Pacers coach Rick Carlisle returns from COVID-19 as positive tests surge around the league

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  • Rick Carlisle
    American basketball player and coach
  • Justin Holiday
    Justin Holiday
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INDIANAPOLIS — Pacers coach Rick Carlisle, who is vaccinated and received a booster shot, wanted to be on the safe side. He had shown signs of a cold for three weeks and continuously tested negative for COVID-19.

But when a headache started to accompany his symptoms during Indiana's win over New York on Dec. 8, he took a rapid test immediately after the game to be sure and assumed the result would negative.

It wasn't.

Carlisle took two more COVID-19 tests, one rapid and one PCR, which confirmed that he had contracted the virus. He entered the NBA's health and safety protocols Dec. 9, missing four games, and returned to practice Sunday.

Needlessly to say, he's grateful to be back.

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Pacers coach Rick Carlisle smiles during practice at the Ascension St. Vincent Center on Dec. 19, 2021.
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle smiles during practice at the Ascension St. Vincent Center on Dec. 19, 2021.

"It's great to watch the broadcasts and to see the game flow from afar," Carlisle said. "Again, it's a different perspective. The game slows down a lot when you're that far removed from it. And it's a healthy thing to experience, but I think 10 days is enough."

The Pacers went 2-2, with wins over Dallas and Detroit and losses to Golden State and Milwaukee, without Carlisle. He will return to the sideline Tuesday at Miami.

Lead assistant Lloyd Pierce filled in for Carlisle during his absence. Carlisle said he felt comfortable with Pierce taking the reins, especially considering that Pierce was previously the Hawks' head coach. Pierce led Atlanta for 2 ½ years before being fired after a 14-20 start last season and being hired by Carlisle in the offseason.

"I encouraged Lloyd to follow his instincts. He's an experienced head coach," Carlisle said. "Because when you're on the sidelines and you're making the play calls and you're calling the timeouts and things like that, there's a feel element to it, and you can't have that interrupted just because you work for the guy that's not there.

"This is why you recruit hard to hire a really great staff. Lloyd Pierce, getting him here was as hard as I recruited a lot of free agent players."

Veteran swingman Justin Holiday, who said he is unvaccinated, also recently returned after testing positive for COVID-19. He entered the league's health and safety protocols Nov. 30 and missed five games while in isolation and an additional contest as he ramped up his conditioning.

Holiday resumed competition Dec. 15 at Milwaukee with five points in 20 minutes off the bench. He rejoined the starting lineup at home against Detroit on Dec. 16 and finished with 17 points in 26 minutes.

"(We're) getting back to the old normal because I guess (the team) had to get used to missing a few people, so yeah we're getting back to how things were before," Holiday said. "Still missing a few people as far as the staff, but things are starting to look exactly how they were before."

According to Carlisle, Pacers assistant Jenny Boucek and manager of game strategy and analytics Zach Chu are in the NBA's health and safety protocols. Both are vaccinated along with the rest of Indiana's coaching staff.

NBA-wide look at COVID

The Pacers are one of several shorthanded teams due to COVID-19 as the number of players, coaches and personnel entering the NBA's health and safety protocols surges league-wide.

Sunday was perhaps the most turbulent day of the season as the NBA postponed five games — Denver at Brooklyn, Cleveland at Atlanta and New Orleans at Philadelphia on Sunday, Orlando at Toronto on Monday and Washington at Brooklyn on Tuesday.

The Bulls had two games postponed last week.

Indiana's game at Miami on Tuesday will now be broadcast on TNT due to the Wizards-Nets postponement. It's the Pacers' first national television game of the season.

According to CBS Sports, a combined 69 players from 19 teams are currently in the league's health and safety protocols.

The Indiana State Department of Health announced Sunday that it detected its first COVID-19 omicron variant in the state in an unvaccinated resident. The omicron variant is the latest COVID-19 variant and more contagious than its predecessor, the delta variant, per the department.

"It's a mysterious virus," Carlisle said. "There are just so many unknowns. Every time you turnaround, there's a new version of it, a new variant that has different characteristics. And so we've just got to maintain a positive attitude about it, understanding that the league is gonna constantly be in a situation where there will be needs to pivot and change up on certain things."

There have been a handful of teams that have had COVID-19 outbreaks, including the Nets who currently have an NBA-high 10 players in the league's health and safety protocols. Superstars Kevin Durant and James Harden, who are vaccinated, and Kyrie Irving, who is unvaccinated, are among those 10 in isolation.

New York city has a local vaccine mandate, requiring anyone age 5 or older to be vaccinated in order to enter Barclays Center, the Nets' home venue, or Madison Square Garden, the Knicks' home arena. Irving remains unvaccinated, barring him from home games, but he can play in road games.

Brooklyn originally decided that Irving could not be a part-time player this season but changed its mind last week. However, once Irving rejoined the franchise, he immediately entered the NBA's health and safety protocols.

New York city's vaccine mandate only applies to Nets and Knicks players, so unvaccinated visiting players, like Holiday, can play in New York.

Indiana plays at New York on Jan. 4 and at Brooklyn on April 15. The Pacers host the Nets on Jan. 5.

Changes coming to NBA's COVID protocols?

Starting Jan. 15, unvaccinated professional and amateur athletes will be barred from entering Canada, according to minister of public safety Marco Mendicino. Toronto, the NBA's long Canadian team, has 16 regular-season home games after that date, including a showdown with the Pacers on March 26.

"I have no doubt that we'll get through it, but this period has produced a different set of circumstances, which is raising some questions that are good questions," Carlisle said. "Now (the NFL has) changed what they're doing, and so I think this is an interesting time for the us in the NBA to see how their thing goes."

Currently, anyone who enters the NBA's health and safety protocols must isolate for 10 days or register two negative PCR tests at least 24 hours apart to return sooner. The NFL had a similar return policy, with players needing two negative PCR tests at least 24 hours apart to rejoin their teams.

However, now the NFL is also focusing on testing the viral load, or "cycle threshold," of a vaccinated player who contracts COVID-19. And if that player's viral load comes back at 35 or greater — meaning he is no longer contagious — he is allowed to return to competition.

"It's not about loosening our standards," NFL chief medical officer Dr. Allen Sill said, per ESPN. "If anything, we're just bringing a higher degree of precision in measuring ourselves against a more precise ruler."

Follow IndyStar Pacers beat writer James Boyd on Twitter: @RomeovilleKid. Reach him via email: jboyd1@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Pacers coach Rick Carlisle returns from COVID-19 as positive tests surge

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