When Celtics star Jayson Tatum tested positive for COVID-19 last January, he mostly experienced mild symptoms such as a headache and fever. But the aftereffects persisted for several months, as Tatum dealt with respiratory issues and used an inhaler during games.
He was glad to finally start feeling like himself again by late spring. But when he tested positive once again following a loss to the Bucks on Christmas, the here-we-go-again thoughts crept in.
“I reverted back to everything, and it kind of felt like the first go-round when I had it last year,” Tatum said, “how tough that was and everything like that.”
But Tatum, who has said he is vaccinated, said that so far this second bout with COVID has not been as troubling. He returned to practice Tuesday and is on track to play against the Spurs at TD Garden Wednesday night.
“I feel a lot better with everything,” he said. “My quarantine was shorter, my body feels a lot better compared to my first couple of days back practicing than last year when I first came back. So that’s a positive sign.”
Tatum said that given how the coronavirus is ravaging the country, and rushing through the NBA, causing so many breakthrough cases in those who are vaccinated, he was not that surprised by his second positive test.
But he’s glad to be back and eager to make an impact. Coach Ime Udoka said the team will be a bit cautious with Tatum’s playing time at the start to ensure that his conditioning level is fine. But he added that Tatum, who ranks fourth in the NBA at 36.7 minutes per game, was due for a slight reduction there anyway.
“He’s looking good out here with what he is doing so far, and he’s the type of guy that wants to come back and get right back into his role and not be limited,” Udoka said. “Something he’s stressed is that he doesn’t love a minutes restriction and anything like that. As long as his conditioning and wind is fine, he can get right back to playing at the level that he was.”
The Celtics had a rocky start without Tatum, losing to the Timberwolves and Clippers before rebounding with wins against the Suns and Magic.
Now, they are inching closer to full strength and hopeful that they can stay that way for a sustained period. Enes Kanter Freedom, who has been out because of COVID-19, and Robert Williams, who missed the Orlando game because of a toe injury, both practiced Tuesday as well.
Second-year wing Aaron Nesmith remains in COVID-19 protocol, but Udoka will have plenty of options at his disposal, an encouraging shift from just one week ago, when the roster included five players who had been signed to 10-day contracts via hardship exceptions.
The Celtics’ preferred starting lineup of Tatum, Williams, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and Marcus Smart has played a total of just 87 minutes together over eight games this season. But the results of that small sample have been quite good, with the unit outscoring opponents by 20.6 points per 100 possessions.
“The numbers and the eye test, you kind of see what we can be,” Udoka said. “And we’ve been pretty good with the starting group, although it’s been low minutes overall. And so just to get the full complement of players back, it kind of sets everybody else in rotations and sets some of the roles.”
Brown was tasked with carrying the Celtics during Tatum’s absence, and after a bit of a rocky start last week he erupted for a career-high 50 points in the comeback win over the Magic.
Because of injuries and COVID-19 absences, Brown and Tatum have played together in just 19 of the Celtics’ 37 games this year. They have a plus-4.3 net rating in 460 minutes on the court at the same time, and Udoka believes their impact as a duo can be even greater.
“That’ll be a benefit for the team overall, get back to some normal rotations and try to save some minutes and not overload guys,” Udoka said. “But the progression of the year is those guys learn to play together, making plays for each other, and then having another focal point on the court at all times so teams can’t load up against one of the other guys.”
Forward Jabari Parker missed practice Tuesday because of a dental procedure, and his status for Wednesday’s game is unclear.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.