ATLANTA — Celtics forward Danilo Gallinari received a warm ovation when he was introduced to the crowd during the first quarter of Boston’s win over the Hawks Wednesday night. The veteran spent two productive years in Atlanta before signing a two-year deal with the Celtics last summer. But he certainly hoped his first game back would be under different circumstances.
When Gallinari was shown on the arena’s video board, he was standing near Boston’s bench wearing street clothes. He sheepishly looked up and waved, clearly wishing that he was on the court instead.
But the forward continues to take small steps as he rehabilitates from the likely season-ending left ACL tear he suffered while playing for Italy in a World Cup qualifier in September. For example, this is his first road trip of the season, and he was glad to at least come back to Atlanta and see familiar faces.
“It’s good to be back on a trip and just traveling with the guys,” he said. “I think I’m progressing well. We see every day how the knee is doing and see progress every day, every week, every two weeks. We look at all the progress. I don’t have any timetable or anything in mind, but I’m just taking it day by day.”
Gallinari, 34, acknowledged that it can be challenging to squint for signs of improvement when a return remains so far away. But he looks for small wins where he can find them. He said it felt significant to simply take his first steps after surgery, for example.
“And you start doing more and more stuff in the weight room, doing some stuff in the swimming pool that I wasn’t able to do two weeks ago,” he said. “Things like that help.”
Gallinari tore the ACL in the same knee while playing for the Nuggets in April 2013. He obviously wishes he weren’t familiar with the recovery process following such a crushing injury, but it is now helpful to know what to expect.
Gallinari, who was signed to provide instant offense off the bench, said it’s been a joy to watch the Celtics’ top-ranked unit pummel opposing defenses, even if he is not ready to join in the fun. He has put out congratulatory social media posts after most wins and is trying to stay engaged.
“It’s been great,” he said. “I think the guys are playing very well. We’re on a winning streak right now and hopefully can keep winning games. The guys are locked in and doing a great job.”
Gallinari’s replacement, second-year forward Sam Hauser, has been a bit of a revelation. After pouring in five 3-pointers in Wednesday’s win, he is now shooting 45.2 percent from beyond the arc. The Celtics have outscored opponents by 24 points per 100 possessions with Hauser on the floor, the best net rating on the team by nearly 10 points.
“It’s really fun to earn the trust and respect of your coach and the ones you’re playing with out there,” Hauser said. “It’s something that takes a lot of work and you’ve got to prove it each and every day.
“I’m glad I’ve gotten to the level where there’s times they’re looking for me to get a shot up as opposed to themselves. But I’m out there to do what I do best, and that’s shoot the ball and space the floor for these guys.”
Hauser’s emergence ultimately could make Gallinari redundant. Gallinari has a player option on his two-year, $13.3 million deal next season, but by that time he will be 35 and coming off his second major knee surgery. Regardless, Gallinari remains confident that he will have a place on this roster that appears to have a championship window open right now.