PHOENIX — A few Phoenix Suns players felt the need to allude to or mention the COVID-19 pandemic when talking about playing a game on Christmas, which shows you that they are just like a lot of us with the latest spike from the omicron variant weighing heavily on their mind.
The Suns are in the minority when it comes to their season not yet being all that affected by the virus’ spread through the NBA in the last month, and center Deandre Ayton is trying his best to keep it that way, saying Thursday he’s making sure all of his family returns a negative COVID-19 test before he sees them for the holiday.
The variant’s dominance of roughly 90% of the league’s new cases has seen over 120 players land in the league’s health and safety protocols across December. As of Friday morning, Phoenix is one of five teams that has not had a player land there.
Saturday brings a hyped-up Round 3 against the Golden State Warriors but they are one of the many rosters operating at partial strength because of the protocols. Warriors head coach Steve Kerr said on Thursday that he doesn’t expect the in-protocols duo of guard Jordan Poole or forward Andrew Wiggins to make the trip, Golden State’s two top scorers behind MVP favorite Stephen Curry.
And there are ball clubs in far, far worse shape than the Warriors, who have also been without guard Damion Lee because of the protocols as well. Games have been postponed and some teams are playing on down a handful of rotation players, giving minutes to guys who weren’t on their roster a week ago.
Suns head coach Monty Williams said earlier in the week that point guard Chris Paul spoke to the team with a “really short, but profound talk we needed to have” regarding omicron’s rise.
Phoenix has been fortunate enough to avoid any obstacles with players in protocols for now, and that’s the dreary cloud hanging over a rainy Valley this holiday.
But it’s still a holiday, a day for all of us to spend time with the people we care about and celebrate.
The Suns, in this writer’s opinion, were given the golden timeslot of a 3 p.m. tip-off. That’s enough time to open presents in the morning while getting back home for a nice dinner.
Forward Cam Johnson agreed, a huge fan of Christmas and getting to be around his family.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Johnson said Thursday of playing on the day he’s watched basketball during since he was a little kid.
Johnson, in fact, said it’s his first time playing on Christmas ever at any level.
His memories of watching the games are usually with a full belly off his mom’s signature side dishes of collard greens, mac and cheese and rice and beans.
Williams described the look of his house on Christmas as “sinful” with how much food is around the whole day.
“Everywhere you walk, there’s something to eat,” Williams said Friday. “Then they put all that up and then they start working on dinner man and it’s like, ‘There’s no way there’s this much food in this house…’ My wife Lisa and my daughters are just unreal. Me and the boys just, like, it’s unbelievable. That’s the only thing I can say, man. To have that much food in one spot is unbelievable. I’m like, ‘Who else is coming?! It’s just us!’”
Monty Williams lives in constant disbelief at the amount of food his family makes for a holiday.
He described it as “sinful” and an all-day affair around his house that leaves him and his boys in a state of wonderment at the effort being put in. pic.twitter.com/avPd3PRRLh
— Kellan Olson (@KellanOlson) December 24, 2021
Ayton will have his first Christmas as a dad.
“Oh, I bought a lot! I bought a lot!” he said Thursday of the gifts for his son.
“I did some dad shopping and got some stuff for him … We went to go see a light show last night and I’ve never seen my son really stand up and (be) so alert saying so many things,” Ayton said. “It’s just a great feeling.”
Ayton said it’s a “dramatic difference” now being the gift giver for his child while joking that he better get his own still. Guard Devin Booker told Arizona Sports on Monday his transition has been from being the first one awake to telling his family they need to start a little later on Christmas morning so he can sleep in for the game.
It’s also a unique stage for the players to get to perform on. There is a communal aspect to Christmas games, where at home, everyone is surrounded by family and friends with the game on unlike any other on the docket.
“You just know everyone’s watching,” forward Jae Crowder said Friday. “You know in the back of your head, like, ‘Families are together watching basketball.’ I’m sure football players may feel the same about Thanksgiving.”
Crowder, a veteran of three such occasions, admitted he was nervous before his first go with the Boston Celtics in 2016 at Madison Square Garden, taking on the primary assignment of the New York Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony.
“But obviously, after I played it, I was like, ‘I want the next year! I want to play next year’s Christmas Day game!’” Crowder said. “I think these guys are gonna feel the same way. Devin is gonna feel the same way. They gonna wanna play this game pretty much the rest of their careers because it’s such a special game.”
Crowder’s got a good read on how Booker feels about the spotlight, one the 25-year-old is keenly aware of and gets for the first time.
“I think it’s an honor for us. It’s a big deal,” Booker said Friday. “As much as we want to talk it down, if you love the game and live in that Christmas tradition of watching the games throughout my whole life and I’m sure a lot you guys are the same — Now being able to participate in it, it’s gonna be a lot of fun.”