DENVER — Before tipoff here Tuesday, a crisp No. 55 Celtics jersey hung in Terrence Williams’s locker as the newest member of the team lay on the floor, wearing his green game shorts, studying game film.
But Williams, whom the Celtics signed to a 10-day contract Monday, won’t be able to join the Celtics on the court until he receives a letter of clearance from the Chinese Basketball Association, and he didn’t receive that letter in time for Tuesday’s game against the Nuggets.
Williams most recently played in China for the Guangdong Southern Tigers of the CBA. Under the NBA’s agreement with FIBA (Federation International de Basketball), a player must receive a letter of clearance from the FIBA team he played for before joining an NBA team.
“Sometimes that’s quick, sometimes that’s a long process,” Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said. “We’re trying to finalize that paperwork. I’m hopeful that it will get done soon.”
Said coach Doc Rivers, tongue planted firmly in cheek: “You’ll have to call China to find that out. They’re probably too busy spying right now, so we’ll find out later.”
The Celtics have 13 players on their active roster, one over the league minimum, but three of those players have suffered season-ending injuries.
Williams, a 6-foot-6-inch wing player who has been with three NBA teams, will be a vital addition if only because he will help the team more evenly distribute minutes.
“We need that, for the practices, for the games,” forward Paul Pierce said. “With our guard rotation looking real slim, it was something we had to do.”
Williams wasn’t made available to reporters because he was not officially a member of the Celtics.
Avery Bradley knows Williams well, as both of them hail from the Northwest — Bradley from Tacoma, Wash., and Williams from Seattle.
“He’s a great player, can really play like three positions,” Bradley said. “He can play guard, can play defense, can shoot. He’s tall. He can play point guard, but he can play other positions as well.
“I think it will work well for us. We’re a team right now that moves the ball a lot. We try to run as much as possible. He obviously fits that description. He’s a great passer and that complements his game.”
Williams, a lottery pick by New Jersey in 2009, does have baggage. He broke several team rules when he was a member of the Nets, and was suspended two games after repeatedly being late to practices and shootaround.
After that suspension, former Nets coach Avery Johnson, a known disciplinarian, sent Williams to the D-League as a form of punishment — a rare move in the NBA.
During three games with the Springfield Armor, Williams averaged 28 points, 11.3 rebounds, 10.7 assists, and 1.3 steals. The Nets recalled him after that.
Pierce said the Celtics are willing to accept all players “as long as they’re willing to work hard and help us win.”
When Denver and the Celtics last met nine days ago, the game went to three overtimes, with the Celtics eventually pulling out a win. Rivers learned a lot about his team that night.
“I learned that we can’t do that very often, or we’re going to be bad the next night and the night after that,” Rivers said.
The Celtics played the next day against Charlotte, which had the NBA’s worst record and had lost seven in a row — and Boston played terribly, snapping a seven-game winning streak.
Following an off-day, the Celtics returned to the court against Chicago and played in what was both teams’ final game before the All-Star break.
Each team, and specifically the Celtics, played worn down. The Celtics did win, 71-69.
In October, the Celtics’ defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) was 124.9. The next month, it was 102.2. In January, it was 96.
And entering Tuesday’s game, the Celtics’ defensive rating for February was 93.3, which, if that were the rating for the entire season, would be the best in the league.
“Their biggest change, and this is in the last month when [Rajon] Rondo was playing, is they decided to play Celtics defense like they did over the last couple of years,” Denver coach George Karl said.
The Staples Center in Los Angeles will be somber Wednesday when the Celtics and Lakers play, as it will be the first game since iconic Lakers owner Jerry Buss died after a battle with cancer.
“It will probably be emotional for everybody in the arena, including us,” said Pierce, who hails from Inglewood, Calif., where the Forum that the Lakers used to play in still stands. “Because when somebody in your NBA family passes, then it’s felt all the way across the league.”
Said Rivers of Buss, “He’s meant the world. He really has. He took a franchise that had some history and made it historic.”
Buss died Monday at 80.