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Toronto Raptors fans fill the arena during the warm-up before the start of the team’s NBA season opener against the Washington Wizards in Toronto on Oct. 20, 2021.Evan Buhler/The Canadian Press

It was less than two months ago that the Toronto Raptors made a triumphant return to Scotiabank Arena, 600 days exactly since they’d last played at home.

While the Washington Wizards went on to win, the Oct. 20 regular-season opener felt like a victory all the same. The Raptors were thrilled to be home after spending a season playing out of Tampa and a full crowd of 19,800 celebrated their return.

But the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Ontario felt like Groundhog Day on Thursday. The Ontario provincial government is slicing crowds at events to half the capacity, starting with the Raptors’ game Saturday against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.

“I’m trying to be optimistic about it,” guard Fred VanVleet said in a virtual media availability Thursday. “It’s a little bittersweet, we were lucky to have fans back, we were lucky to kind of go back to the way things were, but obviously we’ve got to put the health and safety first.”

Coach Nick Nurse said the sense of sliding backward is frustrating, but the team recognizes safety comes first.

“Everybody can see the logic and I’m like anybody, everybody’s got a moment of balancing out being disappointed because you want things to stay the way they are or improve and they’re just not right now,” he said.

“Common sense prevails always … and you’ve got to just adjust your mindset a little bit. Takes you a little bit to let that move through you. Hopefully we learned some lessons of keeping our focus and our head down and working and being vigilant and getting ready to play the game.

“The game is still there to be played and we need do our best, most professional job with that.”

Not only were the Raptors the only NBA team to play outside their market last season, they were also slammed by a COVID-19 outbreak in late February that sidelined several key players, including VanVleet, and most of the coaching staff and saw them nosedive down the Eastern Conference standings and miss the playoffs.

They haven’t managed to dodge the virus this season either. Precious Achiuwa missed four games in accordance with a Toronto Public Health directive because of a close contact, and team president Masai Ujiri announced he had COVID-19 after his Giants of Africa event on Dec. 5 saw several cases.

The Raptors had been scheduled to play host to Chicago on Thursday, but that game was postponed after 10 Bulls players entered league protocols.

The Brooklyn Nets had only the league-minimum eight players when they played host to Toronto on Tuesday, beating the Raptors 131-129 in overtime.

Asked if it felt odd to play a team that short-handed, VanVleet said it wasn’t anything the Raptors hadn’t experienced before.

“Nah, we did that last year so nothing is new,” he said. “Until I see a whole team out with all the coaches out as well, like we had it in a different city, then I’ll think something of it, but we’ve seen it all last year so it was no different.”

About 33 players across the league were in health and safety protocols on Thursday, including Canada’s RJ Barrett of the New York Knicks. Sacramento Kings interim coach Alvin Gentry and two players have tested positive among an outbreak there. Both the Knicks and Kings played in Toronto within the past week.

The NBA and the National Basketball Players Association are reportedly in the process of enhancing their health and safety protocols in response to rising cases.

Nurse said the Raptors had already got the ball rolling.

“We’ve had to kind of go back, revamp our protocols to where they are at heightened levels, I think we’ve done an incredibly good job with that without even maybe being told to do so,” Nurse said. “We’ve been maybe a few days ahead of that and we’ve been doing all the extensive double testing and testing before we’re allowed to enter the building, all those kinds of things from when it was at its most stringent.

“Your first reaction is ‘ah, more testing’ and you get over that after about one day or five minutes or whatever and realize that you’re doing the right thing.”

The Raptors did have some good news on Thursday. Achiuwa, OG Anunoby (hip injury) and Khem Birch (knee swelling) were all back practising. Anunoby, who’s a top defender, was also the team’s leading scorer when he was injured. He’s missed 13 consecutive games.