BOSTON — Fatigue set in early for the Celtics on Sunday. Playing a third game in four days, not to mention a second straight double-overtime grinder, has a way of doing that to a team. Yet through gasps for air and tugging on shorts, the Celtics responded to their coach’s laughably simple instructions.
“One time, late in the game, you could see Jeff [Green] had his head down and he was just exhausted,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “The only coaching advice I had for him was, ‘You can’t get tired right now.’ That was about it.”
The Celtics could not afford to be tired in their 100-98 victory over the reigning champion Miami Heat on Sunday afternoon, nor can they afford to give in to fatigue or adversity if they plan to stay relevant in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Within minutes of finishing off an emotional win over the rival Heat, the Celtics were hit with the news that Rajon Rondo, who was slated to be the starting point guard for the East in next month’s NBA All-Star Game, had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and will miss the remainder of the season.
“Everyone was really happy for the win, but it kind of brought a dark cloud in this room when you heard the news,” said Paul Pierce, who was informed of Rondo’s injury while conducting a TV interview after the game. “We’re all brothers. We pull for each other each and every day. Whether it’s Rondo or anybody across the league, you don’t like to see people get hurt. It’s just tough.”
Rondo arrived at the TD Garden on Sunday fully intending to play, according to several Celtics players, but while going through a morning walkthrough he was bothered by nagging pain in his right hamstring. He was scratched from the starting lineup about 20 minutes before tip-off and sent to New England Baptist Hospital in Mission Hill for an MRI while the first quarter was going on.
It was almost immediately apparent to team physician Brian McKeon that Rondo had a torn ACL, although when McKeon informed Rivers of the severity of the injury at halftime, he advised against telling the players until McKeon had reviewed the MRI himself. Even so, Rivers said he did not think the timing was right to tell his players anyway. Every player save Pierce learned the devastating news upon arriving in the locker room after the game.
What took place on the court, meanwhile, was what makes the Celtics so exciting and simultaneously agonizing to watch. Without their floor general, the Celtics battled back from an eight-point deficit in regulation and multiple deficits in the two overtimes to win with a strong defensive stand against one of the league’s top trios in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Kevin Garnett had 24 points and 11 rebounds, Pierce had a triple-double with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists, and Green spearheaded Boston’s defensive effort against James in the extra sessions.
It will take this sort of team-wide effort for the Celtics to turn one rousing victory into a win streak without one of their top players. Rondo has never been their “most important” player or the emotional leader, no matter what anybody says — Garnett and Pierce, respectively, still man those roles — but as Sunday’s game wore on, Rondo’s absence became more apparent. The Heat pressured Boston’s ballhandlers and extended their defense so the Celtics routinely had to start their offense several steps beyond the 3-point line. Leandro Barbosa, who may or may not be unhappy with his playing time, depending on how regularly you read ESPNBrazil, saw more than 30 minutes of action in an attempt to break Miami’s pressure. Even Chris Wilcox, who had not played since Dec. 18 due to a sprained right thumb, made an appearance as the Celtics needed every able-bodied man they could find — they were, after all, the first Celtics team to play back-to-back double-overtime games since 1951.
The Celtics cannot be successful in the long-term by trying to play the same style without Rondo, to be blunt. But they can have success with a different style, one that relies less on a single ballhandler probing the defense and more on pushing the tempo and moving the ball. Their defense certainly did not suffer against the Heat without the four-time All-Defensive selection. The Celtics forced 20 turnovers and recorded 11 steals, which sparked their 16-8 advantage in fast-break points.
The healthy bodies in the backcourt distributed the roles and the work evenly. Jason Terry scored 13 points, including four of the Celtics’ seven points in the second overtime. Barbosa ignited the offense during a slow stretch to finish with nine points and four assists. Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee did their best work on the defensive end, but they did combine for 13 points while chasing Wade, Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers around.
“We can’t match [what Rondo does],” Lee said. “He is who he is. That’s why he’s been an All-Star and a starter for the All-Star team this year. I mean, what we probably will do is split some of the minutes. We just have to go out there and play solid, and go out there and compete every night. Make sure we know our plays, get people in the right spots and just go out there and execute.”
Just in case one win has made anyone overconfident, let us get this out of the way: The Celtics will not be better without Rondo. They had to toil through Sunday’s win in far too grueling a fashion to survive a seven-game series against the Heat, who would be their first-round matchup if the playoffs started tomorrow. Within minutes of Rondo’s injury being disclosed, Celtics fans and detractors alike took to Twitter to implore team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to blow up the roster before the trade deadline.
Such drastic action may not be necessary. The Celtics’ slim hopes of another midseason turnaround leading to another long postseason run took a serious hit on Sunday, but by beating the Heat the Celtics showed that reports of their death are greatly exaggerated. As Pierce noted, playing without their go-to guard is tough. Now the Celtics have to be, too.
Photo via Twitter/ScottIsaacs