The tendency right now is to write off the Celtics.
For the last month, they have been treading water in a sea of mediocrity — and when they had three games to prove themselves against the best the league has to offer, they came up short in all three games.
But maybe this is just what they needed. Perhaps this odd stretch in the middle of the NBA winter is the best thing that could have happened to the Celtics, short of discovering their old magic and winning all three.
Consider that before this trio of games the Celtics considered themselves one of the elite teams despite the preponderance of evidence that has been building against them since Christmas. If they needed a jolt, getting unceremoniously swept is about 10,000 volts worth of electricity.
Consider also that from the beginning of the second quarter until about the last five minutes of their 90-89 loss to the Lakers Sunday, the Celtics put together their best run of basketball since that Christmas Day game against the Magic.
For 2-1/2 quarters, the Celtics took it to the Lakers. They were more aggressive going to the basket, they took better care of the ball, they played old-style Celtics defense and they controlled the boards. If they are looking for a blueprint going forward, they provided it for themselves.
That they let it slip away is a reminder, again, that they cannot just show up and expect teams to cower in their wake. It was also a reminder that they have to take care of all the little things so that they don’t leave themselves at the mercy of a ticky-tack offensive foul call or a contested Kobe Bryant jumper. (Quick aside: How is it that a 260-pound man like Ron Artest can be sent flying 10 rows into the stands from a forearm push-off?)
The Celtics can go one of two ways right now. One, they can keep doing what they’ve been doing, which is not nearly good enough. Or two, they can get it together and stop lamenting the ones that get away.
“You always learn something,” Paul Pierce said. “We learn things in wins and losses. In these last span of games against contending teams, the thing we learn is our composure and togetherness. I think that’s what it’s all about. We always talk about it. We stay together. It’s easy with losing teams to point the finger when you go through a tough stretch, but we’re not that team.”
Now, they just have to prove it.
Here’s what else we learned on a night full of lessons for the Celtics:
THE TEAM THAT STAYS TOGETHER WINS AND LOSES TOGETHER
Years ago, Micheal Ray Richardson uttered the immortal words after yet another Knicks loss: “The ship be sinking.” Richardson’s famous quote has stood the test of time as the definitive last word on a team losing control of itself.
Let it be said that no one on the S.S. Celtic is throwing anyone overboard.
“We cool,” Kendrick Perkins said, offering a 21st century rebuttal to Sugar Ray. “We real cool. We all got each other’s backs. That’s one thing you don’t have to worry about in this locker room.”
That’s good because now would be an opportune time to point fingers at the missed rotations and non-existent block-outs that contributed to the Lakers' comeback. It also would be easy to look at missed shots and free throws.
This was Pierce’s take on the Celtics' final play that resulted in a missed 3-pointer by Ray Allen:
“Once I saw Kobe kind of hedge out, I knew Ray would be open. Ten times out of 10 when you have Ray open like that I’m going to give it to him for the game. I thought he got a good look, and sometimes they fall and sometimes they don’t.”
In the postgame press conferences and the subdued — but hardly dour — locker room after the loss, there was not one instance of a pointed finger or a negative whisper. The Celtics all spoke of confidence and staying together, and while those words become a little more cliché and a little more empty with each successive loss, they are consistent.
Make no mistake: The time for talking about cohesion and togetherness is just about over. It’s now time to prove it, but the foundation remains secure and the boat is not leaking.
THE EDUCATION OF RAJON RONDO CONTINUES
Phil Jackson and his former defensive assistant Kurt Rambis didn’t invent the box-and-no-one defense on Rajon Rondo, but they have done the most to popularize its use. By sagging a defender, usually Bryant, 10-15 feet off Rondo at the top of the key, they tried to neutralize Rondo’s speed, which is his greatest offensive strength.
The image of Rondo fading to the corner, taking himself out of the play with no defender in sight, was a common one during the 2008 NBA Finals, but Rondo has learned since then how to counter the defense.
He has learned, for example, that even when a defender is so far off him, he still can get to the basket whenever he wants. He has also learned that he can duck in from the baseline and get easy layups.
“They’re going to do what they do,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said when asked about it before the game. “Everyone does that. Rondo’s been phenomenal for the most part. Each year he’s gotten better and better at it.”
Against the Lakers Sunday, Rondo was indeed phenomenal with 21 points and 12 assists. He and Tony Allen successfully got the Celtics back in the game in the second quarter by attacking the basket at every opportunity. Gone are the days when Rondo would back off his approach after getting a shot thrown back in his face or a hard hit across his body.
But he still has one more mental hurdle to clear before he effectively destroys the tactic. He must take the wide-open 15-footer at the top of the key when it presents itself as it did down the stretch.
“You know, Rajon Rondo had a great game,” Rivers said. “But he also had a couple of shots he’s just got to take. And that’s some of the growth part that he still has to get through. He will. I have complete confidence in that.”
It’s not even crucial that Rondo makes the shot, although that certainly would be nice from the Celtics perspective. But by not even looking to score, he removes himself from the equation and allows his defender, usually Bryant, to concentrate on help defense, and Bryant is a terrific help defender.
That’s a big part of the reason why the Celtics' best player Sunday was not on the floor for the final shot, and while he’s getting better and better at coming up with counters, it’s not like it’s going to go away.
“Listen, this is the NBA,” Rivers said. “They’re going to make you show them for three years. Andre Miller had 52 [Saturday night]. Tomorrow, they’re going to leave him wide open.”
THE BENCH ARRIVES
Lost in all the speculation about Kevin Garnett’s health and Ray Allen’s struggles is the simple fact the Celtics have received very little relief from the second unit the last few weeks.
At no time was that more evident then in the loss to the Hawks Friday night when the reserves were shredded. It’s of small comfort after such a wrenching defeat, but the bench played an integral role Sunday in leading a second-quarter comeback and in extending the lead early in the fourth quarter.
Tony Allen had his best game in recent memory, not only scoring 14 points but also providing excellent defense on Bryant. Eddie House finally made some shots from the outside and Rasheed Wallace played inspired defense on all the Lakers big men.
“Tony was fantastic,” Rivers said. “I thought he got a little fast in the third quarter and turned the ball over and all that. The first half, him and Rondo singlehandedly got us back in the game, with their energy.”
Rivers made the tactical decision to sit Rondo earlier than usual in the first quarter to use him with the second unit. It’s been an ongoing story for years with this team, but the lack of a second ballhandler has been a problem for the second unit.
Typically, Rivers turns to Pierce or Ray Allen to play with the second team, but that helps negate the duo’s scoring by giving them added lead guard responsibilities. It was a small lineup with Rondo, which may not work against every team, but it was a perfect counter to the Lakers rotation.
Tony Allen’s recent play will set up a very interesting decision when Marquis Daniels returns to the lineup in a few weeks. Someone’s playing time is going to suffer, but perhaps it won’t be Allen’s. A second-quarter crew of Rondo, Daniels and Allen would be intriguing, particularly if House can’t rediscover his old shooting form.
As the games pile up in the second half of the season the bench is going to have to take on a bigger role in terms of minutes and responsibilities. To date it has not lived up to expectations, but perhaps Sunday can be the start of something good.
Perhaps it can be for the entire team as well.