First, that they are a deep team filled with talented, yet willing, role players who can defend like demons and compete with the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Second, that Jeff Green could be a difference-making factor in big games. And third, that they can only go as far as Rajon Rondo takes them.
As Meatloaf sang, two out of three ain’t bad.
With every Boston player providing at least one defensive highlight and Green giving the second unit an offensive boost to complement Paul Pierce‘s late-game excellence, the Celtics scored one of the defining wins of their season by beating the Knicks 102-96 on Monday. The Celtics ran their win streak to three games, all against contenders for the top four spots in the East, and they did it without Rondo.
The Celtics’ point guard, who was the subject of so many preseason stories claiming he had reformed his ways, drew his second suspension of the season for bumping a referee in Saturday’s game in Atlanta. To make matters worse, Rondo then failed to cooperate with the league’s discipline procedures, making the NBA’s decision to ban Rondo from Monday’s game academic. Without Rondo to initiate the offense, Celtics coach Doc Rivers went all-in on backcourt defense, keeping either Avery Bradley, Courtney Lee or Leandro Barbosa on the floor at all times to pressure the ball.
Pierce scored 23 points, with each clutch shot hammering home the point that the Celtics are not afraid to proceed without their All-Star point guard, if need be. Apparently, it slipped Rivers’ mind that the player so many consider to be Boston’s engine was sidelined when he acknowledged that this win was an indication of how good the Celtics can be.
“It’s what we can be, but it’s not what we’ve been,” Rivers said. “We have to be better. That’s what I’ve been saying.”
If Rivers thought Friday’s matchup against Indiana got chippy, then this game escalated to something else entirely. It ended with Carmelo Anthony reportedly having words for the Celtics as they exited the court, after Anthony had a running dialogue during the game with everyone from Kevin Garnett to Jared Sullinger.
The Celtics had no answers for the Knicks’ 3-point barrage in the first half, when Anthony, J.R. Smith and Steve Novak each hit multiple threes. Yet the Celtics trailed by only three points at the break thanks to Pierce’s ugly, though effective, scoring and Green’s surprisingly aggressive play on offense. Rivers’ defensive adjustments at halftime forced New York’s long-range accuracy to plummet from 10-for-17 in the first half to 4-for-15 in the second half. Bradley scored 11 of his 13 points, Garnett recorded nine points and seven rebounds and the Celtics dished out 12 assists in 12 of the most productive and energetic minutes Boston has had all season.
Pierce made a lot of eyes roll on Friday when he insisted that the Celtics could play with anyone in the East, including the Heat. At the time it seemed like tough talk from the captain of a team fresh off a four-game losing streak. But Pierce has followed words with action. He made four baskets, all of them huge, in the fourth quarter against the Knicks, lending new significance to Pierce’s confident air. The Celtics have now knocked off the third, fourth and second-placed teams in the East in quick succession.
“I was telling the guys before the [Pacers] game, look at the East,” Pierce said after the first win of the streak. “There’s not one team out there we feel like we can’t beat. You’ve got a couple elite teams out there: San Antonio, Oklahoma City. And look at how well we played against Oklahoma City. There’s no reason we can’t play against everybody like that.”
If the Celtics, playing to their full potential, can knock off the top team in the Atlantic Division without their starting point guard, then Monday’s game was not just a statement to the rest of the conference. It was also a statement to their point guard to straighten up and join in, or risk getting left behind for what might be a wild ride.