In his first game back since sustaining a concussion a little more than two weeks ago, the artist affectionately known as Air France checked in for takeoff as though no head injury had ever happened. His first foray to the hoop, midway through the second quarter, provided a scary moment when Pietrus absorbed contact in mid-air and tumbled to the hardwood.
The TD Garden crowd and the Celtics bench briefly held their breath. Then Pietrus popped up, and the entire building seemed to exhale.
After the Celtics' 88-86 overtime win over the Hawks on Wednesday, the playful Pietrus denied he was ever worried.
"No, that's why they call me Air France," said Pietrus, who had eight points and six rebounds in addition to playing stifling defense. "I've got to take off, and I've got to land."
Pietrus was expected to play between five and 10 minutes, Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. The Celtics had put Pietrus through a brief workout Wednesday morning, and he had been tired after four or five minutes, Rivers said, so the coach planned to merely give Pietrus a light run to get him ready for upcoming games.
The close contest and the absence of Ray Allen, whose sore right ankle acted up again, meant the Celtics needed to ask more of Pietrus. His five to 10 minutes ended up being closer to 29 minutes, including more than eight minutes in the tight fourth quarter and the full five minutes of overtime.
"I was going to take him out after about three or four minutes, and Eddie [Lacerte, the Celtics' head athletic trainer] said, 'He looks great, let him go,' " Rivers said. "It's amazing. He actually never looked over and said he was tired. Maybe he's been working out on the sly and we never knew it."
Pietrus was in good spirits before the game, describing the concussion tests he underwent as taking his brain out, poking it in a petri dish and screwing it back into his head. He said he had passed five series of tests and just needed time to recover.
He was also honest on some points, noting that "concussions [stink]." He admitted that basketball never crossed his mind while he was lying on the floor in Philadelphia on March 23.
"To be honest with you, I was thinking about my kids," said Pietrus, a father of two. "I was thinking about my life."
He hinted before the game that he could return "soon," although he was vague or changed the subject when he was asked how soon "soon" was. Minutes later, Rivers made the surprise announcement that Pietrus was ready to play a limited role on Wednesday.
When Pietrus checked into the game for the first time with 3:22 remaining in the first quarter, many in the crowd were presumably unaware he would play. The ovation took a moment to build as fans shook off their surprise, but they made up for it early in the second quarter when Pietrus hit a 3-pointer to give the Celtics a one-point lead.
Still, Pietrus insisted he felt no trepidation. A few minutes after his three, he faked a jumper and drove into the lane, drawing contact from the Hawks' Marvin Williams. He strolled to the foul line, split a pair of free throws, and later claimed that coming back strong from the head injury and two-week layoff was simply a matter of getting in the right frame of mind.
"Mentally, I got myself ready," Pietrus said. "I don't take anything for granted. I just want to fight, and I just want to win. At the end of the day, when I step on the floor, I don't worry about a concussion. I don't worry about any injury. I just give my best effort for my team."
Pietrus' best effort on Wednesday would have been a few meaningless minutes. What he supplied was something a bit more significant. Air France was ready for another flight.
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