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BOSTON -- Nenad Krstic's time in Boston has, by his own admission, been a roller-coaster ride. From the initial shock of being dealt from Oklahoma City at the trade deadline to a honeymoon period upon joining the Celtics to a mentally taxing slump at the end of March, his head has been spinning for more than a month.
And then came an injury scare in San Antonio, his right knee erupting in pain while bending awkwardly as he drove toward the hoop in the second quarter of last Thursday's win over the Spurs. Suddenly, Krstic's season was in jeopardy and his only concern was whether he had seriously injured his right knee, as he did in 2006 with a season-ending left ACL injury.
|After missing three games, Nenad Krstic came back to hit four of his five shots.|
An MRI revealed nothing more than a bone bruise, and Krstic breathed a tremendous sigh of relief, appearing downright jovial Sunday. And something funny happened when his mind was forced to worry about his health: It flushed all the other stuff that had cluttered his brain during his slump.
Back on the court Tuesday night against the Philadelphia 76ers, Krstic looked a lot like the player the Celtics saw when he first put on a green jersey at the end of February. Krstic connected on 4-of-5 shots for eight points, while grabbing six rebounds in 18:25 in the Celtics' 99-82 triumph at the TD Garden.
Sure, it wasn't the 16-point, 15-rebound effort he unleashed in Philadelphia in early March, an effort that helped him earn an Eastern Conference player of the week nomination.
But considering his struggles since that game, Tuesday's performance was an encouraging glimpse of what Krstic can provide, even as he shifts into a reserve role as the playoffs near.
Suddenly that roller coaster is on the rise again.
"Maybe this [injury] was a good thing," Krstic said. "I was thinking a lot before the game but when I stepped on the court [Tuesday], I forgot about it and just played."
That's exactly what allowed Krstic to thrive in his early days with Boston. Celtics coach Doc Rivers has said numerous times recently that Krstic was trying too hard to please everyone and had gotten away from simply playing basketball.
In fact, in the days after Rivers boiled over while calling his team selfish following a head-shaking 83-81 loss to the Charlotte Bobcats on March 25, Boston's coach used Krstic as an example, noting how the 7-foot center hanging his head on the offensive end had repeatedly prevented him from getting back up the floor and allowed the other team to score in transition.
Rivers soon found himself yelling at Krstic to forget about the bad things he was doing, but that seemed to cloud Krstic's head even more.
Then came the serendipitous knee injury, which caused a brain reboot.
"You know what I say: Thinking hurts the team," Rivers joked. "I just thought he played with instincts [Tuesday]. And he's starting to get our stuff a little bit better too."
Sixers coach Doug Collins backed that up, noting how Krstic is playing the pick-and-roll better, something he struggled with mightily at the onset of his slump. On Tuesday, Krstic was on the floor with a second-unit lineup that also included Jeff Green, Delonte West, Ray Allen and Glen Davis and held Philadelphia scoreless for a four-minute stretch early in the fourth quarter, allowing Boston to build its lead back to 14.
"I think defensively we were on the same page," Krstic said. "I think we played really good defense. Sometimes one guy is just late and the whole defense crashes, but tonight everybody was on the same page. [That led to] running the floor, getting easy layups, and all of a sudden everybody has confidence and [is] making shots."
While his minutes were relatively low, Krstic's ability to play 18 minutes in his first game back allowed Boston to keep both Jermaine O'Neal (12:32) and Kevin Garnett (24:00) to manageable numbers.
The Sixers rallied within four late in the third quarter, but Krstic produced his biggest bucket of the night to cap a six-point outburst that pushed the Celtics' lead back to double digits. Off a feed from Paul Pierce, Krstic showed no hesitation in putting up a 5-foot baby hook over Elton Brand for a 70-60 advantage with 2:10 to go in the third, stifling any Philadelphia momentum.
Instead, it was Boston's second unit that had all the momentum. Krstic is hoping to use this performance as a springboard, still finding silver linings to the knee injury.
"I was a little bit sore and got hit again in my knee, so I kind of tweaked it again a little bit," Krstic said. "But maybe it's just a good thing for me to get hit, just to know in my head it's nothing really serious and just get through it."
Krstic's role moving forward is unclear. Pegged as a reserve, he's likely to come off the bench over the final five games of the regular season, but the possible return of Shaquille O'Neal, who suffered a strained right calf Sunday in his first game in more than two months, could cut into Krstic's minutes.
Learning from recent history, Krstic isn't letting that clutter his head. He's just trying to get back to being a consistent contributor and let everything else take care of itself.
"I realized, [instead of] thinking about making the right play ... you just play basketball," he said. "You're going to come in each day and Coach is going to yell at me for five seconds and that's that."
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.