The Sacramento Kings came into Boston without their leading scorer and main ballhandler, Tyreke Evans, and off a loss to the Nets.
There was one way to make sure that they didn’t get any crazy ideas about trying to steal a game in Boston and that was for the Celtics to come out and, as Kevin Garnett has been known to say at times, “Put their foot on their throat.”
The Celtics did just that for two and a half quarters and built a 24-point lead before the Kings managed to make things uncomfortable in the final six minutes. The Celtics wound up winning, 94-86, and in doing so also managed to clinch their third straight Atlantic Division championship. (Recap.)
The obvious reason for the anxiety was that the bench played major minutes with a huge lead and simply ran out of steam. Not having Nate Robinson (who sprained his ankle in the second quarter and didn’t return) or Kendrick Perkins (who sat out with knee tendinitis) didn’t help either.
The Celtics didn’t quite see it that way. Both Garnett and Doc Rivers felt that the starters had allowed Sacramento to creep back in just enough to allow for the unlikely possibility of a comeback. Regardless, there wasn’t a lot to complain about with the way the Celtics performed.
“I told them I’m not going to let that cloud how well we played for two and a half quarters,” Rivers said. “That was terrific basketball. We were getting stops. The ball was moving and everything was great.”
The Celtics have now won six of their of last seven games and have moved a game ahead of Atlanta for third-place in the East. They seem on their way to recapturing some of what made them a legit contender.
Here are three other things we learned last night:
RAJON RONDO: SUPERSTAR
Rajon Rondo set one Celtics record last night and he’s well on his way to setting another one soon. He passed Rick Fox for the team’s single-season mark for steals (167) and with a career-high 18 assists last night he is closing in on Bob Cousy’s single-season record for assists, which Cooz set way back in 1959-60.
Rondo now has 696 assists and will probably pass Cousy’s 715 at some point during this homestand. That’s heady company for Rondo, but none of this should come as much of a surprise to anyone who has watched him develop over the last few years.
That doesn’t mean that he still doesn’t get the little brother treatment from his teammates. When his steals record was announced to the crowd, the bench let him have it.
“The entire bench said you had the most steals, and the most gambles,” Rondo said. “I wasn’t aware of that one.”
The numbers and the records are nice, but what’s really happening here is that Rondo is asserting himself as a superstar. He pulled another ridiculous move out of his bag of tricks, faking poor Sean May back to North Carolina before gliding in for a layup. It was the same move he pulled out against Denver, which led to an assist.
Rondo’s moves are showy, but they are not without substance. His ball tricks and sleight of hand moves create angles and space that lead to easier shots.
Rondo also noted that the scouting report probably indicates that his moves lead to passes more often than not, which they do, so he figured he’d throw in a twist to keep everyone off balance. That’s a key component to understanding the enigmatic Rondo.
In a rare pregame chat with the press he bobbed and weaved without committing too much to memory. He’s charming that way, and that’s meant as a sincere compliment.
His game is a lot like that: Kind of appreciated, kind of misunderstood. Take the steals record. The perception, not totally unfounded, is that steals come from gambling and that Rondo gambles more often than most would like—witness the jokes from his teammates.
Rondo, however, noted that he hasn’t padded his numbers with a lot of on-the-ball steals and there’s also a lot of truth to that.
“It means he’s a better defender,” Rivers said. “You can lead the league in steals and not gamble all the time. You can be solid and still get a lot of steals and I think that’s what he’s done. With Rajon you want to make sure he doesn’t hurt the team but he does have a gift and you always wants him to play through that gift.”
Then there are the assists. On the one hand, as Rondo said, it means that guys are making shots. That’s true, but on the other hand, he is also able to control the game without scoring.
“When we get multiple stops it makes Rondo unbelievable,” Rivers said. “I think our team knows that now. If we can get three, four, five, six stops in a row it allows us to be a running team and it allows Rondo to get the ball in transition. It makes Rondo really good and it’s the best chance for him to be great. I think our team is starting to get that message.”
The Celtics operate best as a unit where no one becomes bigger than the underlying goal, but if you look closely you’ll notice that as Rondo goes so go the Celtics. By the time he’s done, one suspects that other franchise records will fall.
AS THE BENCH TURNS: TONY FOR MARQUIS
Tony Allen got minutes again last night and this time they came at the expense of Marquis Daniels, who did not play in the normal rotation. This might mean something or it just might be a temporary passing of the torch. Time will tell and it appears that Rivers is very comfortable with the situation.
“We have 13 players who can play,” Rivers said. “That’s a nice problem. You’re still only going to play nine or 10, but it’s a good problem to have. It pushes everyone.”
Rivers said he’s likely to use a nine-man rotation once the playoffs begin, but he’s in no rush to set that in stone.
“I’m in no hurry,” he said. “I could care less about that. If we go with nine and one of the nine isn’t working do we not go with the 10th guy? We pretty much know the nine or 10 we want, maybe one spot is up for grabs.”
One of the nine is likely to be Michael Finley, which certainly wasn’t assured when the veteran swingman signed after his release from the Spurs.
“With Finley it’s easy because he can shoot,” Rivers said. “He can shoot today, tomorrow and the next day and the other team knows that. When you put him on the floor you’re guaranteed one thing. Even if he doesn’t make a shot there’s going to be one guy standing next to him and that makes it easier for Rajon and everyone else. He doesn’t make a lot mistakes. He’s just solid. Off the bench you really need that. Especially with this bench, with Nate [Robinson], we’re trying to let him play free. You need more solid guys.”
That last part is very interesting to the overall team dynamic. The Celtics have allowed Nate to be Nate and that can pay huge dividends. It can also lead to some unsettling moments and Finley’s presence seems to be something of a calming influence to the helter-skelter pace Robinson can create.
So where does that leave Daniels? He’s a unique player for one thing. He does many things well, but very few things spectacularly and if something is off, the sum becomes less than the total of the myriad parts.
“When he does it well he’s really good and when he doesn’t do it well we don’t get a lot out of him,” Rivers said.
However, one thing he is not concerned about is losing any of his players as this sorts itself out.
“I like this team,” Rivers said. “It’s a good team in that way. It’s really nice. When you do shorten your rotation you never know how that’s going to affect your team and then you do it, things can change. This team’s been very good all year about that. It’s easier when everyone understands you’re playing for something.”
Stay tuned. The rotation will continue to churn and what’s true today isn’t likely to be true tomorrow, next week or from one series to the next. It’s called depth and Rivers is happy to have it.
PUTTING THE FUN IN DYSFUNCTION
The big news in the NBA Friday was the sentencing of Gilbert Arenas to 30 days in a halfway house and 400 hours of community service.
There are many aspects to the Arenas case, but one that hasn’t received as much play is the dispute between teammates. Arenas’ fight with Javaris Crittenton escalated to the point where guns entered the picture, which changed the equation entirely.
The Celtics are notorious for arguing amongst themselves about, well, everything. Ray Allen had an insightful perspective on this.
“We get pretty heated about things because everyone believes so strongly in certain things,” Allen said. “Teams that I played on that were bad, no arguments. People might say that we’re dysfunctional because of the way that we deal with each other. I would say this is what makes us successful.”
It’s an interesting dynamic. Player arguments about random things have sometimes spilled out into view of the press before games. It’s fairly common on this team that if two players have such a disagreement they are often the first ones to congratulate each other on a nice play on the court.
Allen stressed that he’s never seen guns on any of the teams he’s played on, including this one, but the creative tension works for them.