- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- As the Celtics' locker room cleared out following a disappointing loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers Thursday night at the TD Garden, Marquis Daniels sat in the chair at his locker stall unable to even pull off the padded tank top he wore under his game jersey without the assistance of a clubhouse attendant.
One day after being sent home from practice for looking so rundown, Daniels gutted out 31 minutes against Cleveland. His team already playing without Paul Pierce (sprained right thumb), Daniels selflessly offered to chase LeBron James -- arguably the best player in the NBA -- in spite of his condition.
A bottle of Afrin on the top shelf of his stall, Daniels battled the sort of congestion typically reserved for the Mass. Pike the day before Thanksgiving. He looked so groggy after Thursday's game that a team worker asked Daniels if he wanted a ride home.
Asked if he would have played had the team not been short-handed against the top team in the Eastern Conference, Daniels simply shrugged and offered, "I want to compete."
Despite his ailments, including torn ligaments in his left thumb that sidelined him for 28 games, Daniels has to rank with Atlanta's Jamal Crawford among the top free-agent signings of the 2009 offseason.
When the Indiana Pacers declined a team option in the neighborhood of $7 million, Daniels signed with the Celtics for the bargain-basement biannual exception that will pay him less than $2 million this season.
His stats don't leap off the page at 6.6 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game, but it's hard to quantify what his athleticism has meant to Boston's second unit, where he's played three different positions while being the glue of the unit.
What's more, his defense has been outstanding. The Celtics have fearlessly asked Daniels to guard the opposing team's best player, spelling Ray Allen or Paul Pierce in the process.
Which is why Daniels was on the court Thursday night, despite better judgment. The Celtics didn't have anyone else capable of truly matching up against James, so coach Doc Rivers couldn't tell Daniels no when he offered to suit up.
"I didn't want to tell him we need a warm body, because his body is warm," Rivers said before Thursday's game.
Warm because of the fever that stripped Daniels of his energy. Even still, he was exceptional in the first half, starting in place of Pierce and doing all he could to limit James.
Daniels' plus/minus rating peaked at a plus-12 in the third quarter as the Celtics boasted a comfortable cushion before it all fell apart. As Boston's lead evaporated, so did that plus/minus number, but Daniels was anything but a liability.
He finished with 4 points, 3 rebounds, a steal and a plus/minus rating of minus-5. James registered a game-high 36 points, but you could hardly fault Daniels for his efforts.
"I thought Marquis was good," said Rivers. "It's funny, I was concerned about subbing him even earlier [in the second half] because you don't know if he'll be right again. But he was great. He really was. Obviously, he struggled more in the second half, but, listen, he gave us everything he had and I couldn't ask for more."
Probably no one in the Boston locker room was happier to see the Celtics take Friday off than Daniels, who presumably spent the day recovering. His status remains uncertain for Saturday's game against the lowly New Jersey Nets, but it might be an opportunity to rest him if he still hasn't regained his strength.
"I just gotta get my energy back," Daniels said after Thursday's game.
Since returning from the thumb injury earlier this month, Daniels has given the bench a spark. He's shown an ability to provide a scoring punch, registering 14 points or more in three of his eight games since returning (he was 19-of-26 shooting in those three games) and doing all the little things.
Tuesday night against the Knicks, Daniels produced a layup off a feed from Kevin Garnett to essentially seal a 110-106 triumph. That led Rivers to gush about his abilities as a cutter.
"He's one of the best cutters in the league, top five," said Rivers. "And you always have to account for him on the glass. He also has the ability for us to say, 'Why don't you just try to stop [the best team's opposing player]. You don't have to help as much, and that makes our defense better."
And even at 50 percent, or less, Daniels was asked to step up and be that stopper Thursday night.
Like his runny nose, he couldn't stop James, but he undoubtedly earned the respect of his teammates for simply trying.
It's nothing new for Daniels, who played through the pain of the torn ligaments in his thumb for a couple of weeks before Rivers finally noticed him in pain at practice and sent him off for X-rays that revealed surgery was needed.
Playing through pain may not always help his team, but there's something to be said for that determination. On a Celtics team that's seemingly lacked desire at times this season, the Green can only hope Daniels' grit is more contagious than the flu.
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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