As the Celtics gathered for a brief team meeting in a JW Marriott Orlando conference room Monday morning to discuss their game against the Magic that night, forward Danilo Gallinari sat on a nearby table, waiting for a member of the team’s medical staff.
Gallinari yearns for the regular rhythm of game-day preparation that became so familiar over the course of his 14-year career. But for now, he continues to embrace the monotony as he pushes toward something more meaningful.
Four months have passed since the forward underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee. Since then, he has watched the Celtics roar to the top of the NBA without him. But his rehabilitation is not simply a way to get his mind off what he is missing.
Instead, with the Celtics’ path back to the Finals appearing more likely than not, a possible return this season is serving as his guiding light. He’s unsure if it’s a belief or just a hope, but something is there.
“My mind-set is that I want to play, and that I’m going to play at the end of the season,” Gallinari said. “I want to play in the playoffs. So that’s the mind-set that helps me every day get better and motivates me even more.”
The Celtics signed the 6-foot-10-inch forward to a two-year, $13.3 million deal last July to provide much-needed scoring pop off the bench. But in early September, he tore the ACL while playing for Italy in a World Cup qualifier. He underwent surgery about three weeks later.
NBA players generally take about 9-12 months to return from ACL tears. Bucks guard Joe Ingles, for example, underwent ACL surgery last February and made his season debut last month.
Gallinari, 34, actually suffered a partial ACL tear in the same knee in April 2013, and doctors tried to accelerate his recovery with a less-intrusive procedure in which the ACL was not reconstructed. But about nine months after that, he required a full surgery and returned at the start of the 2014-15 season about 10 months later.
Gallinari said that experience taught him how to handle the greatest challenges created by such a lengthy absence.
“After every big injury in the rehab process, the toughest part is the mental part,” he said. “The body will react and the body will get better, and you get stronger than before. But the mental part is the toughest one, especially at the beginning, when you do the same thing over and over every day, reps all day, it’s tough. But you’ve got to get through it, so now we’re here.”
He has been documenting his recovery by posting videos on Instagram, and the progress has been noticeable. In late October, he was doing some stationary, flat-footed shooting and dribbling. In early November, he was doing more balance work and weight training.
He progressed to full lunges and small stationary jumps, and in mid-December he was jumping higher, doing lateral hops, and jogging on a treadmill. Now, he is jogging at a normal pace and taking catch-and-shoot jumpers.
“I saw him jogging on the treadmill and I was like, ‘I haven’t seen you running much faster than that in the game,’ ” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla quipped. “So I thought he was playing [Monday].
“Credit to him, man. His mind-set every day and the approach he has coming in, he’s very determined. He’s working hard at it and I’m really happy for him.”
Gallinari said being isolated while rehabbing is challenging, so he’s gotten a boost from traveling with the Celtics and being around the day-to-day activities more consistently.
“It’s great to see the team doing so well to have this great start to the season,” he said. “Of course, it’s tough to not be a part of it, because you want to be part of something special, but it’s been great to see them playing like this.”
He said a return this season would truly start feeling like a possibility when he is able to do basketball workouts with coaches and teammates.
“But I think we’re far from that,” he said. “It’s not going to happen soon. But doing more and more stuff on the court, more heavy stuff in the weight room, going from a jog into an actual fast run, these are the steps I’m looking forward to.”
The Celtics would likely need to make a long playoff run for Gallinari to potentially return this season. But even if he is eventually cleared, the team could be reluctant to throw him into such a high-intensity, high-stakes environment after such a long layoff.
Nevertheless, the possibility is helping Gallinari navigate this long, challenging winter.
“My mind-set is there is definitely a chance,” he said. “So when I think about the season, it’s definitely not a lost season for me. So, we’ll see. That’s the mind-set that helps me and pushes me to get better every day. If it happens, it’s going to be great. If it doesn’t, I’m looking forward to next season.”