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Unmasked: NBA coaches allowed to open playoffs without masks

Michael Holley says that the road through the Western Conference during the 2021 NBA Playoffs is the "toughest top to bottom" he's ever seen.

Just in time for the playoffs, the NBA told its head coaches Saturday they may work without masks during games if they have been fully vaccinated.

And coaches quickly took advantage.

The coaches whose teams had the first three playoff openers Saturday - Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Tyronn Lue, Dallas’ Rick Carlisle, Boston’s Brad Stevens and Brooklyn’s Steve Nash - all roamed their sidelines without masks, the first time all season that coaches were permitted to do so.

The NBA’s updated policy is consistent with the way things have been trending in the league during the pandemic: Those who are vaccinated simply have more freedoms than those who are not.

“You just start to see more and more signs that things are coming around,” Spoelstra said. “It brings you a great deal of hope, just in general.”

Another notable change now that the playoffs are here is that crowds will be much bigger than was the case in the regular season. The Heat announced Saturday that they have been approved to have 17,000 fans starting with Game 3 of their matchup against Milwaukee on Thursday, the biggest known attendance number in the league so far this year.

Boston and Atlanta, without specifying exact numbers, said they would be near capacity in their buildings for Games 3 and 4 of their respective series against Brooklyn and New York. Dallas, New York, Brooklyn, Utah, Philadelphia and Phoenix are also planning for crowds exceeding 10,000 fans - all sizable jumps over regular-season norms.

Leaguewide, the average maximum attendance for games in Round 1 is currently about 10,600, and that could rise as the postseason goes along if the league, teams and local governments determine that they can safely bring more fans into buildings.

New York planned on welcoming up to 15,000 fans for its playoff opener Sunday at Madison Square Garden against Atlanta.

“You don’t realize how much you miss them. ... It’s just great to see things sort of getting back to normal,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said.

Only fully vaccinated head coaches, for now, can go without masks. Assistant coaches and players are still required to wear masks in the bench area.

The league memo detailing the moves, sent Saturday morning and obtained by The Associated Press, also said that head coaches will have to wear masks during halftime, during warmups and shootaround before the start of the third quarter and postgame. If opposing coaches choose to meet briefly on the court after a game, masks are encouraged.

Coaches have needed to wear masks throughout games all season, and some even got calls from the NBA with a reminder to be more committed to keeping the masks over their nose and mouth. But for the playoffs, the league said it was making the mask change “to facilitate in-game coaching duties, and in light of vaccination rates among NBA head coaches” along with recent updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Coaches will still need to participate in the NBA’s testing regimens, the league said.

In Los Angeles, public health officials were offering an additional incentive for those who are considering getting vaccinated this weekend. Residents of Los Angeles County who get their first dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, on Saturday or Sunday will be eligible to enter a drawing for two season tickets for Los Angeles Lakers games next season.

More changes to NBA policy could be coming as the playoffs go along. The NBA hasn’t ruled out the possibility of arenas returning to 100% capacity for the NBA Finals in July. The league also is planning to evaluate whether teams can increase travel parties starting with the second round of the playoffs. Teams have been limited in how many staffers can travel to games throughout the season.

“We’re making progress. We’re moving in the right direction,” Budenholzer said. “Still a lot of work to be done with the virus and with COVID, but for our fans and for our players, to get to experience this competition, playoff basketball in person ... it’s really exciting.”