BOSTON — Now, this was a comeback.
Throughout training camp, the preseason and the early part of the regular seasons, Chris Wilcox and his “scary buddy” Jeff Green repeated the cliché that simply getting back on the court after learning of their heart defects last season was a victory. For more than 99 percent of the populous, that would be true. Recovering from heart surgery is hard enough without having to run up and down a 90-foot hardwood floor with elite athletes.
Wilcox did not get to the NBA by being happy just to participate, though. He could not have been fully satisfied with his first two appearances this season, in which he totaled 10 minutes and two points, both off free throws. That sort of nominal contribution was not what made him an NCAA champion at Maryland or an 11-year NBA veteran.
The sort of participation Wilcox strives for came Wednesday, when he delivered an energetic three minutes off the bench that sparked the Celtics to a 100-94 victory over the Wizards.
“I thought Chris Wilcox saved the game for us, singlehandedly, with his effort,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought it was obvious. He didn’t do anything but play hard and play with great effort, and I thought that leadership led everybody else into doing it.”
When Wilcox entered the game with three minutes, 10 seconds remaining in the third quarter, the game was tied 56-56 and the Celtics looked sluggish and lost. Following two free throws by Brandon Bass to give Boston the lead, Wilcox took over.
Wilcox blocked a shot by Kevin Seraphin and raced downcourt to receive a pass on the break. He was fouled and hit both free throws, doubling his scoring output for the season to that point. On the next possession Wilcox slapped the ball away from Jordan Crawford to start another fast break, this one ending with Rajon Rondo finding Wilcox for the finish and the foul. Wilcox missed the and-one attempt, but less than a minute later he was back on the line to hit two more free throws.
He finally puffed to the bench with 23 seconds left in the frame, and the absence of an ovation from the TD Garden crowd was borderline criminal. In less than three minutes of action, Wilcox had six points, two rebounds, one blocked shot and an unofficial deflection to turn a tie game into an eight-point Celtics advantage. Without his work, the Celtics would never have been able to hold off the Wizards’ late push and eventually win in overtime.
“Wilcox really changed the game for us,” Paul Pierce said. “It was a tie game until he came in there. Then I think he pushed the lead to six or eight just with his energy, offensively and defensively. There are going to be nights where some guys don’t play and there are going to be nights where some guys get the call. They may be sitting there all night, but when they get the call, they’ve got to be ready. Chris was an example of that.”
Wilcox’ motto is, “If you stay ready, you ain’t got to get ready,” which is why the last eight months were so unbearable for him. His heart ailment, the surgery and the recovery that followed prevented him from working out and “staying ready,” and he leapt into his training regimen as soon as he was cleared for physical activity.
He is still some way from being able to run as fast for as long as he could before the surgery, but his enthusiasm masked his fatigue as he sprinted up and down the court on Wednesday.
“I’m trying to get back there,” Wilcox said. “I’m not 100 percent where I want to be, but great things like this happen and that’s motivation for me to keep going. Like I say, I’ve just got to stay ready so I don’t have to get ready.”
Wilcox has been ready for a while, at least in his own mind. On Wednesday he proved to himself and everyone else that if his comeback is not entirely complete, he is getting very close.