C's Rally from 'Soft' Start But Come Undone in Fourth

NEW YORK - Just after the final horn on Sunday in New York, Rajon Rondo kicked the basketball the length of the court in disgust. After leading the Celtics back from an early 17-point deficit in a game he dominated, Rondo's epic 31-point, 13-assist effort was wasted.

The Celtics fell to the Knicks 106-104 in the first tilt of the truncated 2011-12 season, playing without their captain. Before the game in the newly renovated visitors' locker room at MSG, a sullen Paul Pierce was telling reporters he was sidelined, instructing them to "Google bone bruise" and playfully threatening to bypass them and go directly to his two million Twitter followers with his next heel update.

The mood may have carried over to the rest of the locker room. The Celtics started flat and fell behind quickly, trailing by as many as 17 points in the first half. But they awoke in the second quarter after a timeout in which Doc Rivers told his team that they were playing "soft," a remark that was picked up on the TNT broadcast.

Rajon Rondo at MSG

Rajon Rondo spent most of his night attacking the basket, as he scored two of his 31 on this move to the hoop.
NBAE/Getty

"I thought we were as soft as we could be in the first quarter, and then I thought we joined into the 2011-12 season. And from that point on I was pretty happy with the way we played. I thought we competed well," Rivers told reporters later.

Rivers isn't afraid to call out his team with that term; he did the very same thing last March in a game against the Knicks and it led to a comeback win. Unfortunately, Sunday's comeback evaporated when the Knicks revived themselves in the fourth. Carmelo Anthony exploded for 37 points, and with Pierce sidelined, the C's weren't able to hinder him much on the defensive end.

The good news: If you joined Rivers in asking Santa for an aggressive, attacking Rondo, you must have been good this year. Rondo doesn't typically enjoy talking to the press, but he didn't really have to say anything Sunday. His game spoke volumes on Christmas Day in New York. He was flying all over the floor at MSG in the first half, scoring 19 of his 31 points and knocking down seven of his eight free throw attempts. He also grabbed four steals, and handed out four dimes in the first half alone.

"I'm going to try to get to the line a lot more and try to stay aggressive," said Rondo, a career 62 percent free throw shooter who knocked down nine of his 12 attempts at the line in the game. "That was my focus: to get to the line."

In the third quarter, Rondo kept it going. He led a 14-2 run to tie the game at 69-69 with 7:11 to go in the third, mostly by continuing to hawk the ball and leaking out early to get behind the Knicks' transition defense. New York finally started slowing him down the same way the rest of the NBA has tried, by decking him every chance it get.

Of course, the last time Rondo played in a meaningful NBA game, he was trying to play one-armed after a gruesome elbow dislocation. The injury resulted from getting tied up with Dwyane Wade in a borderline dirty play that knocked him off his game and eventually out of a series that was already favoring the Miami Heat.

But in the Celtics' season opener, Rondo was attacking the basket with a vengeance, a purpose, and enthusiasm Sunday, and his coach was pleased with the effort.

"We want him to be aggressive. The best part of the game for us I thought Rondo just attacked the basket. This is the Rondo we want. This is what we talked about last year. Getting to the free-throw line. Taking the shots when they're open. I thought he was the aggressor in the game," Rivers said. "I don't know if you can do that every night. But overall that's the Rondo that we want."

Rondo had some help in the form of Brandon Bass, who was just as dominant for stretches of the game, and for whom the Knicks seemed to have no answer for down low. Bass racked up 20 points and 11 rebounds, with five of those boards coming under his own basket. Rondo and Bass also appeared to have developed some chemistry, an encouraging development as the Celtics look to integrate Bass alongside his veteran teammates.

Still, signs of life aside, a loss is a loss, and the Celtics failed to execute down the stretch, a familiar issue that haunted them last season. Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters that his team is trying to get to the Celtics' level, and while they looked far removed from such rarified air last spring, their victory over the Celtics validated his claim.

"It is going to be a rivalry now. They are not going to back down and we are not going to back down," D'Antoni said. "Whatever it is, it is going to be nice and it is going to be a great series with them because they are a very good team and well coached. We want to get to their level and we think we can get there."

Shorthanded or not, Rivers and company weren't going to make excuses. It's on to Miami for another marquee matchup Tuesday.