Paul Pierce cringed when ESPN sideline reporter Doris Burke informed the former All-Star that Rajon Rondo had torn his right ACL following the team's double-overtime victory over the Miami Heat on Jan. 27.
You could actually witness the moment of Pierce slipping past the emotional cliff.
It wasn't an out-and-out sign of surrender, but the realization that Boston's playoff hopes (along with Pierce's tenure with the franchise) were in serious jeopardy.
In losing Rondo, Boston is now forced to resurrect its playoff hopes without the league's best distributor and one of its premier defenders when he's engaged.
It presents coach Doc Rivers and his players with quite the daunting task for sure, but doesn't necessarily eliminate the club from postseason contention—not with the remaining collection of talent still in place, and certainly not in the weaker Eastern Conference.
While perhaps admirable, that's to be expected.
But there are more tangible reasons to believe that the club has a realistic chance at more than just a playoff berth.
For starters, the Celtics have experience playing without Rondo on the lineup.
The in-game statistics (notably a plus-2.3 offensive rating and plus-0.5 defensive rating, per basketball-reference.com) speak toward their ability to find success in those situations, but these numbers cannot account for the fact that Rondo typically faces the stiffest competition when he's on the floor.
What can't be attributed as a statistical anomaly, though, is the overall team performance in games that Rondo has missed. That 100-98 win over the Heat pushed the team's record to 3-3 without Rondo on the season, a record that also includes a win over the New York Knicks. To simplify the math, the Celtics are just 18-20 in games that Rondo has played.
Six games is surely a small sample size, but this phenomenon extends beyond this season. In fact, since Rondo assumed the starting point guard position in 2007, the Celtics are 25-16 in games that he's missed.
This isn't to suggest that the club will suddenly rattle off an elongated winning streak now that Rondo is no longer holding them back, but rather to indicate the positives that may eventually come forth.
There's a blessing and a curse to having an All-Star point guard run the offense. The blessing part is obvious (a superior floor general guiding the action), but the curse becomes obvious watching the way that teams perform when their superstar is rolling.
There's a complacency that falls over the team, with players relying on that superstar to continually bail them out of tough situations.
Without Rondo there to pick up the slack, the onus first falls on the shoulders of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett to pick up the offensive slack.
Pierce may not be able to run all of his 34 minutes per game as a point-forward distributor, but his 4.0 assists per game declares him more than able to fill that role in spurts. If Rivers can find a nice balance between running his offense through Pierce (and to a lesser extent, Jeff Green) and running it through his remaining guards (Jason Terry, Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley and Leandro Barbosa), he can keep his offensive system flowing, without sacrificing Pierce's production in other areas.
The Celtics know that they don't have a true shot creator without Rondo, but that's a big reason why his teammates have sped up their crisp deliveries when he's off the floor. The Celtics aren't hurting for scorers, and simply need to make the extra pass (or extra two or three passes) to find the kind of shots Rondo might have found with his first look.
Whether or not a healthy Andrew Bynum returns to the Philadelphia 76ers will largely determine if anyone behind the Celtics in the Eastern Conference standings can make a realistic run at their current playoff berth.
And do not forget that the Milwaukee Bucks have some tough personnel decisions to make prior to the trade deadline (to keep or trade Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings or both), as do the Atlanta Hawks (with impending free agent Josh Smith). The teams that the Celtics are currently chasing could look drastically different after the Feb. 21 trade deadline comes.
The Celtics will surely miss Rondo's presence leading their attack.
But that doesn't mean that this season is lost.
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