There's one major issue for the Celtics, and it's the obvious one. The more games Rajon Rondo spends on the sideline in his dapper suits with an injured right wrist, the harder it will gradually become for the Celtics to win games.
Tuesday's nail-biting victory over the Cavs gave Boston a 5-2 mark without Rondo, but the final results don't show how badly his team needs him. For the second straight game against a middling opponent, the Celtics lost their balance on offense and were unable to hold off slashing guard Kyrie Irving in the fourth quarter.
The search for what ails the Celtics has ranged from the drastic — trade 'em all! — to the nuanced. But 20 games into the season, it has become clear that the difference with Rondo and without Rondo is glaring.
The Celtics' basic offense served them well for three quarters Tuesday, as it did Sunday. Everything seemed to work while their legs were fresh and their jump shots were falling.
When it comes to winning time, though, good teams can't continue to rely on the same things they did in the feeling-out phase of the game. The Celtics scored seven field goals in the fourth quarter Tuesday, and four of them were jumpers. When Rondo is running the show, many of the jump shots become a little more wide open and a few of those jump shots even become layups. Ray Allen may pile up eight assists, as he did Tuesday, but he can't create the same quality shots for teammates that Rondo can.
Exactly how Rondo might have influenced Sunday or Tuesday's games is impossible to predict. The Celtics' 25 assists and 14 turnovers aren't terrible, after all.
There are hints, though. Kevin Garnett catching the ball at the 3-point line and holding the ball precariously above his head is not the best way to facilitate offense. Pierce may have wanted to enter Sunday's game earlier, but he was in the game and just as helpless as the rest of his teammates when the Cavs wiped out an 11-point Celtics lead. Avery Bradley's defensive value is obvious, but no opponent respects him offensively and they overload whichever side Allen runs his cuts.
None of that occurs if Rondo is playing.
As long as the hoop is taller than the reach of most mortals, basketball will be a game of height. Yet the shortest player on the court is often the most important, even if his team might survive a little while without him.
The Celtics got by without Rondo for seven games, but getting by is not going to suffice much longer.