Boston Celtics Giving Fans Reason to Believe They're Better Without Rajon Rondo
News broke out that Rondo would miss the entire season with a torn ACL midway through the Miami-Boston game on January 27. Curiously, the much hyped-up game became an afterthought to Celtics fans as they panicked over their team's future without Rondo. Some of them even started making up trade scenarios to start rebuilding the Celtics for the next years to come.
Five games later, the outlook is much, much different.
With a five-game streak that includes home wins against the Heat and the Clippers ,plus an uplifting win over the Raptors (with a Rudy Gay breakout performance), fans are ready to jump back on the green wagon and see this Boston team make noise in the playoffs.
Rondo Is Out For The Season , Celtics Been Doing Good Tho— ♪Angel Jasper ♪ (@SmokeOneRoleOne) February 7, 2013
Here are the keys to the Celtics' success without Rajon Rondo.
Sharing the Ball
Rondo is definitely one of the most special point guards in the league. Few players in the history of basketball have the privileged court vision he possesses. So, it is only natural that a team that features such a player will rely heavily on him run the offense, right? Magic's Lakers did it and so did Oscar Robertson's Bucks.
The Celtics, though, learned to play better without a ball-dominant point guard by asking all players to share the basketball. As Doc said after the Clippers game:
Ball movement. Listen, it's not a hard way to play. It's simple; shoot the ball when you're open or pass it. Really, that's all we are telling guys to do. If your open and it's you're shot, shoot it. No hesitation.
The stats prove that statement is true.
In the losses against New York, Cleveland, Detroit and Chicago, only a few nights before Rondo's injury, no more than four players were reaching double-figures each night. In the New York game, Rondo and Pierce combined for 45 points (more than half of the Celtics 89 total points that night) and Rondo scored 30 of the Celtics' 99 points in the OT loss to the Bulls.
In the wins against Toronto, the Clippers, Orlando and Sacramento, at least five players wearing green scored 10 or more points each night.
Celtics' opponents don't know who to guard anymore. With Rondo, the key to beating Boston was simple: force Rajon Rondo to make difficult choices with the basketball and deny him the chance to put his players in their sweet spots. Now, the offense can be sparked by Courtney Lee, Jeff Green and even Brandon Bass. If one player isn't scoring, there is always somebody else to make the basket. And their shots have been falling, as they are shooting 48 percent from the field as a team in the last five games.
Doc is incredibly correct in his statement; it's not a hard way to play basketball. The Spurs have been playing like that since 1999 and it seems to work for them, doesn't it?
Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce
If only Pierce and Garnett had a nickel for every time they heard the term "washed up," and another one for every time they silenced critics with their play.
As soon as Rondo went down, players and fans alike just knew the two veterans would step up to lead the Celtics. Courtney Lee said they would look for them on offense more often and Magic guard J.J. Redick agreed they would be "fine" without Rondo:
For [the Celtics], losing Rondo hurts. But, they still have KG, Pierce, Jason Terry. They have enough to win.
Pierce and Garnett have both played extremely well in recent games. Pierce was huge in the win against the Clippers, hitting a three-pointer with 2.5 seconds left in the game to send his opponents back to Los Angeles, while Garnett scored a season-high 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to beat the Raptors on the road.
Rondo's absence ends once and for all the old issue of who leads the Celtics. Sometimes, it was hard to see if this was Rondo's team or Pierce and Garnett's. Quite literally, there is only one choice now. The veterans were forced to step up—and have been doing that quite well, thank you very much.
It's an understatement to say that Jason Terry's three-pointers haven't really been falling this season. The fourth-leading three-point shooter of all time is averaging 35.9 percent from three-point range in a Celtics uniform, his lowest average since his rookie season.
That might drastically change now that Rondo is out of the line-up.
Jason Terry was acquired by the Celtics in the offseason to fill the void left by Ray Allen. Problem is, Terry is not the same type of player as Allen. Unlike Ray, he doesn't thrive on screens. Rather, he thrives on pick-and-pops with big men who spread the floor, like his former teammate Dirk Nowitzki and current teammates Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass.
Now that the Celtics are using Jason Terry correctly, you can expect the Jet to lift-off a lot more often.
The Pit Bulls
Since Rondo's injury, two players have shared quite a bonding experience. Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley compose the new Celtic backcourt and nicknamed themselves "pit bulls" for their hard defense, as Lee explains:
"Me and [Bradley] both out there, I mean, the [opposing] 1 and the 2 is not going to be safe bringing the ball up, because we're going to try to pressure them and turn them a lot and try to wear them down. So you can look at it that way. You've got two guys that like to play defense out there at the 1 and 2, so we can definitely upgrade the defensive pressure."
Rondo is definitely one of the most gifted offensive players in the NBA, but he is not necessarily known for his hard-nose defense. Enter Bradley and Lee, two players that shine in the defensive side of the court. In the last five games, both players have helped the Celtics force 77 turnovers and score 115 points off them. That amounts to almost 1.5 points per turnover.
The old cliche stands true yet again; great defense leads to great offense. And you can thank the "pit bulls" for that.
With Rondo out of the line-up, somebody had to step up to keep Doc Rivers' rotation from falling one player short.
Cue Leandro Barbosa.
The Brazilian Blur has embraced his new role as the offensive spark for this Celtics team perfectly, providing some key minutes for Boston when starting guards Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley are off the floor. Before Rondo's injury, Barbosa had played more than 16 minutes only twice this season. Now, he is averaging almost 24 minutes per game and has scored 14 points in the last two games.
Barbosa is definitely not the distributor Rondo is, and neither is he the overall player Rondo is. But he does two things very well (score and run) and he has done that to near perfection for the Celtics. There's nothing more you can ask of the Blur.
The Little Things
Courtney Lee explained it best; the Celtics are not better without Rondo, they are playing better because they are playing for Rondo.
What does it mean to play for a teammate? It means you do things you normally wouldn't do on the court.
If you're Brendon Bass, that means tie a career-high four assists vs. the Clippers. If you're Paul Pierce, that means start crashing the boards. If you're Kevin Garnett, that means dominating the offensive end like you used to seven years ago. If you're Jeff Green, that means playing great defense on LeBron James.
It's too far of a stretch to say Rondo's injury was a blessing for the Celtics. To have your star point-guard, who can absolutely win games for you, miss the entire season is never good news. But the Celtics definitely learned how to make lemonade out of the sour lemon they were given.