Growing up, John Collins had the same routine each Christmas — open presents from his family, plop down in front of the TV and watch NBA games all day long.
“I loved it,” Collins said. “I’ve loved basketball my whole life. I love the NBA, so this means something for me to play on Christmas, and I’m going to try to utilize it to the best of my ability.”
Christmas Day games and the large platform they provide are coveted throughout the NBA, and the Hawks finally got one on the schedule this season for the first time since 1989. At Madison Square Garden, no less, in an expected rowdy rematch against the Knicks, whom the Hawks squashed in the first round of the playoffs last season, capped by Trae Young’s bow at New York’s center court in Game 5.
The Hawks, often snubbed on national TV before their Eastern Conference finals run put them on the map, were thrilled to get that Christmas Day game on the schedule. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has changed what it will look like, as it has with so many other events and routines over the past two years.
Nine players (Trae Young, Clint Capela, Sharife Cooper, Danilo Gallinari, Kevin Huerter, Wes Iwundu, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Onyeka Okongwu and Lou Williams) were listed as out and in health and safety protocols on the Hawks’ injury report at 5 p.m. Friday, reflecting the team’s most recent round of COVID-19 testing. There can still be changes made to that list, though the Hawks will hope COVID-19 doesn’t sideline anyone else and are eager to get numbers back as soon as a player returns his second negative COVID-19 test result (24 hours after his first negative result, the league’s requirement).
The Hawks need a minimum of eight players to play, and as of Friday evening it looks like they will eke that out, with Collins, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Gorgui Dieng available, plus Cam Reddish (right ankle sprain) and Delon Wright (left ankle sprain) listed as probable, though it’s sounding like those two will be able to play. They’ve also got Malcolm Hill and Lance Stephenson, signed via 10-day hardship exception, and Jalen Johnson and Skylar Mays called up from the G League. They plan to sign another player to a 10-day hardship exception for the game, according to a person familiar with the situation.
New York still has Nerlens Noel, Miles McBride and Kevin Knox out in protocols, but most of the Knicks’ players have been cleared and will be available, giving them a significant depth advantage. The Hawks pulled off one of the most impressive wins of the season playing extremely short-handed Thursday in Philadelphia, so they’ve shown they can compete despite a depleted roster (though obviously it’s even more depleted now, with Okongwu entering protocols Friday evening).
For Collins, he’s trying to stay positive despite the rapid-fire roster changes for the Hawks, whether it’s through COVID-19 or injuries.
“Right now, this has been one of the tougher periods where everyone is just dropping like flies,” Collins said Thursday after the win vs. the 76ers. “Just trying to be as happy and positive as I can, trying to look at the positive and say, ‘I get to play my first game on Christmas at the Garden, my first Christmas game ever,’ so just trying to look at it glass-half-full and go from there. I know it’s going to be a battle. All eyes are going to be on us, anyway on Christmas. So we just want to come out there and play like how we did (Thursday), together, and try to win. That’s all I can think about.”
The Hawks were hoping to get at least a player or two back in time for the Christmas Day game, Hawks coach Nate McMillan has been saying for the past few days, especially since it’s something many of the guys have been looking forward to for so long.
“It’s a game that I think a lot of players dream of, having that opportunity to play on Christmas Day,” McMillan said. “Especially a lot of guys who play basketball, they always think about the times when they’re sitting home at Christmas and watching NBA games, so that’s something that’s been going on for a long time. I know when our players found out that we did have a Christmas game, for many of them, it was definitely their first time, their first opportunity, and it was pretty exciting.”
It’s not ideal to have this thin of a roster, and the Hawks desperately need at least a few players back in the rotation, but the available group is trying to bridge the gap as best as possible, per Bogdanovic.
“We need them,” Bogdanovic said. “As I said on the court, and everyone knows that, obviously, we are a different team, but we will try to hold it down for them for a while. For next game. I don’t know how long they’re going to be out, but we need them back as soon as possible.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com