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Evan Fournier’s performance is bigger than basketball

Evan Fournier’s postgame comments after one of his best nights as a Celtic was a reminder of this season’s challenges.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Since arriving in Boston at the deadline, Evan Fournier has missed 11 of the Celtics' 20 games. He has averaged just 7.7 points a night on 32.0 percent shooting in the games he’s appeared in.

It would be so easy to criticize Fournier, who was putting up close to 20 points per game in Orlando before the trade, for his struggles. He was the deadline acquisition expected to bolster one of the lowest-scoring benches in the NBA and spark an underperforming team just before the stretch run.

Instead, he’s crossed double-digits in scoring only three times as a Celtic, once against a Rockets team with the fewest wins in the NBA this season, another in a 30-point rout of a Hornets team missing two of its best players, and another against a Thunder team that is actively trying to lose games.

Fournier had arguably his best game as a Celtic against Portland on Sunday, hitting eight of his 10 shots for 21 points along with five rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Even in another disappointing loss, that’s a silver lining worth acknowledging, but Fournier’s postgame press conference revealed it to be something so much more.

“I’ve been feeling really weird, to be honest,” Fournier said about his battle with COVID-19 that kept him out of nine straight games. “I feel like I have a concussion. Right now it’s actually doing a bit better but at first, it’s like the bright lights were bothering my eyes and my vision was blurry. Everything was just going too fast for me. It’s still the case. Some stuff are better but at times I’m really struggling to focus and my eyes keep struggling focusing on one thing. My depth perception is really bad right now.”

NBA players are relatively young and in incredible physical shape. Many in the general public believe that’s enough to keep them immune from some of the physical effects of COVID-19. Unfortunately, Celtics fans know all too well how false that mode of thought is, not only because of how many members of the team have contracted the virus throughout the season but because of how aware they are that returning to the court doesn’t signal the end of their recovery.

It wasn’t a month ago when Jayson Tatum admitted to needing an inhaler before games, something he’d never previously done in his basketball career. If the effects of the virus can linger on a 23-year-old superstar, nobody is completely safe.

Fournier complied with the NBA’s health and safety protocols before returning on April 23, but the time away from the court wasn’t exactly a vacation. He cited a high fever, flu-like symptoms, and fatigue as things he had to overcome. “I honestly stayed in bed and slept for four or five days,” he explained.

Going from a state of pure physical exhaustion to having to prepare for and eventually participate in an NBA game is a challenge even the best athletes in the world can’t adequately prepare for. That sentiment was made evident in Fournier’s first five games back, where he averaged less than five points on 21.6 percent shooting from the field in just under 26 minutes a night.

Of course, whenever a pro athlete shows vulnerability, plenty of trolls are quick to point to their salary to offer some poorly-timed and irrelevant perspective. Fournier's $17 million salary must be nice, but all the money in the world can’t pull someone out from the physical torture COVID-19 has put so many through.

An eight-figure salary also can’t help someone like Fournier escape the awful feeling of not being able to seize an opportunity he’s been waiting on for a long time, an emotion he wore on his sleeve after the Portland game on Sunday.

“Timing is just unfortunate,” Fournier said postgame. “People don’t really know my game here. For the first time in my career, I have a chance to make a really deep run in the playoffs. Finally with a great team. That I got COVID and I’m feeling like this, it’s heartbreaking, to be honest.”

Maybe Fournier’s most recent outing is a sign of better things to come. He was optimistic about getting further up to speed and felt good about performing at a level he’s grown accustomed to in recent years.

On the other hand, Fournier could just as easily enter into another massive shooting slump and continue to struggle as part of a Celtics team that bows out in the first round of the playoffs.

But if your biggest concern lies with what happens on the hardwood, you’re missing the larger point many players have been trying to make clear, with Fournier the latest to get his message across.

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