When All-Star point-guard Rajon Rondo was ruled out for the remainder of this regular season because of a knee injury in late January, there was much the same feeling of disappointment in Boston as there was in Chicago when Derrick Rose got injured in last year’s playoffs. Doc Rivers, however, warned the media, and anyone else who was willing to tune into him, that his Celtics shouldn’t be counted out just yet, but most critics merely dismissed that as a great coach putting on a brave face. The conventional wisdom: The Celtics would go down without Rondo and fast.
The naysayers had their reasons. It had already been a crazy season for Boston, one which I wrote about
a few weeks before Rondo’s injury. After stretching the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals, the Celtics seemed to have improved in the offseason with some smart acquisitions. Yet, they stumbled to a 14-17 start at the start of 2012-13 season only to win six straight thereafter, between January 4 and January 14. Almost as immediately, they lost as many games between January 16 and January 25, when the news of Rondo’s injury came in. Surely, an inconsistent Celtics team would drop off in Rondo’s absence, or so was the buzz around the league.
And yet two nights after Rondo hopped out of the game against Atlanta, Boston beat Miami on January 27 in a double-overtime win. They followed that up with another pack of six straight wins – beating the likes of Los Angeles Clippers, Los Angeles Lakers and Denver Nuggets. In all, the Celtics have been 16-7 since the injury to Rondo, registering impressive wins against Chicago, Golden State, Indiana and Atlanta in this stretch.
What explains the Celtics’ resurgence? Surely, they are not a better team without Rondo – a point-guard with a unique skillset that makes him a formidable teammate on most teams in the league. As Rob Mahoney of SI.com pointed out in his piece last week, “What we’ve actually seen in Boston is a complete defensive resurgence that has little to do with the presence or absence of Rondo… Overall, the Celtics have held opponents to 4.4 fewer points per 100 possessions since Rondo exited the lineup — a significant differential that is roughly equivalent to the gap between a top-10 defense and one in the bottom five.”
Avery Bradley, as Mahoney correctly points out, is the man to be credited for most of Boston’s improvement on the defensive end. Bradley is a strong perimeter defender, one of the best in the league and it is no small coincidence that the Celtics are 22-13 with him in the lineup, and 14-17 without him this season. In fact, most of the Celtics’ early season stumbles could easily be put down to Bradley’s absence, who wasn’t available for the initial couple of months because of shoulder surgery.
Equally, there is another man who has stepped up for the Celtics in Rondo’s absence. Jeff Green, the man on whom Boston GM Danny Ainge had bet so much when he traded Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2011, had pretty much disappointed since coming back from a heart-related ailment this season. Through November to January, Green averaged career-low
minutes and points per game
. But beginning February, a few games after Rondo’s injury, Green began resembling the player whose promise Ainge bought into when he made the trade. Since February 1, when he dropped 17 points on the Orlando Magic on 8-for-14 shooting in a 97-84 win for Boston, Green has logged more than 30 mpg and 15.0 ppg for the Celtics. Correspondingly, Boston have gone 14-7 in this period.
The best assessment, however, of Green’s impact on the Celtics’ franchise this season came in Boston’s most recent loss to the Miami Heat on Monday night. While the win stretched the Heat’s unbeaten streak to 23 games, now the second best streak in NBA history, Green sizzled for the Celtics on the night. The small forward scored 43-points – a career-best effort and the most points any individual player has posted against Miami this season – which allowed Boston to lead by as many as 13 points, with 8:27 left to play in the fourth quarter. It was a stunning performance by Green, who had started in place of the injured Kevin Garnett for this game, and went 14-for-21 from the field, 5-for-7 from distance, grabbed seven rebounds and blocked four shots.
But as the clock wound down, Green, who sat out a few minutes with Boston holding the lead, missed his last three shots, and Miami sneaked by the Celtics for a two-point victory. That inability on Green’s part to close the door on the Heat down the stretch was a fitting analogy for the Celtics’ season so far.
When Green struggles, so do the Celtics.
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