As Season Winds Down, Celtics Rising Up
BOSTON - If you’ve been watching NBA basketball long enough, you know how to anticipate games that coaches like to call “scheduled losses.” Given what the Celtics faced Wednesday night, we can forgive you if you’d mentally penciled in an 'L' for April 11, 2012.
Boston's tilt on Wednesday, the second game of a back-to-back after returning from a Tuesday night road game in Miami, appeared to be a tall order despite its sudden significance given the opponent, the time of year, and the present constitution of the NBA standings. The road-weary Celtics were due to play host to an Atlanta Hawks team coming into town on three days' rest, so the smart money would have been on the exhausted Celtics putting up a valiant effort but fading down the stretch.
Thankfully, the Celtics never got the memo.
They survived a frantic overtime and an injury scare to knock off the Hawks 88-86, posting their fourth straight victory and a critical Eastern Conference win. Winners of eight of their last 10 games, the Celtics sit at 34-24 and suddenly have a legitimate shot at home court advantage in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
“We didn't play well. We just kept hanging in there. You could see the fatigue,” Celtics Coach Doc Rivers said of his team after the win, calling it the “worst game we’ve ever won.”
He continued, “We have great character; [we’re] a tough-minded group.”
Rivers called his point guard, Rajon Rondo, “sensational” after he posted one of his strangest box scores ever. Rondo dealt a 10-10-20 triple-double while shooting 3-for-16 and turning the ball over six times. Nineteen was the number of the night, as Rondo posted his 19th career-triple double on the night where he posted his 19th straight double-digit assist game. As his numbers indicate, he was sloppy at times, but he controlled Boston’s pace and kept his team on the attack.
Rondo, half-honeybadger and half-humorist, had a predictably short postgame chat with the media, fencing on questions before dryly lightening the mood. Asked what his teammates did to get him 20 assists, he swiftly replied, “Put the ball in the hole.” Asked what he thought when he saw his teammate Brandon Bass hit the floor clutching his knee, Rondo bluntly said, “I told him to get up” before cracking half a smile.
If Rondo was really joking while Bass was folded up on the floor, he may have been the only one in the building. When Bass hit the parquet clutching his knee late in the fourth quarter, the season flashed before Doc Rivers’ eyes.
“I thought he was hurt,” Rivers said. “I didn’t think it was going to be a good thing...”
Bass later explained that he hyperextended his knee, but admitted that he “felt like a little kid” and was “scared” when he first went down.
If you’re into metaphors, perhaps Bass’ surprising rise to his feet, and Mickael Pietrus’ sudden return to the lineup, combined to represent a suitable microcosm for the season to date. All but written off in the first half of the abbreviated 2011-12 season thanks to freak injuries, heart ailments and a general lack of Ubuntu (remember that word?), the Boston Celtics have resurrected themselves in recent weeks. You can thank focused play from Rondo, Kevin Garnett’s inspired revival and the revelation that is Avery Bradley.
Suddenly, the Boston Celtics seem intent on making a defiant stand. Call it pride, call it resiliency, call it bravado, whatever. Best described as schizophrenic in the first half of the season, by now this team was supposed to be out of gas – or completely dismantled, blown up by trade deadline deals aimed at an impending youth movement.
Instead, they’re suddenly charging up the Eastern Conference standings, opening eyes around the league as the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs, especially if they end up with home court. They’re currently tied with the Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks for the fourth-best record in the conference, and they own the tie-breaker for home court against both of those teams.
But let’s get back to Wednesday night. Operating under the assumption that “scheduled loss” rules were in effect, the Hawks spent the first eight minutes of Wednesday’s contest trying to force an up-tempo game, looking to fast-break wherever possible, and jacking up the first shot that showed on most possessions, Mike D’Antoni-style.
While the Celtics kept up the pace in the first quarter, by the half it appeared the Hawks’ strategy was working, as they took a 48-40 lead to the visitor’s locker room. The C’s had committed 12 turnovers by the break, scored just 14 points in the second quarter, and outside of Bass and Garnett, there wasn’t much to be happy with in the half. Ray Allen, who’s been battling ankle issues, sat out again, while Pietrus was a surprise addition to the lineup, and was only expected to play “5-10 minutes,” according to Rivers. His six minutes of first half action were underwhelming, but he’d go on to finish with eight points and six rebounds in almost 29 minutes.
The Celtics outscored the Hawks 27-20 in the third quarter to pull within a point, setting up a taut fourth quarter where points were hard to come by and whistles were at times even harder to comprehend. When the teams ended up in overtime tied at 84-84, the last place the Celtics wanted to be given the circumstances, things looked grim.
When Garnett fouled out on a moving screen with 2:43 in OT and Pierce (14 points) picked up an offensive foul on a move to the basket, things looked even grimmer, and it appeared the Celtics were overmatched. Still, Pierce and Bass each connected on jumpers to stake the Celtics to an 88-84 lead, and while the Hawks had their chances, the Celtics outlasted them for a the win.
“We kept fighting regardless of the other stuff out there,” Rondo said. “We stuck together and we followed through and got the win.”
The tests aren’t over yet. Next up? Five games in six nights, including the lockout-inspired back-to-back-to-back slate this weekend.
Good thing this team is resilient. This year, it doesn’t have a choice.