TD Garden was rumbling Friday night as the Celtics surged back into their opening-round playoff series against the Nets with a Game 3 win. And that was with about 15,000 empty seats.
Now, the Celtics and their supporters are set to take their biggest step toward normalcy after a lost year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Garden has been cleared to welcome 17,226 fans for Sunday’s Game 4.
Celtics center Tristan Thompson had his best game as a Celtic on Friday with 19 points and 13 rebounds, and he constantly fed off the energy from the crowd of 4,789. Afterward, he was giddy as he thought about the jolt that his team could now receive.
“I can’t [expletive] wait until Sunday,” he said. “17K green. I’m going to see the leprechaun. I can’t wait. That’s what Boston is all about. That’s what the fans are about. They’re going to give us that life, that juice, that energy. They haven’t seen us all in this arena in a long time, so I know everyone is excited.”
TD Garden has a capacity of 19,156 for Celtics games. That number will still be reduced by about 2,000, mostly because seating around the court will remain limited. Nevertheless, it will be a substantial and noticeable change, and the atmosphere figures to be charged. Kyrie Irving’s presence, and the fact that the Celtics pulled within 2-1 in this series, will only add to the buzz.
“[Home-court advantage] is real,” Celtics forward Evan Fournier said. “It’s a thing. And I mean, I think it was 5,000 people [Friday] night, and they were very loud, so 17, I can’t even imagine. So that’s something I always thought about, playing in front of huge crowds like that and being very loud and stuff. So, honestly, I’m extremely excited.”
The Celtics spent three months this season playing without any fans. Then TD Garden opened at 12 percent capacity for Boston’s March 29 game against the Pelicans before doubling to 25 percent capacity for the May 11 game against the Heat. But with COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts plummeting and the vaccination rate continuing to rise, state and local officials decided it was time to fill more seats.
“I feel like there’s no way anyone on our team is not going to be ready to come out and play their hardest and be ready for this game and be physical in this game on both sides, honestly,” Celtics wing Romeo Langford said.
Langford is among the group of Celtics who have yet to experience TD Garden when it is at its playoff rowdiest. He and fellow second-year players such as Grant Williams, Carsen Edwards, Tremont Waters and Tacko Fall had their rookie seasons halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic before being restarted in the NBA’s Orlando bubble. This is all new to rookies Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard, too.
“I’m thankful that they get a chance to experience what the playoffs are like and what the environments are like,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
When veteran point guard Kemba Walker signed with the Celtics last year he said the intense fan support played a role in his decision. But this will be his first true taste of it as a Celtic. The same goes for Fournier, who was acquired last March, and Thompson, who signed with the team last fall.
This weekend Thompson recalled playing in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals in Boston as a member of the Cavaliers. LeBron James led Cleveland to a win that day, but the intensity of the crowd stuck with Thompson.
“We need that times two,” he said. “So, let’s get it rocking. Let’s [expletive] dance and have a good time.”
Celtics center Robert Williams is doubtful for Game 4 because of a sprained ankle he suffered in the first quarter of Game 3, as well as a lingering turf toe injury. He left TD Garden in a walking boot Friday night. Stevens said that Williams would probably not test his ankle Sunday morning, but that the team would evaluate his condition closer to the 7 p.m. tipoff. Walker, who was questionable for Game 3 because of a bone bruise on his knee, was sore Saturday and is officially questionable for Sunday’s game.