There was something pure and refreshing but the Celtics’ sideline celebrations, the players slapping hands —not hugging ― after a streaking Javonte Green dunk or Payton Pritchard 3-pointer.
The way they strutted past each other in excitement when 7-foot-5-inch Tacko Fall dribbled and drove past an Orlando defender for a dunk or when he drained a long 2-pointer (his size-22 shoes touched the 3-point line) moments before.
The Celtics returned from a nine-day break with a 124-97 win over the overwhelmed Magic, a game that transformed into a celebration of just being together, playing ball, and pushing aside COVID-19 tests, contact tracing, and canceled games.
The league has been knocked on its butt by the effects of the coronavirus. Three more games were postponed Friday, including the Minnesota-Memphis game just a few hours before tip. Less than an hour after that was announced, Minnesota center Karl-Anthony Towns announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19, the virus that took his mother’s life last summer.
The Washington Wizards announced Friday that six players had tested positive for COVID-19 and three more players are in the league’s contact tracing protocol. A pair of weekend games against the Cleveland Cavaliers were postponed because Washington has just six healthy players.
The NBA is scrambling for solutions without postponing the season and are likely to add an extra roster spot so it can be easier for teams to get to the eight-player roster minimum for each game.
The Celtics have been firsthand victims of the COVID-19 surge with players Robert Williams and Jayson Tatum testing positive, while Grant Williams and Tristan Thompson were sidelined a week because of contact tracing, while Jaylen Brown, Semi Ojeleye, and Green were cleared Friday afternoon to play after being held out for the past few days.
Boston didn’t have enough healthy players to face Chicago on Tuesday or Orlando on Wednesday. The Celtics couldn’t play Miami on Jan. 10 because the Heat were short of players. It’s been unpredictable, bordering on absurd, for a league that had zero positive tests during its time in the bubble last summer.
So there was a little bit of extra celebration, more than usual for a mid-January win over the Magic. The Celtics were just happy to be here, happy to return to a virtually empty TD Garden because it’s better than the alternative.
“Just thank God that we’re able to play,” Ojeleye said. “We, now more than ever, need to realize that this can be taken away just like that. Every time we get a chance to get out there, whether we’re winning, losing, playing well or not, we need to remember that. And if this week hasn’t been a reminder, we don’t deserve to play at all.”
Of course, people expect Tatum and Williams to come back 100 percent because they are well-tuned professional athletes. But that’s not always the case. This is not simply a two-week respite with the flu. It will take some time for those players who tested positive to get back into shape physically, and perhaps overcome psychological hurdles.
It seems like five years ago, but Celtics guard Marcus Smart in the first group of NBA players to contract COVID-19 in March. He recovered quickly, return to practice, and played without issue in the NBA bubble. But he understands the seriousness of the virus and how healthy and safety supersede the game.
“It’s definitely serious,” he said. “Those guys, Rob and Jayson, we definitely expected false positive and their next test to come back negative, but it didn’t. It’s something that happens. You don’t plan on it, you have to be able to adjust. For me, it was more not knowing what to expect, psychologically that can really affect a person. We see cases that are way worse than mine.
“My prayers go out to everybody’s who dealing with it, every family member, friends, enemies, everybody that’s going through this and hoping they can get past this.”
The Celtics were happy to take a step forward, even without Tatum, Robert Williams, and Carsen Edwards (also, COVID-19 protocol). This NBA season will never resemble normalcy, even if the conditions improve. They are no fans in 24 of the 30 arenas and the league has implemented new guidelines to limit players’ off-court activity to attempt to reduce the spread of the virus.
“As weird as it probably sounds, it probably wasn’t that strange at all,” Brown said when asked to describe the past week. “Seeing some of the events that have transpired even at the end of 2020, early into 2021, I think it’s probably fitting, to be honest.”
This is the current NBA landscape and the only option is following the guidelines, concentrating on things you can control and hoping for good health. Things were almost normal Friday, or let’s just call it the “new” normal.
“It’s great to be together,” coach Brad Stevens said. “We’re still going to be in this test all the time and be on weird hours and be ready to hit curveball so any chance we get to be in the gym together, I think that’s the right mind-set, to enjoy it, don’t sweat the small stuff and enjoy this unique journey we’re on.”