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With so much on the line, Raptors guard VanVleet plans to hold teammates accountable


Fred VanVleet doesn't believe any of his teammates will recklessly flaunt COVID-19 protocols. 

But he'll do his part to hold the rest of the Raptors accountable. 

Toronto held its first full practice at its temporary home in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday. Gone is the safety net of the summer's NBA bubble that protected the league from the global pandemic and saw zero positive tests.

With teams about to start crisscrossing the United States and the coronavirus still running rampant — Florida recently passed the one-million case mark — the Raptors know there's a huge risk to the health of players and their families, and the NBA season itself. 

"We can't turn getting COVID into an indictment. We can't turn getting COVID into, 'We did something wrong,'" VanVleet said Sunday. "Now, if you're going to pool parties at night and nobody's wearing masks, that's one thing. But if you have to go to the grocery store, or you have family in town, and you get it, you get it. 

"(But) everybody has to be responsible in their own right because the way it's passed, and we're together a lot of the time. I don't want to take that home to my children and my family." 

The NBA said recently that 48 players had positive results since testing resumed last week. 

As VanVleet was speaking to the media on Sunday, the Portland Trail Blazers were announcing a shutdown of their practice facility after three members of the organization tested positive. 

And while Day 1 of practice, at Saint Leo University, about a half hour's drive north of Tampa, still had that electric opening-day vibe, Toronto head coach Nick Nurse said all the work in the gym could be undone if the team lost players to COVID-19. The new NBA rules state players could have to quarantine for as long as 12 days. 

So protocol messaging, he said, needs to be delivered "loud and clear." 

"My role is to just constantly be on them ... (about) our actions and our behaviour, and how impactful it is not only themselves, their families, our team, the organization — there's lots on the line if you're not doing the best you can with the COVID-19 protocols," Nurse said. 

Teams were recently presented a lengthy manual on safety rules. Violations that lead to schedule adjustments or impacts other organizations reportedly could means fines, suspensions or other penalties. 

Players and staff are tested daily. It's all part of what VanVleet called the "new normal." 

"Just gotta roll with the punches," said the guard. "I'm not really a complainer and I try to keep a good perspective on things, so for better or for worse I think I'm just going to roll with it and see how it goes. 

"Obviously put the safety of everybody first, myself included and my family and try to stay as safe and healthy as possible, but realizing the world is kind of moving on and we have to find a way to live with it and still follow all the guidelines the best we can." 

Toronto sharpshooter Matt Thomas, who settled nicely into the Raptors' rotation in the bubble this past summer, said Wisconsin looked like it might dodge a massive COVID-19 impact, but his home state has been in tailspin of growing cases since mid-October. 

"There have been a number of people that I know that came down with the virus," he said. "Thankfully everyone's recovered, but obviously it hits people really hard, it affects everyone differently.

"That's what's scary about it, because you never truly know how you're going to respond." 

A huge part of the Raptors' new normal is playing their home games, for at least the first part of the season, out of Tampa's Amalie Arena due to Canada's border restrictions for non-essential travel. Toronto's temporary practice facility in a Marriott hotel ballroom is nearing completion. Nurse said the team planned to tour it later Sunday. 

Players and staff are still on the hunt for housing in Tampa. Most wanted to get a gauge of the city and its safety before moving family members there, although VanVleet said he plans to have his partner and two young kids join him.

The Raptors have just five more days of practice before tipping off their three-game pre-season in Charlotte, N.C. 

But on the plus side, Nurse has a full complement of healthy players to work with. 

"Everybody looked great today, everybody is ready to go," he said. "It was awesome, energy was great ... even the fitness levels seem really good to me. It was a long practice today with a lot of intensity, a lot of drills, but didn't really see a whole lot of guys bent over, tugging on shorts." 

No surprise, Nurse's focus on Day 1 was defence. 

"We always put a huge emphasis on starting to build our defence, almost totally ignoring any offensive things and plays — just to reinforce that that's who we are," he said. "That's our identity, and that's what they're emphasizing." 

The Raptors play twice in Charlotte, on Dec. 12th and 14th, then return "home" to host Miami on Dec. 18. It's still to be determined whether fans will be permitted at games at Amalie Arena. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2020. 

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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