No obstacle seems to be strong enough, or big enough, to derail these Boston Celtics. Winners of eight of their last nine heading into the All-Star break, the Celtics are quite simply playing their best basketball of the season.
And they have done it with the odds completely stacked against them.
Heck, at this point I’m confident that the Celtics could win a ball game after being blindfolded and spun around in circles for several minutes. Then again, Jason Collins is living proof of that.
But on a more serious note, how does a team lose its best player, and arguably one of the best in the entire league, and become better off for it?
The answer is quite simple: It’s an all-around team effort.
Moving the Rock
In the 43 games before Rondo tore his ACL, Boston averaged 22.9 assists per game. During the nine games since, that number is up to 24.8 per game.
It’s a direct result of better ball movement on the floor.
But how is that possible without Rondo, whose 11.1 assists per game led the league?
The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan attributed it to Rondo “holding the ball for too long” in order to rack up his assist total. He went as far as describing the All-Star point guard as a “selfish assist guy.” (h/t csnne.com)
Whether or not that may be the case, more players are getting a hand on the ball each trip down the court for the Celtics.
Take for example Wednesday night’s game against the Chicago Bulls.
Boston had the ball with 44 seconds left and a one-point lead. In the resulting possession, all five players on the court touched the ball before Brandon Bass dished it to Kevin Garnett for the clutch jumper as the shot clock expired.
If that isn't a testament to teamwork, then I don’t know what is.
Furthermore, the Celtics have been far more efficient with the ball as well.
Over its last four games, Boston has only committed 11.3 turnovers per game. They have recorded 10 or fewer in three of those games—the only exception being the triple-overtime victory against the Denver Nuggets.
Not to say that the team struggled with it before—ranking No. 9 in the league with 14.5 turnovers per game—but Rondo’s 3.9 per game was not helping the cause. He had the second most in the league behind the Philadelphia 76ers’ Jrue Holiday.
More passes and fewer turnovers sounds like a winning formula to me.
You Can’t Handle the Truth
Paul Pierce was one of the biggest All-Star snubs from this year’s team. If you did not believe it then, you’d certainly have a hard time ignoring it now.
In the wake of Rondo’s injury, Pierce has taken himself, as well as the Celtics, to another level.
Over his last nine games, Pierce has averaged 17.1 points, 9.5 rebounds and 7.2 assists per game. He’s also shooting at a 42.1 percent clip from three-point range.
But while his transition from scorer to facilitator is impressive, Pierce’s aggressiveness on the boards is what stands out the most.
It’s also something that has stood unrivaled by many around the league.
Since Rondo went down, Pierce has a better defensive rebound rate than Marc Gasol, Tyson Chandler and Blake Griffin.— Celtics Town (@CelticsTown) February 14, 2013
But just because Pierce is doing everything else, that does not mean he’ll be absent when Boston needs a big shot.
Ask the Nuggets what they think about that.
At 35 years of age, and in his 14th year in the league, Pierce knows his time is running out.
He also has no plans of exiting quietly.
All Hands on Deck
The Celtics made plenty of moves during the offseason. Moves that were supposed to help shoulder some of the burden carried by Pierce, Garnett and Rondo.
For the majority of the season, the trio received little to no help from the rest of the team. Instead, the bench ranked in the bottom half of the league, averaging 31.9 points per game.
However, since Rondo’s injury, a lot has changed.
In the nine games since, the Boston bench is averaging 40.8 points per game. That brings their season average up to 33.4 points per game, ranking No. 16 in the league.
Two of those aforementioned offseason moves, Jason Terry and Jeff Green, have been a large reason for the turn around.
Terry has been averaging 13.1 points and 3.7 assists over his last nine games. He’s shooting 52.3 percent from the floor and 42.9 percent from beyond the arc.
The 35-year-old veteran is finally starting to live up to his offseason price tag, becoming a consistent performer for the Celtics off the bench. He’s even stepped up on the defensive side of the ball lately, providing the critical last-second stops in both of the team’s last two victories.
On the other hand, Green has also begun to pick up his game after a slow start.
He’s averaging 14.4 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game over his last seven outings. He’s also hitting 50.8 percent of his shots and 46.2 percent of his attempts from distance.
Green has been a vital piece in plans to give Pierce a rest—especially with the news that No. 34 has been playing with a pinched nerve in his neck. (per ESPN Boston's Chris Forsberg)
With Boston down to just 10 healthy players on their roster, the contribution of both Terry and Green has been monumental.
Summing It All Up
There’s no doubt that the Celtics have surprised everyone around the league. They’re one of the hottest teams going into the All-Star break.
Who would have thought?
But whether or not you think the strong play can last, credit must be given to Boston for surviving as long as it has. Especially with the amount of injuries suffered.
This is a team that has come together at a time when many others would have crumbled.
Remember, a team that plays together as one will triumph over any team, no matter the talent level.
How else would you explain these Celtics?
Also check out: Grading Each Celtics Player's Performance Since Rondo's Injury