On the night of March 10, the Celtics finished off a stirring last-minute win over the Pacers, then flew to Milwaukee for their showdown against the first-place Bucks two days later. There was a growing sense of unease as COVID-19 cases began to surge across the nation, and the NBA had started to take mild action.
New media policies were in place for that Indiana game, keeping reporters out of the locker room and away from the players. And there was a growing belief that perhaps games would soon be played without fans.
The following night, as the Celtics relaxed in their team hotel, All-Star forward Jayson Tatum logged onto NBA League Pass to watch some other action from around the league.
“I remember when it happened,” Tatum said. “I was watching OKC about to play Utah. Everything was unfolding right in front of me. It was a surreal moment, something I’ll never forget.”
That night, Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, and the NBA was shuttered almost instantly. The Celtics, who had played the Jazz just five nights earlier, took an uneasy flight home to Boston, unsure when or if their game against the Bucks would be played.
Very few could have predicted that it would take place more than four months later, in Orlando, with sparkling video boards replacing fans, and with players wearing masks as they travel to and from their hotel to the arena on the Disney World campus. But it’s basketball, and it will count. The two teams will meet on Friday night in the first of eight seeding games before the playoffs begin in August.
Celtics point guard Kemba Walker said there are real benefits to facing the high-octane Bucks in the first game of the restart.
“We all know they are one of the best teams in our league right now,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to give us an opportunity to kind of work on things. It’s good. It’s good to get those guys for the first game, just because we know it’s going to be a tough challenge.”
The teams split their first two meetings this season, with the home team winning both times. Now, of course, there are no home teams, and there is no fight for homecourt advantage, and so the stakes might not be terribly high.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has stressed in recent weeks that his team is focused on building a rhythm in time for the playoffs. But the Bucks and likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, if nothing else, will assist in that pursuit.
“They are the best defense in the league,” Stevens said. “Offensively, they’re great. They play up-and-down the court. They are super physical. And something that not a lot of people talk about is how old they are. They just know. They know the game inside and out. They’ve played it for a long time. They’ve got a lot of guys that know what they do best surrounding an uber-talented guy in Giannis and several other high, high caliber players, including an All-Star in [Khris] Middleton.”
Stevens reiterated on Thursday that Walker, one of the Celtics’ two All-Stars, will play 14–20 minutes as he continues to rebuild strength in the left knee that has caused pain throughout this season. Stevens said he will likely play Walker in regular rotations and then remove him when he reaches his limit, rather than trying to squeeze in brief segments throughout the game.
Boston’s goal is for Walker to be able to thrive with a heavy workload when the postseason begins. Walker, however, wishes he could have a heavy workload now.
“It’s been frustrating,” he said. “I’ve been going through this pretty much most of the season, even before this bubble stuff, so yeah it’s been something that’s been nagging a bit now. Unfortunately it’s still been bothering me even after I put in my work and did the necessary things to try to get it right. It’s still bothering me. But it’s something a lot of athletes go through.”