“What are we running?” they asked Doc Rivers on the bench.
“I have no idea,” the coach replied.
Whatever it was, it was working. That was enough for Rivers. For the third straight game, the Celtics’ healthy guards stepped up in Rajon Rondo‘s absence and helped deliver a victory to the cheering mass on Causeway Street.
“We kind of let them play,” Rivers said after the Celtics’ 97-84 win over the Orlando Magic. “Just go out and space the floor and play, and play through it. I think Jason loves to play that way. L.B. clearly likes to play that way, and they just read each other extremely well.”
Terry and Barbosa’s syncopation might never have been discovered if Rondo had not torn his ACL. Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley might never have gotten enough floor time together to turn into the relentless defensive duo they have shown themselves to be in the last week. The Celtics are careful to say they are not better without Rondo, but so far their foursome of impact guards is playing to prove the drop-off is not as great as everyone assumed it would be.
For the second straight game, six players scored in double figures for the Celtics. Jeff Green was the high man this time with just 17 points for the suddenly fearsome bench, which also produced 12 points each by Terry and Barbosa. Lee tied for the scoring high among Boston’s starters with 14 points as the Celtics’ first- and second-unit backcourts combined for 44 points.
“The ball’s moving and everybody’s getting involved,” Lee said. “We’ve got to play that way without Rondo, because Rondo was the playmaker. That’s one thing he’s good at, making plays for himself and others, but with him down, we’ve got to make up for that. We all have to make plays and also make plays for each other.”
Now that Jared Sullinger has joined Rondo on the shelf for the rest of the season, the challenge facing Boston’s backcourt is more complicated. No longer is this just a matter of the guards or a few frontcourt wing players like Green and Paul Pierce sharing Rondo’s ballhandling responsibilities. The guards now need to help out up front as well, giving extra support on the glass and defending bigger players in smaller Celtics lineups.
Lee, the most adaptable of the group, had his versatility stretched to its limits against the Magic. In addition to his 14 points, he finished with five rebounds and five assists, all in between chasing J.J. Redick around screens at the defensive end.
“I’m asking a lot of him,” Rivers said. “He started the game bringing the ball up at point, then he’s guarding J.J. Redick, and then at one point he was at the three [small forward]. Honestly, everyone on our team’s going to have to do that every night.”
Since the Celtics re-emerged as a championship contender under Rivers six years ago, one of the few criticisms directed their way is that they were too deliberate. They were too predictable. They were too conventional. Out of necessity, now they are anything but those things.
What are they now? They have no idea. But so far it is working.