It was odd to hear Celtics coach Doc Rivers, mere minutes after his team had outlasted the defending champion Miami Heat in two overtimes on Sunday, invite fans and reporters to write his team’s obituary. If the Celtics were not already six feet under this season, the loss of Rajon Rondo to a season-ending knee injury was supposedly the nail in the coffin.
It still might be. These Celtics have toyed with everyone’s emotions too many times for a two-game win streak to generate much excitement on Causeway Street, but on Wednesday the Celtics backed up their tough talk that they have not given up on this season. They trounced the Sacramento Kings 99-81 by following a formula Rivers has used throughout his coaching career: to simplify things when trouble arises.
“Offensively, what I liked was, if a play worked, we didn’t try to get smart and run another play,” Rivers said. “We kept running the same play. And when that got stopped, we went to another play. It’s simple, and it sounds simple, but that’s what we did.”
There could be a temptation for a coach to get cute when his All-Star point guard goes down with a torn ACL. He could get fancy and overhaul the offense or, worse, try to cram a player like Courtney Lee or Leandro Barbosa into Rondo’s role, which nobody can duplicate. The Celtics responded in their first game since learning of Rondo’s injury by doing the opposite and simplifying the game to its most basic level.
It was the basketball equivalent of Denzel Washington‘s litigation technique in the movie Philadelphia: “Explain this to me like I’m a 4-year-old.” Avery Bradley and Lee set the tone defensively and shared the ball-handling duties with Paul Pierce and Jeff Green. Jason Terry and Barbosa, score-first guards with point guard-caliber handles, attacked relentlessly on offense. Kevin Garnett facilitated the offense for himself and his teammates from the low post, high post and everywhere in between. Every player filled his role with just a little — but not too much — more.
“I thought everybody played the right way, how we envisioned,” Pierce said. “Nobody had to take all the shots. We moved the ball, played tough defense, and that’s the way we have to play the rest of the season.”
Pierce personified the simple approach. He took one shot in the first quarter and did not score until less than three minutes remained in the first half. The Celtics were already well on their way to a 28-point lead by then, thanks to Pierce altering his game to fit the situation. He had nine rebounds, four assists and only five points in the first half, deferring to a balanced offensive attack that left the Kings reeling. Six players scored in double figures for Boston in the game, with none scoring more than Pierce’s 16 points.
“I believe that’s going to be a formula for success for us,” said Terry, who scored 12 points off the bench, as did Brandon Bass and Jeff Green. “Some nights, somebody might go for a big number, but the majority of the time we’re going to have to spread it out, do it by committee. I think two or three guys had four or five assists, so collectively, as a group, that’s how we’ve got to win.”
Two weeks ago, when the Celtics were coming off a six-game win streak and thought they had more or less figured themselves out, Rivers admired the style Tom Thibodeau was using in Chicago. Thibodeau, a former Celtics assistant coach, had kept the Bulls near the top of the Eastern Conference standings despite the absence of Derrick Rose. To Rivers, the beauty of the Bulls was in their simplicity.
“The ball just finds the open guy,” Rivers marveled.
Fittingly, the Celtics find themselves in a situation that is not very different from the Bulls. Rivers certainly would have preferred not to lose his point guard to a torn ACL, too, but for one of the few times this season, the ball is finding the open guy. It is beautifully simple, if only they can keep it going.