They were not quite tagging each other in and out on the sideline like professional wrestlers, but the Celtics shared the load on Saturday in a way they had not in the first two weeks of the season. With Paul Pierce leading the way, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, Jeff Green and Brandon Bass all assumed a bit of the scoring load down the stretch as the Celtics’ defense got a handful of their old standby stops.
The Celtics may be a long way from generating the full 48 minutes of quality basketball that coach Doc Rivers has begged for, but their 96-92 victory over the Bucks eliminated any excuse that they cannot win games despite their inconsistency. As was suspected prior to the season, the Celtics’ depth should be enough to carry them to a few ugly wins while they iron out the chemistry issues that doomed them to three losses in their first five games.
“We’ve just got to continue to believe,” Rajon Rondo said Friday after a dispiriting loss to the Sixers. “We won’t have as many practices coming up as we would like, so for right now we have to do it with our talking [on the court].”
The shortage of practices during their current stretch of eight games in 12 days may in fact be the best thing that could happen to the Celtics. Instead of thinking through every offensive set and defensive assignment, they can just play.
That freedom seemed to take hold in the third quarter against the Bucks. A stilted first half of poor shooting, no discernible dedication to protecting the basketball and non-existent ball movement yielded a three-point halftime deficit. Then two players in green took the court after intermission and just played. Pierce had 11 points in the third quarter and Terry had eight points, and by the end of the quarter the Celtics were rewarded by… seeing their deficit grow by a point. Monta Ellis, who scored 21 of his 32 points in the first three quarters, did not give in to Boston simply because Pierce and Terry were having a nice offensive night.
Yet what the scoreboard and the stat sheet read were barely relevant for the Celtics. What mattered was that at least a couple of Celtics other than Garnett and Rondo were playing with passion. As a team, Boston handed out six assists in the third quarter, only two fewer than they recorded in the entire first half. Along came the fourth quarter and another six assists, all while Rondo saw his streak of 29 straight games with at least 11 assists come to an end.
Rondo did not get to his statistical milestone because, for one half of one game, the Celtics did not need him to.
The Bucks are a scrappy bunch led by a scrappy coach in Scott Skiles, and their backcourt of Ellis and Brandon Jennings is as talented as any in the league. Milwaukee’s persistence had earned it a 3-1 record and momentary residence atop the Central Division entering Saturday’s game. But even a discombobulated Boston team, with its two future Hall of Famers, All-Star point guard, duel former sixth men of the year and solid role-playing wings, is supposed to be able to overcome Jennings and Ellis’ assault.
It appeared the Celtics could not overcome it, though, when Ellis drained a 3-pointer to give the Bucks the lead and end a 46-second flurry in which he and Pierce exchanged shots five times. Pierce missed the next time down the floor, but the Celtics corralled the rebound and the ball found Garnett in the corner.
Tag, Garnett in.
He hit the jump shot to give the Celtics the lead, and then another to extend that lead to three points.
Tag, Bass in.
Bass received a pass along the left baseline, not far from where Garnett took his shot a few possessions earlier, and swished a jumper. Marquis Daniels responded with two free throws.
Tag, Green in.
Green, who began the fourth quarter with only four points, dropped a push-shot for his eighth and final point of the quarter.
This was the type of production the Celtics’ personnel is supposed to provide, even when they are not as cohesive as they plan on being later in the season. In place of unity, their talent should take over against the lesser and middle-of-the-pack teams before they bring it all together to challenge the elites.
The approach might not produce a beautiful style of play, but in November very few teams are fully comfortable yet. The Celtics have the individual players to carry them through at a time like this, and on Saturday those individuals delivered.