When the Celtics took the court after a timeout during their win over the Hornets on Sunday, center Tristan Thompson stood near the foul line with his teammates and nodded his head and pumped everyone up. He appeared ready to get some rebounds and block some shots.
But then the referee blew his whistle, signaling that it was time for the game to resume, and Thompson, who was in street clothes, slowly walked back toward the bench.
The veteran big man missed nearly a month after contracting COVID-19, and it was clear that he was itching to help his struggling team, which went 5-8 without him. He returned to face the Knicks on Wednesday and had a significant impact, registering 7 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 blocks. Boston, which won the game, 101-99, outscored New York by 24 points while Thompson was on the floor.
“I think for me the biggest thing was the wind and just being out there with the feel of a five-on-five setting with your teammates,” Thompson said. “Just getting the feel again. You know, you can always go five on five with the coaches or some of the young players that don’t get as much minutes, but nothing compares to going five on five with the first-unit guys.”
Thompson tested positive for COVID-19 prior to the March 16 game against the Jazz, becoming the sixth Celtics player to be diagnosed with the virus. Marcus Smart was asymptomatic after testing positive last spring, but the Celtics who tested positive during this season — Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams, Romeo Langford, and Carsen Edwards — all dealt with effects of varying severity.
“When I had COVID, I had a bit of all the symptoms,” Thompson said. “At least I kept my taste and smell so I can enjoy my food but yeah, that [expletive] was no joke. So, definitely going to get the vaccine when I’m eligible to get it. That [expletive] was no joke for me, so I wasn’t one of the lucky ones to have no symptoms. I was in a 12-round battle with that joker, but you know, I won. I’m here now.”
The timing of Thompson’s absence presented an extra challenge for the Celtics, who traded starting center Daniel Theis to the Bulls on March 25. The revelatory play of Williams may have initially turned Thompson into a slight afterthought. But the past few weeks, in which everyone from Luke Kornet to Tacko Fall has tried to fill the backup center role, made it quite clear that Thompson will remain an essential part of whatever the Celtics accomplish this year.
“He brings that energy,” Smart said. “He really controls the boards for us and he does a really good job at it. He does a really good job at getting us extra possessions, does a really good job of protecting us when we make mistakes on the defensive end. And then on the offensive end, he does a really good job at getting us those extra shots and finding guys and doing what he does best. So, it’s great to have a guy like Tristan.”
Smart’s sentiment was echoed by several other Celtics and coach Brad Stevens following Wednesday’s win, and it ran counter to a recent report by The Ringer that Thompson was not well-liked by his teammates. After this game, Thompson pushed back strongly against that suggestion.
“You can ask any of my teammates from 2011 since I’ve played in the NBA until now, and I don’t think there’s one teammate that doesn’t like me,” he said. “Even a trainer, equipment guy, ball boy. I’ve got a pretty good rapport in this league.”
He felt as if it was just a search for a scapegoat for the Celtics’ puzzling season. But perhaps Wednesday’s win — which came without Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier — will be the start of an ascension. With 20 games left, the Celtics have almost no chance of pushing into the top three in the Eastern Conference. But even though they entered Thursday night in seventh place, they were just one game behind the fourth-place Hornets, who have been crushed by injuries recently.
Home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs is well within reach. But Thompson, for one, is more focused on what the team looks like when it gets there.
“My whole thing is being healthy when it matters,” he said. “Of course, for us, we’ve haven’t had a healthy squad … So I think regular season matters in terms of just building chemistry, but that’s out the window when we get to playoffs. It’s all about matchups.”