Jason Terry will not get out of his slump. Courtney Lee will not suddenly find his groove and see his game jump to the next level. Jeff Green will not find his role, and Avery Bradley‘s defense will not suddenly make all the difference.
Rajon Rondo is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL, and with him goes everything Boston had tried to build this season. The halfway point of the season is now the death knell, the slow start the final blow.
In a season when Rondo was supposed to be the new leader, the MVP and the glue for Danny Ainge‘s magical mix of specialty parts, the key piece of the plan has been yanked out. Rondo’s creative passes and ability to run the offense were what could pull the Celtics’ many different pieces together. But without him at the helm, the Celtics face being a team made up of various players, not a team whose talented individuals are pulled together to lift the group to the next level.
While the news of Rondo’s injury came at the worst possible time, as the Celtics were trying to get off a six-game losing streak, the Celtics at first appeared to be just fine without him. A team that hasn’t been able to play consistently all season banded together against one of the Eastern Conference’s best, playing the Heat evenly the whole way Sunday afternoon. Each player rose in his role, with balanced scoring and lockdown defense showing what this Boston team could be.
The team found what it had been missing all season, rising together after it was told that Rondo would not be coming back.
But that’s exactly what’s wrong with the Celtics this season. Yes, they will come out and beat the Heat at home, holding off Ray Allen‘s (21 points) resurgent return. Sure, they can shut down LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh for a night. Of course Green, Bradley, Terry and Lee will suddenly pop out the production required for a balanced attack and defense.
This Celtics team, however, has also lost to the Pistons — twice. They gave up 40 to Kyrie Irving last week. They capped their season-high six-game winning streak by croaking to the Hornets.
This is a team that has found ways to get very high on its highs, and horribly low on its lows. The C’s come out for the good teams and can play them close, but they’ve lost twice as many games on the road as they’ve won, and they can’t knock off .500 teams with ease.
Eliminating Rondo creates obvious problems for the Celtics. They can’t replace an All-Star point guard, a playmaker who is unrivaled in the NBA in many ways, and a player who supplies 13.7 points, 11.1 assists and 5.6 rebounds a game. Losing the player who was anointed as the team’s new leader this year (by veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, no less) and who will be the centerpiece of this squad for years to come has repercussions galore.
But the bigger problem for the Celtics is that they will be required to dig deeper to get their highs higher, and to dig even deeper than that to keep their lows from getting too low. The Celtics were almost facing all must-wins coming into Sunday’s game after starting the season a wretched 20-23. Now, every gimme really must be won from here on out, and some of the tough ones will have to be put away with ease, too.
The Celtics set themselves up to have no room for error by spending the first half of their season fiddling around with a team that took too long to gel. Now they’ve lost their key piece, and they have no time to try to figure out what works — they need to make it happen within 48 minutes every game.
Sunday was a good sign, as the Celtics know how to compete with different combinations of players and certainly have the talent to beat quality teams without Rondo. But emotion only runs so far, and the loss of Rondo — who has regularly been required to play a bulk of the minutes just to keep the team in the game — is as bad as it sounds.
Green may take off, and Terry may hit his 3-pointers. Bradley and Lee can shut down opponents, and Garnett and Pierce will be asked to do more.
But Rondo is lost, and with him goes the grand vision of what this season could be. The only question that remains is whether the Celtics can invent another plan — and actually fulfill this one — in a half a season where they’ll have to do all but win out.