Immediately following the news that Rondo had torn his ACL and was done for the season, cries for Danny Ainge and the Celtics to blow it up could be heard throughout the NBA.
Rondo was Boston's lifeline. He was its ticket to prominence, to contention. The Celtics were his team and they wouldn't be able to function without him.
Or so we thought.
Boston is undefeated since losing Rondo. It has run off seven straight victories, three of which have come against bona fide contenders and one of which came against the Los Angeles Lakers.
Granted, six of these seven victories have come at home, but that doesn't diminish the importance of them. Nor does it abate the effort that has been put up by Pierce.
Amidst a bustle of trade rumors that supposedly leave his future with the Celtics in doubt, Pierce has risen to the occasion and left no doubt as to who Boston really belongs to.
In each of these last seven victories, Pierce is averaging 18.8 points, 10.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists, a near triple-double. Anyone who has watched the Celtics can tell you that's a normal stat line for Rondo, yet there's something inherently different about Pierce's recent displays.
Oh, that's right, the Celtics are actually winning.
Boston has now improved to 9-3 on the season without Rondo—a small sample size, yes, but a telling one all the same.
All season, Rondo has failed to have the type of impact on the Celtics' offense he's supposed to. The team is scoring four points fewer per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and they're allowing nearly two points less on the defensive end when he's off it.
The same cannot be said of Pierce. When he's on the floor, Boston's offense is better by 4.6 points per 100 possessions.
While you'd expect the Celtics to score more with Pierce on the floor, you'd expect the same from Rondo. As a point guard, your primary job is to run the offense effectively. Rondo is one of the best in the league, so it's easy to assume Boston's offense would rattle off more points with him in the game.
Watch them without Rondo, though, and it's easy to see why the Celtics go against the trend. Unlike Rondo, Pierce is able to dominate the game from various areas. He's an incisive passer, yes, but he's also a competent shooter, something Rondo has yet to master.
Per hoopdata.com, Rondo is still just connecting on 37.3 percent of his attempts away from the rim. Defenses tend to play off him as a result, which (if we're honest) helps open up the passing lanes for him.
At the same time, that also impedes Boston's offense, even if only slightly. Without having a legitimate perimeter threat running the offense, the Celtics are then reliant upon his dribble penetration to create opportunities. They don't move us much, because it's about Rondo moving.
And when Rondo moves, it's often excessive. From over-dribbling to stylistic theatrics, the point guard frequently embodies the unnecessary.
Pierce doesn't. He's not the drive-and-kick threat Rondo is, so he relies more on his quick reactions than his movements. If he isn't going to take his man one-on-one, that ball is going to keep moving.
Is this to say the Celtics are better off without Rondo?
Not exactly. Rondo does need to push the pace of the offense more and get rid of the ball quicker, but he's still an asset to Boston. What he isn't, though, is clutch.
Rondo isn't who you want having the ball with the game on the line. His precise passing can be effective, but he's not a threat to shoot. Those end-of-game responsibilities have always fallen on Pierce, and they still do. Just ask the Denver Nuggets.
In the waning moments of a second overtime, Pierce drilled a contested three to force a third extra period and ultimately pave the way for Boston to win the game. That's not something you would have seen Rondo do. He's a savvy distributor and grasping the ropes of emotional leadership slightly better, but he's not a scorer. Pierce is, as well as so much more.
Part of Rondo's deficiencies as a pillar stem from his crafty, yet limited, skill set. He's a triple-double machine, but his offensive capabilities are, again, limited. He doesn't draw in the defenses outside of the paint like Pierce.
George Karl, head coach of the Nuggets, said it best when he attributed Boston's recent success to Pierce (via Mark Murphy of the Boston Herald):
I think they’re doing it by committee a bit more, they’re sharing the ball, they have four of what we call combo guards who can play some point and make some decisions. But the key to the team is Pierce. Pierce has been incredible.
He’s taken over ballhandling responsibilities for them, he’s become a good rebounder for them, he’s playing with tremendous energy.
Save for the "by committee" reference, Karl could have been talking about Rondo. But he wasn't, because that "by committee" effort makes all the difference.
Pierce can play off the ball, he can play on it, it doesn't matter. We can't consider him a better point man than Rondo, but he is an adequate replacement.
Would Rondo have been able to replace Pierce if he went down, though?
Of course not, and that's the point.
Pierce can do so many different things and thus means so much to the Celtics in all different facets of the game. If you need him to run the offense, he'll run it. If you need him to score, he'll score. If you need him to take a backseat to Rondo, he'll do that too.
Who is the Boston Celtics' true leader?
Rondo may mean more to the Celtics because he's younger, because he's in his prime while Pierce is approaching the end and because he's a part of their future. There's no use arguing who Boston still belongs to, though, because that hasn't changed in nearly 15 years.
"He’s taken over responsibility with Rondo out, and they’ve given him that leadership," Karl said.
If Boston's recent winning streak has proved anything, it's that Pierce has always had that "leadership;" he's always had the keys to the Celtics' car.
He's just allowed Rondo to drive it.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.