Things can change quickly in the NBA — and especially with the Celtics. Just two nights removed from looking threadbare thin and road weary, they reveled in the return of Delonte West and knocked off the Pacers, 92-80 at the Garden (click here for a full recap).
“This is like a good movie and you haven’t seen [the full cast yet],” Kevin Garnett said. “I’m going to use Oceans’s 11, but you haven’t seen Matt Damon. You haven’t seen Brad Pitt. You haven’t seen Bernie Mac. You’ve just seen Clooney and a couple of other guys.”
And who would Garnett be in the cast? “I’m Saul,” he said referencing the wily old Carl Reiner character.
Garnett was in a good mood, obviously, which was quite a change from Monday after the Celtics dropped a winnable game to the Nets. “There wasn’t a lot of chatter on the plane from Jersey,” he said. “A lot of pissed off guys. Ticked off is an understatement.”
The feeling Wednesday was excitement tinged with some welcome relief. With West back on the court the Celtics second unit looked less like an odd collection of players in a random pickup game and more like a cohesive team.
It’s been a long time coming for both West and Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who has had to throw out whomever was available and hope for the best whenever he went to the bench.
“Well, they’re more talented now, number one. The talent is growing with that second unit,” Rivers said. “You’ve got Jeff Green in your second unit. Delonte West in your second unit. Glen Davis. Pretty good second unit.”
More help is on the way. Shaquille O’Neal was able to get on the court, and while he hasn’t gone through a practice yet, it was at least a step in the right direction. There’s no timeframe for O’Neal to return, but when he does that gives Rivers a whole other set of options, including bringing Nenad Krstic and his scoring ability off the bench.
But the focus Wednesday was on two players: West and Green (more on Green later). West took just two shots and scored only two points to go with two rebounds, three assists and one hellacious block on Paul George. More than his production, his presence was felt immediately.
“I think the addition of Delonte gave them some real good balance,” Paul Pierce said. “He’s such a poised player. Even though he’s been out so long you can see how he kinds of smoothes out that second unit with his passing, with his defense, with his hustle.”
For most of the season the Celtics have talked almost wistfully about what West’s return would mean for their team. He showed why immediately.
The pieces are starting to come together for the Celtics who look a whole lot better, and a whole lot more like a team, than they did just 48 hours ago.
"We don’t really look at it as the first unit and the bench," West said. "We look at it as, 'How good can this team be?' And we look at ourselves as one unit.”
Here are three more points:
JEFF GREEN WAS A MATCHUP NIGHTMARE
Almost eight minutes into the game the Celtics were still stuck on nine points and things weren’t looking too good. That’s when Rivers subbed in Green for Ray Allen.
Green scored a couple of quick buckets to get them back on track and then took over the second quarter, scoring 13 of his 19 points. He cut to the basket for layups. He knocked down a corner 3-pointer. He handled isolation plays. He was everything the Celtics hoped he would be when they brought him here.
The Pacers were a perfect matchup opportunity for Green because of their height on the wing and Rivers took advantage of it.
“They have big guards,” Rivers said. “One of those guards who have to guard Jeff or Paul and whichever is the smaller of their big guards, that’s where we wanted to attack.”
It won’t be that way every night and Rivers is still trying to devise a plan to utilize his new player. But the Pacers were perfect for him. “It’s great because teams don’t know what to do,” Pierce said. “It makes us dangerous out there.”
Green gives the bench a dimension they have never had. He’s a scorer who can play inside and out and also work in isolation. Slowly but surely, he’s also gaining the confidence of his new teammates.
“He’s shown that we can trust him with the ball on isolations,” Pierce said. “It takes a lot of pressure off the first unit when you’ve got a guy like that who can and contribute like a starters because he’s been a starter in this league.”
Figuring out how to use Green is one of the biggest tasks Rivers and his staff faces before the start of the playoffs, but with him Davis, West and a center, that’s the makings of a very strong reserve corps. Now, what happens to the rest of the team?
ROLES WILL HAVE TO BE DEFINED
The one thing about having depth on a basketball team is that someone’s going to have their minutes squeezed. But so far the signs have been nothing but positive.
Take Carlos Arroyo, who figures to have some of his time taken away by West. Arroyo has done nothing to lose his minutes. In fact, he’s been better than anyone predicted. But he’s not concerned.
“Doc does a great job of handling that, everybody’s egos and understanding their role,” Arroyo said. “We have guys who have been there before and they understand that it’s not about them. It’s about the team. It’s about winning. It’s about our biggest goal, which is winning a championship. That’s the reason we’re all here.”
Then there’s Krstic who figures to be pushed into a bench role when Shaq returns to the lineup. Krstic has averaged 12 points and seven rebounds in 10 games with the Celtics and in his career he’s started 363 of the 405 games he’s played. It will be an adjustment, but he said he has no problem making it.
“Not at all. I think Shaq deserves to start,” Krstic said. “He got hurt. He was a starter before he got hurt and I think he gets that job back.”
As for coming off the bench, Krstic said, “It’s different. You prepare differently for the game. Pretty much all my career I’ve been a starter but I don’t really mind coming off the bench. Whatever it takes. Especially with this team, it doesn’t really matter.”
One way or another the Celtics will need all of their players to make it through the rest of the regular season and once the playoffs begin, things can change rapidly. P.J. Brown, for example, barely played until the second round of the playoffs in 2008 and then he emerged as a kind of folk-hero.
There are several candidates to fill that role but it will take professionalism and sacrifice to get there. The signs so far are positive.
The first quarter was not kind to Rajon Rondo. He took two shots, missed them both and turned it over two times. From there Rondo rallied, dishing out six assists and playing a clean floor game.
“I thought he played terrific,” Rivers said. “I thought he played with great energy. I thought he created a lot of problems. So I was happy.”
The mystery of Rondo’s recent struggles remains. Rivers said he was just going through a bad stretch. Garnett said he was playing in pain.
“Rondo’s playing hurt,” Garnett said. “He’s grinding. He’s giving us everything he’s got.”
Rondo didn’t stick around to provide any insight, but as elusive as he’s been off the court he made his presence felt against the Pacers. He won’t have any breathers in the Celtics quick three games in four days road trip they have on tap. He’ll get the tenacious Kyle Lowry on Friday, archnemesis Chris Paul on Saturday and Chauncey Billups on Monday. We’ll know after that slate if he is over his recent problems, but Wednesday game was a positive step.