LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Covid-19 precautions forced the first postponement of the NBA season on just the second day of action on Wednesday (Dec 23), as the Houston Rockets' home game against Oklahoma City was called off.
Rockets superstar James Harden was fined US$50,000 (S$66,450) for violating protocols aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus - a violation that left him ineligible for the team's scheduled season opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder, which was postponed because the Rockets did not have the required eight players available.
The NBA said in a statement that three Rockets players had returned positive or inconclusive coronavirus tests.
Four other Rockets players had also been quarantined due to contact tracing measures.
One other Rockets player was unavailable because of an injury.
"The National Basketball Association game scheduled for tonight between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Houston Rockets at Toyota Centre has been postponed in accordance with the league's health and safety protocols," the NBA said in a statement.
The postponement was the last thing the league was hoping for on the second day of the season, when a full slate of 13 games were scheduled.
ESPN reported on Wednesday that the league was investigating Harden for a possible violation of protocols after video surfaced on social media that apparently showed him at a club without wearing a mask.
Harden - who was a late arrival at training camp and has been at the centre of reports that he has demanded a trade - issued a statement on Instagram, denying the video showed him at a strip club but acknowledging he was at an event hosted by a friend.
"One thing after another," the 31-year-old wrote. "I went to show love to my homegirl at her event (not a strip club) because she is becoming a boss and putting her people in position of success and now it's a problem.
"Everyday it's something different. No matter how many times people try to drag my name under you can't."
But the league's coronavirus protocols prohibit players from attending indoor gatherings of more than 15 people.
"Houston Rockets guard James Harden has been fined US$50,000 for violating the league's health and safety protocols, which among other things prohibit attending indoor social gatherings of 15 or more people or entering bars, lounges, clubs or similar establishments," NBA president of league operations Byron Spruell said in a statement about two hours after the game was postponed.
"Harden violated these rules when he attended a private indoor party on Monday, Dec 21."
The Rockets had noted in their official injury report that rookie Kenyon Martin Jr was in "self-isolation" after a coronavirus test.
ESPN and The Athletic website had reported that Martin was among a group of players who gathered on Tuesday night at a player's apartment to receive haircuts.
Virus 'impossible to avoid'
The Rockets had already recorded another positive coronavirus test days earlier, that of backup guard Ben McLemore.
"Three Houston Rockets players have returned tests that were either positive or inconclusive for coronavirus under the NBA's testing programme," the league said in a statement.
"Following the contact tracing protocol, four other players are quarantined at this time. Additionally, James Harden is unavailable due to a violation of the health and safety protocols.
"Houston has one additional player who is unavailable due to injury. As such, the Rockets do not have the league-required eight available players to proceed with tonight's game against the Oklahoma City Thunder."
The league said all other Rockets players were tested again on Wednesday and returned negative results.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who shepherded the league through its return from last season's coronavirus hiatus in a quarantine bubble in Orlando, Florida, had said on Tuesday that with teams playing in their home arenas he "wouldn't be surprised" to see postponements related to Covid-19.
That's why the league released a schedule only for the first half of the season, with the second half slate to be filled in later.
"When you're playing outside a bubble it's almost impossible to avoid this virus," Silver said.