MIAMI — Less than 48 hours after entering COVID-19 protocol and missing Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat, Celtics forward Al Horford on Thursday was cleared to return for Game 2 after returning multiple negative tests.
“He passed all the protocols, passed all the tests, and you know, I’m not a doctor, but he had to pass a certain amount of tests and league protocols, and so he did and he was feeling fine from the get-go,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “Happy to have him back.”
The Celtics also welcomed back Marcus Smart, who missed Game 1 because of a sprained foot, but guard Derrick White left the team to be with his wife, Hannah, for the birth of their child.
Horford was listed as doubtful on Thursday morning before being upgraded to questionable in the afternoon and finally being cleared to play just before 3 p.m. Udoka said Horford had not experienced COVID-19 symptoms.
The NBA updated its return-to-play policy for COVID positive players about three weeks ago, saying that players can be cleared if they have two negative tests on a game day. Previously, players were required to produce two negative PCR tests over a 24-hour period or have a viral load below a certain threshold four days after his first positive test.
“To get hit with that late news, we tried to move on as quickly as we can [in Game 1] and adjust rotation-wise and players stepping up,” Udoka said. “But happy to have him back, Marcus as well.”
Horford, who finished with 10 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists in 33 minutes, said he “felt a little off and felt like I needed to get tested. Tuesday we got the news and then subsequently got tested again and was able to get cleared. Just definitely a lot of emotions, and through all of it I just tried to stay locked in, do my part as best I could. I’m happy that I was able to be out there with the guys tonight.”
Udoka cited the “calming presence” of having Horford and Smart in the lineup. ”It was great to have the vets back,” he said.
White, meanwhile, was acquired in a trade with the Spurs in February and has emerged as an essential piece of Udoka’s bench. Although he has struggled a bit as a shooter, his passing and defense have been valuable. The Celtics have outscored opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions with White on the court during the playoffs, the best net rating on the team among regular rotation players.
“It’s, you don’t want to say tough situation,” Udoka said. “It was expected pretty soon. [His wife] was going to get induced in between some games and things happen in life, so we support our guys and always want them to be there for situations with their family.”
Said Horford, “We’re missing D White, and obviously he’s handling business, bigger things than what we’re experiencing right now. So we had to hold it down for him tonight.”
One that got away
Heat guard Max Strus started his career on a two-way contract with the Celtics during the 2019-20 season. That slot ultimately went to Tacko Fall, and Strus signed a partially guaranteed NBA deal to battle Javonte Green for the final roster spot, which Green eventually won.
But Strus has become a key cog at both ends of the floor for Miami, replacing New Hampshire native Duncan Robinson in the rotation. Strus had 6 points and five rebounds in 26 minutes in Game 2.
“He’s obviously carved a niche pretty quickly,” Udoka said. “His strength is shooting but not just that, he’s a solid defender, especially for a ‘shooter.’ And he’s taken this opportunity and taken some time from some guys who are really good players that they were relying on, so, shows their confidence in him.
“But always rooting for guys like that that come work their way up the hard way and the impact he’s having on their team is really evident. So happy for him, I know he was in Boston at some point in time a while ago. Might have missed out on that one.