When Danny Ainge made official on The Big Show Thursday afternoon what everyone suspected – that Rajon Rondo was going to be out for “a few weeks” – it would have been easy for the Celtics to say, enough. No more.
They’re already without their top three centers and the bench player who was supposed to hold the second unit together. Now you want them to replace the league’s most unique player who gets 10 assists on a bad night?
But in a weird way, the Celtics seem more resigned to the reality of the situation than they have been in years past. Since 2009, they have gone through life without Kevin Garnett and with a beaten-up Paul Pierce whose injuries were far more serious than we were led to believe. They didn’t always succeed, but they did persevere and that has led to a certain perspective about these things that are beyond their control.
“So what are you going to do?” Garnett asked rhetorically. “You either quit. You put your clothes on and you go home, but that ain’t the way we do things around here. We work.”
On a night when they didn’t have Rondo, Shaquille O’Neal, Jermaine O’Neal, Kendrick Perkins and Delonte West (and Von Wafer who checked out after playing two minutes in the first half with a sore back) they still found a way to beat the Hawks, 102-90, and do it rather soundly. (Click here for a recap).
So, the Celtics survived another night and another game. That’s really all they’re looking at right now: the next game, the next practice, even. To do anything else would be foolish at this point, and perhaps a little dangerous.
It’s a long way between now and April, and like it or not, they’ve got 55 more games on the schedule before the playoffs. If they’ve got to play them, they may as well try to win them even if that means making up the plan as they go along.
The relatively easy part in this equation is that Nate Robinson, the merry prankster himself, will be called upon to take Rondo’s spot in the starting lineup. The Celtics are 4-1 in games Robinson has started at the point and he has had his best games as a starter. That’s not a coincidence.
“When you’re standing next to Ray [Allen], Paul and Kevin, you tend not to do too much,” Doc Rivers said. “It’s when you’re with the other guys is when Nate gets himself in trouble because he feels like he has to do too much.”
But there will be adjustments. Rivers laid it out straight for Robinson at halftime after the Celtics staggered through a fairly dreary opening 24 minutes. “Nate, just a notice for you,” Rivers said. “You’re the starting point guard now and I’m going to give you a lot of instruction. It’s not criticism.”
“He was on my ass today,” Robinson acknowledged. “He was yelling a lot. I was trying to make sure I was in the right spots. He told me at halftime, I’m not criticizing you. I said, ‘it’s all good coach.’”
Rivers and Rondo have built up such a trust over the years. It’s often been portrayed as a father-son relationship, but it’s not that. It’s two very smart, very driven people learning how to relate to each other and while they have butted heads in the past, they have also come to understand one another. Rivers and Robinson will have to work that out as well.
“With Rondo I’m so used to telling what I need everybody [to do], I was doing that with Nate and Nate was like, ‘Enough. No more,’” Rivers said. “I guess he just has to get used to that.”
Here’s the thing with Robinson, however. After you get past the goofy antics and the non-stop jokes, lies a fierce competitor. As Garnett said, “You know, you put him with responsibility and he finds a way to deal with it.”
Robinson played 41 minutes Thursday night and he’ll have to keep playing heavy minutes because this is where it gets dicey. Behind him in the rotation is rookie Avery Bradley who, truth be told, Rivers would rather not expose to the cruel world just yet.
“I do not,” the coach said plainly. “He’s going to be a good player. Everyone wants to see the young guy play because they think they’re ready now, because you don’t see them. I’m going to try to protect his minutes as much as I can where he’s out with the better players. But listen, he’s just going to have to play some, for sure.”
Calling Bradley’s four minutes a disaster would be harsh, but unfortunately accurate. The Hawks’ Jeff Teague, not exactly a wily vet himself, blew Bradley up on his way to an 18-point performance.
“You have to have a short memory,” Bradley said. “People make mistakes. You’re going to make mistakes, especially at this level. You got to go to the next play.”
Rivers mercifully took him out, but if Bradley has shown the Celtics anything so far, it’s a quite toughness that they all respect. A few weeks ago, Rondo was asked what stood about the rookie from Texas and Rondo responded that Bradley listens when the veterans talk to him. It may sound like a small thing, but look around the league at the various culture clashes between the generations.
“You know why they love Avery? Because he never talks,” Rivers said earlier this month. “Really. He listens to everybody. He works hard and he’s got a quiet toughness about him. Kevin loves him. Kevin loves him because he’s just a tough kid. You can talk all the trash to him in practice and when you look up, he’s staring you right in the eyes and he’s going nowhere. I think our veterans really appreciate that in him.
“I would feel dumb if I didn’t listen to those guys,” Bradley said. “They’re trying to help me all the time. When I do something wrong they pull me aside and that just shows that they care about me and want the best for me.”
Unfortunately, Bradley will have to get his education on the job. He’ll learn from the Jeff Teague’s of the world and every other guard whose eyes light up when they see a 20-year-old kid with 32 minutes under his belt. But he will learn.
“I really like the kid,” Pierce said. “He’s always asking questions and he’s always in the huddle. Just little things that we see, that we know that this kid is going to be a player.”
Beyond Robinson and Bradley, there’s Marquis Daniels, who can do the job in a pinch. There’s also Pierce and Allen and against the Hawks it was Pierce who was the distributor with 10 assists.
Pierce was “giving the game what it needs,” as he likes to say, but he was far from the only one. The Celtics had 28 assists on 44 makes and while Rondo’s assists’ totals get all the attention, the Celtics are one of the best passing teams in the league.
That’s really what this comes down to for them. Their numbers are down in terms of actual players, but they have their system and they have their beliefs. Both have helped get them this far and that’s what they’ll lean on now.
“Our team chemistry is unbelievable,” Robinson said. “Each guy, we play for each other. We don’t play for ourselves. We’re out there having fun. Basketball is fun.”