Four-time All-Star Rajon Rondo is out for the season with a torn ACL, but remarkably, losing their best playmaker hasn't crippled the Boston Celtics. The C's have gone 11-4 since Rondo hit the sidelines, beginning with a victory on Jan. 27 against the Miami Heat.
With wins over the Heat, L.A. Clippers, Denver Nuggets and Chicago Bulls since the end of January, the Celtics have been knocking off elite teams, and it's worth taking a look at just how they've done it. How have the Celtics seemingly improved despite losing the NBA's top assist man?
Rajon Rondo is a very good defender. But is he really the type of defender that enhances team defense? Rondo gambles a lot and plays passing lanes to come up with steals. Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley have done just the opposite, playing a lot of trapping defense and eliminating penetration.
Because the C's have cut down on guard dribble penetration, it's allowed the big men to stay with their defensive assignments rather than scramble to cover Rondo's missed assignment on the perimeter.
With a more sound defense, the C's are giving up fewer open threes, and Bradley has just wreaked havoc on opposing guards.
No. 0 has guarded point guards, shooting guards and small forwards, and he takes on the toughest defensive assignment on a nightly basis.
Lee is no slouch defensively, either, which renders the Boston backcourt one of the best defensive tandems in the Eastern Conference.
Avery Bradley, prior to Rondo being sidelined, had been considered a defensive stopper who brought little to the table offensively. However, he has been looking for his offense more, and he's averaging 10.1 points per game in the 15 games sans Rajon Rondo.
He's scored in double figures in eight of those 15 contests, including an 18-point performance against the Utah Jazz during which he shot 8-of-12 from the floor, using a variety of dribble penetration and finishes in the paint in addition to a solid mid-range game.
Bradley's main impact is felt on the defensive end, but even when he scored just over his career average and put up a mere eight points against the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 24, he held Damian Lillard to 5-of-16 shooting and 12 points.
Bradley may not put up gaudy scoring numbers, but he's turned up his offensive efforts and is looking more for his shot.
Paul Pierce is averaging 18.6 points per game during the 2012-13 season. Although his scoring average has dipped to 18.1 in the 15 games minus Rondo, he's been instrumental late in games. The C's rely on him not only to score but to make plays for others with their primary playmaker no longer available.
Pierce is averaging 6.6 assists per game since Rondo went down, and he's about as good a point forward as anyone in the Association not named LeBron James.
Against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 7, Pierce posted a triple-double, scoring 27 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and dishing out 14 assists. Pierce has been great over the last 15 seasons, and even at age 35, he still has enough left in the tank to kick it up a notch when a teammate goes down.
The bench has done an admirable job of stepping up in the wake of Rajon Rondo's injury.
But there's been further depth depletion in the form of Jared Sullinger's back injury and Leandro Barbosa tearing his ACL. That's three rotation players the C's have lost, and the only major acquisition they made was Jordan Crawford at the trade deadline.
Doc Rivers told The Boston Globe:
We can't forget: The bench has been good for four or five games before all the injuries. They were playing great and I was complaining about the starters. Now, the starters are playing as well as the bench. You can almost make that case, which is really nice.
In the first four games without Rondo, the C's bench averaged 46 points per game, which was 46 percent of the team's offensive output.
Avery Bradley has also been very impressed with the play of the second unit, saying:
There's no drop-off. That's how it's supposed to be. When the starters come out of the game, the second unit is supposed to come in and keep it rolling, and that's what we've been doing. It's always hard to beat a team that's like that, that has a great second unit that could be a starting lineup.
With the C's bench outproducing the opponent's on a nightly basis, the depth has actually improved despite the subtractions.
As improbable as that sounds, there's a reason the C's play without Rondo has been so surprising: Everyone has stepped up their production and proved a team can improve its overall play without the services of a player who may have been relied upon too heavily to begin with.
Jeff Green has gone from an important role player to a scorer that the Celtics just can't win without.
Since Rajon Rondo went down, Green has averaged 15 points per game for the Celtics, which is nearly two points above his career scoring average. And it's almost as much as he averaged as a starter with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Green, by all accounts, has stepped his play back up to the level it was at in Oklahoma City, and he's proving why Danny Ainge traded the Celtics' biggest body and best defender at the 5 in Kendrick Perkins back in February 2011.
Green still must improve his rebounding, since he is averaging just 3.9 rebounds per game over the span without Rondo. But Green's scoring has been huge off the bench.
Beyond just the importance of his scoring to the Celtics' late-season push, Green will eventually be the starting small forward for the Celtics, and his recent play serves as a strong indication that the team can smoothly transition after Paul Pierce hangs it up.