MIAMI — After a recent Celtics practice, after most of the players had left the team’s Waltham training facility and driven past the massive snowbanks in its parking lot, Gigi Datome’s work began.
The 6-foot-8-inch forward from Italy had played a total of just 22 minutes all season, and he had yet to appear in a game since being acquired in a Feb. 19 deadline deal with the Detroit Pistons. But he needed to stay active, to stay ready, and this was his way.
With assistant coach Jay Larranaga firing him strong chest passes, Datome lofted one 3-pointer after another. He made them off the dribble. He made them after curling around imaginary screens. He nodded his head when Larranaga encouraged him.
When Datome was a member of the Pistons, these workouts became routine out of necessity. Night after night, he was either placed on the inactive list or at the end of the bench, and day after day, he went to the gym for extra work with a Pistons assistant. The joy basketball long had provided was slowly melting.
“It was tough. It was kind of depressing,” said Datome. “Not as much depressing, but frustrating. For the first time in my life, basketball felt like a job. Go there every day, every single day. I gave myself two days off, I think — Thanksgiving and Christmas. And that was just because I wanted to give days off to [the assistant coach].”
Datome hoped his persistence would lead to a chance, and maybe then his love for the game would be rekindled. And so on Monday night, after Datome had scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the Celtics’ 100-90 win over the Heat, he became slightly emotional.
“I’m not a guy that lets feelings out a lot,” Datome said. “But inside, I feel so happy. I’m a basketball player. I love the NBA. I love Boston, the Celtics. But I just love to play. So to play, it is so, so big for me.”
On Sunday, Datome scored 10 points in a loss to the Magic. He has 23 points over his last two games after entering the weekend with 18 total points this season.
He has given added punch to the Isaiah Thomas-led second unit that was already thriving. In the win over Miami, the Boston bench outscored the Heat’s reserves, 59-24.
“He can really play,” said Celtics 7-footer Kelly Olynyk. “I played against him a lot in Italy, and he can really shoot the ball, really skilled. I think our second unit is really skilled at every position.”
In the final hour before the trade deadline, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge acquired Datome and forward Jonas Jerebko from the Pistons for Tayshaun Prince. The move was somewhat surprising because it veered from the Celtics’ trend of turning veterans into draft picks.
Jerebko has had modest success in the NBA and was viewed as the more valuable acquisition. There were even reports that Boston might buy out Datome’s expiring contract to open a roster spot. But Ainge said the Celtics had admired Jerebko and Datome from afar. The team was intrigued to see them in coach Brad Stevens’s system that values floor spacing and skilled big men.
Jerebko had an early impact, scoring a total of 36 points in February wins over the Knicks and the Hornets. But Datome was used sparingly. His appearances became lovable novelties, as fans knew that if he was in the game, the game was probably not close. But by Monday, after playing important minutes in an important spot for the second consecutive night, it became clear that Datome could be a valuable cog in the Celtics’ improbable playoff push.
“I’m ultimately drawn to people that are just ultimate pros,” Stevens said. “You know, guys that don’t complain. Guys that just come to work. Guys that try to do their very best.
“But you still have to take advantage of your opportunity when it comes, and it’s hard to ignore what [Datome] has done putting the ball in the basket the last two games.”
Datome said that Stevens’s instructions have been fair and simple. He has told him not to rush. He has told him to be solid.
In the first half against the Heat, Datome showed surprising versatility. He soared in for a dunk — his second in as many games — he hit a pull-up 19-footer, and he splashed a 3-pointer from the left arc. He made four field goals in the second while the rest of the Celtics mustered a total of three.
“You can’t understand,” Datome said. “Like, I stayed seated maybe 50 games in Detroit, or inactive, DNP, so I was saying after the games I would never take for granted playing basketball. So every minute, I’ve tried to bring my best.”
. . .
Thomas took a hard fall after being fouled by Dwyane Wade with 3:44 left in Monday’s game. Further evaluation Tuesday confirmed the initial diagnosis of a bruised lower back and bruised elbow. The point guard is officially a game-time decision against the Memphis Grizzlies on Wednesday.