The easy thing would be to saddle this loss on Rajon Rondo‘s right ankle and imagine that the game would have gone differently if the point guard had been on the court. The Celtics rely on Rondo for so much of their offensive identity, after all, that an All-Star playmaker may have made up those few extra points in a close loss.
Perhaps if Rondo had not been scratched shortly before Thursday’s game, a few early possessions might have changed all that proceeded in the Celtics’ eventual 102-97 loss to the Brooklyn Nets. That is merely wishful thinking, though, because Rondo’s absence had little to do with Boston’s shortcomings against the Nets.
Rondo is one of the best rebounding guards in the NBA, but he would not have significantly decreased Brooklyn’s 18 offensive rebounds. He possesses an uncanny ability to create good shots for his teammates, but the Celtics managed to shoot a solid 46 percent from the field. He can push the pace for the offense, but the Celtics reached their season scoring average of 97 points per game without him while generating 25 free throws.
No, Rondo’s injury was not the problem.
The problems were a series of defensive breakdowns that started with Leandro Barbosa and compounded whenever Jason Terry and Barbosa shared time in the backcourt. The problems were anemic rebounding by Boston’s front line, which entered the pivotal fourth quarter with seven rebounds combined between Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass. The problems were a defense that forced only 11 turnovers, even while Deron Williams committed his customary four.
Rondo would have helped with some of these issues. He would have put up a greater defensive resistance to Williams and lurked in the passing lanes to force a few more turnovers, but he was not at the foul line with 43 seconds left in a three-point game.
Paul Pierce was. In fact, Pierce almost had a chance to tie the game, had his layup attempt fallen as he was fouled by Reggie Evans. But the layup spun out, Pierce missed both free throws and the Celtics were effectively sunk. After storming into the lead with a 29-point third quarter in which Pierce scored 11 points, the Celtics folded in the fourth quarter, when they missed four of their six free throws and allowed the Nets to hit half of their 16 field goal attempts, many of which came just a few feet from the hoop.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers and Pierce were insistent following their win over the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, when Rondo missed the final 17 minutes, that the Celtics cannot simply count on Rondo to mask their deficiencies for 82 games a season. Rondo missed 11 games last season with a sore right wrist and other minor injuries, plus two games after he was suspended for tossing a ball at an official. He was likely to miss some games at some point this year, too.
“You don’t wish any hurt or harm upon any of your teammates, but it’s the nature of the business,” Pierce said Wednesday. “It happens. We went without him for a few games last year, so we’ve just got to make the adjustment.”
Rondo’s absence on the court, save for a few minutes during a timeout when he walked onto the Barclays Center’s herringbone court to converse with an official, was too easy a target to explain Boston’s loss. As the seconds ticked away on the defeat, Pierce could be seen near the bench patting his chest and mouthing the words, “My bad.” Pierce knew why the Celtics lost, and it was not because their point guard was sidelined with a balky ankle.