The Celtics on Thursday gathered as a team for the first time since COVID-19 protocols halted their season Sunday. They are far from whole yet. Just nine of their 17 players were on the floor, one of whom was Kemba Walker, who has not been cleared to return from injury.
But it was a step in the right direction, and the team is hopeful there are no more setbacks, while also keeping this relatively minor hiccup in perspective.
“We’re like everyone else,” coach Brad Stevens said. “We appreciate the opportunity to gather, we appreciate the opportunity to be together, we appreciate the opportunity to play the game we love, and when it’s taken away for a week or four months, it’s hard.
“The rest of the world is dealing with that in every which way, so for us to complain about it, or to say, ‘Hey, I got a call that practice is canceled,’ and for me to complain about it, I think would be insensitive to everything else that’s going on in the world.”
The Celtics’ last three games have been postponed, but for now they are on track to face the Magic Friday night. Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams, who recently tested positive for the virus, have been ruled out, along with Carsen Edwards, who was a new addition to the protocol list Thursday. Center Tristan Thompson and forward Grant Williams, who had been held out because of contact tracing, have been cleared to return.
Jaylen Brown, Javonte Green, Semi Ojeleye, and Daniel Theis are all questionable because of COVID-19 protocols. But if all four players are sidelined and there are no additions to the injury report, the Celtics would have eight eligible players, the league minimum, to face Orlando.
The practice facility was briefly shuttered last week after Tatum’s positive test, but Stevens said that in recent days players not on the protocol list have come in for scattered one-on-one workouts with coaches.
Although the entire team has not been together since returning from Miami last Thursday, Stevens said there have been several teamwide Zoom calls. Walker said the players also have been active on their own group text chain, and that Tatum and Robert Williams, who tested positive for the virus, said they are in good health.
“We check in every day,” Walker said. “Those guys are doing well. They said they’re feeling well. Everyone around them is feeling well.
“I think this is definitely something we expected. We’re no longer in the bubble, obviously. We are out there just in the open world. So you just never know where you can get [COVID-19] from.”
This stoppage has delayed Walker’s return a bit, too. The All-Star point guard has yet to play this season as he works to rebuild strength in his left knee. He was cleared to practice one week ago, and the Celtics had privately targeted Friday’s game for his return, but Thursday was Walker’s first chance to practice since being cleared, and the Celtics did not complete any five-on-five scrimmaging.
“His strengthening has gone fantastic,” Stevens said. “He’s put in a ton of work.
“He went full go today for an hour with us. We did not go live but we did a lot of up and down, just trying to get our legs back in some ways with guys that haven’t done anything for a week. And he looked good.
“What that means, as far as next steps and playing and when he’ll play and all that stuff, that’s a decision for Kemba and our training staff. When he comes back, it’ll be because he’s ready and because he feels great and he’s ready to be Kemba.”
The Celtics have won four games in a row to surge to the top of the Eastern Conference. This pause could stall their momentum, and it will be a challenge to play the next few games without Tatum.
But they would have been severely undermanned in their last three games if they had been played. Now, those matchups will be pushed into the second half of the season, when the Celtics are much more likely to have close to their full complement of players.
“It was important for us to get back today if we hope that we’re good to go tomorrow,” Stevens said. “We cross our fingers and we’ll see.”