Marcus Thornton reached down and rubbed his lower leg. He nodded.
“In my mind, I said it wasn’t holding me back,” the guard said after the Celtics’ 93-87 loss to the Houston Rockets on Friday night. “But in actuality it did. Those things take a while to come back from, and, you know, it kind of slowed me down.”
Thornton missed 11 games after tearing a muscle in his calf in mid-December. He returned on Jan. 7, but he knew he wasn’t really back. He was tentative. He was cautious.
And Thornton is not the kind of player who can afford to be tentative or cautious. When he is feeling his best, he can come off the bench and pile up points before a fan comes back from buying a soda.
So Thornton’s 17-point, seven-rebound performance against the Rockets, which came on the heels of a 15-point outing against Minnesota on Wednesday night, was reason for encouragement.
“He’s a guy that can score the ball,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think that’s what he can do. He also made some good, physical defensive plays. So he’s been pretty reliable in his role.”
Thornton was 5 for 23 from the floor in his first four games back from injury. He acknowledged he is still feeling his way back. He said that on off days, he went back to the gym to spend extra time regaining his shooting touch.
It was a process, and it was set against the backdrop of this franchise’s uncertain future.
During the Celtics’ recent fire sale, there has been a lingering possibility that as a player with an expiring contract, Thornton could be attractive to other teams, although his $8.6 million salary could be an albatross in working out a deal.
Thornton has simply focused on what he can control, like his shooting touch, his energy, and getting his left leg feeling like it used to.
“Just trying to get back to game speed and get back right,” he said. “It’s still not all the way back, but it’s definitely playable right now. This is about as good as it has felt.”
The Celtics trailed, 80-70, with fewer than eight minutes left when Thornton provided a spark. First, he took a pass from Jae Crowder and drained a 25-footer. Then with 5:59 remaining, Marcus Smart found him for another 3-pointer, this one pulling the Celtics within 82-77 and giving a jolt to the previously sleepy crowd of 17,765.
(For much of the game, the loudest ovations were reserved for fans who appeared on the scoreboard’s video screen wearing Patriots jerseys.)
A strong, driving layup by Thornton made it 90-87 with 27 seconds left, and after Corey Brewer made one of two free throws for Houston, the Celtics had hope. Thornton swerved and swirled near the top of the key and looked for his shot, but ultimately fired a pass to Avery Bradley, whose jumper caromed off the rim.
Over the past two games, Thornton’s player impact estimate — an advanced metric that shows a player’s positive effect on a game — was 17.5, nearly double his season average of 9.8. He was 4 for 6 on 3-pointers against Houston, and he hopes that is a sign that he is finding his way.
“It helps give me a lift, man,” Thornton said. “It gives me a lot on the offensive end, and it helps me build some momentum, too.”