team who are gonna come out on top.”

However, Portland Trail Blazers’ All-Star guard Damian Lillard is not looking too far ahead.

The 29-year-old is not convinced that the season will be completed as it would depend on participants following strict isolating protocols to keep everyone inside the “bubble” free from the coronavirus.

“My confidence ain’t great because you’re telling me you’re gonna have 22 teams full of players following all the rules?” Lillard said.

“When we have 100 per cent freedom, everybody don’t follow all the rules. I don’t have much confidence but, hopefully, it’ll be handled to a point where we’re not putting everybody at risk or in a dangerous position.”

The cost of restarting the NBA season is over US$150 million (S$209m), ESPN reported on Wednesday (July 1).

Among the costs to the NBA are daily tests for Covid-19, treatment and quarantine associated with positive tests, and meals, security, transportation, sanitation of facilities including practice gyms and staging of games at multiple stadium sites (three arenas are planned for use).

Players and staff will be tested for Covid-19 upon their arrival at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex and, following a period of self-quarantine for 36 to 48 hours, they will be tested again.

After that, there will be regular testing, and newcomers (including family members) won’t be allowed into the “bubble” until after the first round of the play-offs – more than a month after the players arrive in central Florida.

“The fact that we’re going to be in a bubble, it kind of knocks it down and limits the chance of us being exposed to everybody else outside the bubble in Orlando,” Lillard said.

“It is a safer situation, but I don’t think it’s possible for them to protect us 100 per cent. Everybody’s going there understanding that.”

Lillard plans to keep to himself.

“I know there are going to (be) activities for us and all that stuff, but I mean, I’m gonna be chilling,” he said.

“There’s still a possibility for something to spread within that bubble, just with so many people doing so many different things that we’ve got to follow to be safe, even though we’re not exposed to the public.

“So it’s going to be: What time is practice, what time can I get in the weight room, what time can I get some shots up, what’s the plan for game day.

“And then I’m gonna be in the room. I’m gonna have my PS3, my PS4, I’m gonna have my studio equipment, my mic, my laptop, I’m gonna have all my books. That’s it, man. I’m gonna be in the room, chilling.”

Lillard might not be at Disney World long unless the Blazers perform well in their eight remaining regular-season games. Ninth-placed Portland (29-37) is 3½ games behind the eighth-placed Memphis Grizzlies in the race for the final Western Conference play-off berth.

A ninth-placed team that finish within four games of an eighth-placed team would get to compete in a play-in battle for that post-season place.

“It’s basically an eight-game season and we’re starting off behind,” Lillard said.

“The only thing I asked for was the opportunity to make it, and we’ve been given that, so we’re going to show up and do what we gotta do. Simple as that.”

Meanwhile, the NBA will not exclude coaches from participating in the season’s resumption solely on their age, coaches union president Rick Carlisle said on Wednesday.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver expressed concern in early June about the inclusion of older coaches,  with health officials stating that people 65 and older are particularly susceptible to severe symptoms if they contract the coronavirus.

However, Carlisle indicated that the league plans to review every coach individually.

“Everybody goes through a screening process, but we’ve been assured by the league that no one will be red-flagged from going to Orlando based on age alone,” Carlisle said, according to ESPN.

“That was a very positive thing for us to hear but, as I said, everybody in all 22 (participating) markets – all staff, all players, everybody – goes through a significant screening process.

“We’ll see who ends up going, not going, etc. But we were very encouraged to hear that age alone would not be something that would keep you from going to Orlando.”

The NBA has three head coaches who fall in the vulnerable age category: the San Antonio Spurs’ Gregg Popovich (71), the Houston Rockets’ Mike D’Antoni (69) and the New Orleans Pelicans’ Alvin Gentry (65). – AFP, REUTERS

Giannis AnteokounmptoMilwaukee BucksNBAportland trail blazersDamian Lillardadam silvercoronaviruscovid-19