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Pandemic, protocols and problems remain part of NBA playoffs in Heat-Celtics East finals

The specter of COVID and illness continues to be a factor in the Eastern Conference finals series between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics.

A day after the Celtics big man Al Horford entered the NBA’s heath-and-safety protocols, Boston coach Ime Udoka was unavailable for his team’s Wednesday media session due to what the Celtics said was a non-COVID illness.

However, ongoing concerns about the pandemic continue to impact the NBA playoffs for a third consecutive year, with the Heat returning to a mask mandate for all media at Wednesday’s interview session.

In addition, it is believed that ESPN now will conduct pregame coaching interviews remotely.

Horford, as of Wednesday, was not expected to be available for Thursday’s 8:30 Game 2 and FTX Arena.

It is not the scenario Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had hoped for by this stage of the pandemic.

“It’s disappointing,” he said. “It’s like every single time you think it’s getting beyond this, it’s not.”

That had him empathizing with the Celtics.

“You want to beat their best with our best,” he said. “It’s just not the world we’re living in.”

Heat guard Tyler Herro said Wednesday the return of COVID and illness is just a sign of the times.

“I mean, you just control what you can control,” he said. “There’s a lot of sickness going around, but you just try to stay out the way and hope everything goes well, I guess.”

While the Celtics offered no updates on Horford, word Wednesday was that guard Marcus Smart, the 2022 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, could return Thursday from the mid-foot sprain that had him out for Tuesday’s series opening Heat victory.

“Obviously, he’s Defensive Player of the Year,” Herro said, “so him being on the floor obviously brings a presence on that side of the ball. He’s a tremendous player, so him being out there, obviously it shifts things a little bit.”

Herro said a return by Horford would be similarly series shifting.

“I mean, both of those being back, that’s two of their five starters,” he said. “Being at full strength, I’m sure they’ll be a little bit more confident. And we’ll see when those guys get back.”

For the Heat, point guard Kyle Lowry remains an unknown, sidelined with a hamstring strain for seven of the past nine games.

Spoelstra said Lowry was limited to light shooting Wednesday, with the Heat limited in their court time.

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