BOSTON — Paul Pierce‘s shot went through the hoop and the crowd erupted, cheering wildly for a fourth straight victory by the Celtics. Amid the cheers, though, there had to be quite a few folks just sighing in relief, because this game turned out to be a lot more interesting than it had to be.
Before Pierce’s 3-pointer nestled into the net with 2.5 seconds remaining to clinch a 106-104 win over the Clippers on Sunday, the Celtics marked their second straight game of nearly giving away a comfortable lead. On Friday against the Magic, it was a 13-point lead that shrank to four. This time, it was a 19-point advantage that was whittled to two points in the final minute, turning a laugher into a nail-biter. It felt a lot like the last three games of the Celtics’ previous win streak, when they won six straight in early January but limped through the latter half of that stretch with undisciplined play.
This tight victory was a reminder that although they may be piling up wins again, they still cannot afford to let up no matter how large their lead.
“It’s definitely a reminder,” said Avery Bradley, who drew an offensive foul on Jamal Crawford to set up Pierce’s dagger. “Doc [Rivers] tells us every single game, you can never get comfortable. You could see that last two games, we’ve been getting comfortable. We’ve been up going into the second half and let loose a little bit. We can’t do that.”
Losing Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger to season-ending injuries created a sense of urgency among the Celtics last week, but a few wins in a row have a way of dulling the edge. The bench propelled the Celtics into a wide lead once again, but as the margin pushed toward 20, both Boston’s starters and reserves stopped playing with the same crispness. They did not lift their feet off the gas — without Rondo, everyone seems to understand that the pace needs to quicken — but they did get careless. Pierce and Courtney Lee combined for five harmful turnovers in the fourth quarter that allowed the Clippers to get back into the game.
While the Celtics wilted, Rivers seemed apoplectic at times and other times just fumed. On several plays, the Celtics failed to get back on defense quickly enough to stop dunks by Blake Griffin, and as the second half wore on Kevin Garnett became preoccupied with exchanging potshots with Griffin and Clippers enforcer Matt Barnes. Rivers said afterward that he has drilled the importance of not “letting go of the rope” into his players, who he said nod in agreement and then go out and do just that.
“That’s back-to-back games,” Rivers said. “We won the game, we beat a heck of a team, and I’m very happy with that. But in my mind, we can be better, much better, than we were [Sunday].”
With the Clippers tossing the ball away and testing the fortitude of the rim with their clankers from the foul line, the Celtics gave up just 10 points in a second quarter that was about as flawless a 12 minutes as they have produced all season. Almost immediately after halftime, though, the Clippers surged back. They outscored the Celtics 64-47 in the second half and were just one basket by Crawford or one defensive stop on Pierce from at least sending the game to overtime.
Thus far, the Celtics have not missed Rondo as their ball movement has made up for the loss of his playmaking. But games that stay close late may reveal Boston’s deficiencies without their lead guard. The Celtics were 4-for-13 from the field in the fourth quarter prior to Pierce’s shot, as they clearly struggled to create their own looks in halfcourt sets. They may have won four in a row, but they have not found any foolproof method for winning without Rondo, if such a method exists.
“It’s been a transition,” Garnett admitted. “The normalcy of not having him here is starting to set in, so guys kind of know that they are going to play and have to be prepared for that. I don’t know where we are at with it, but we’re going to take it one game at a time and we are just going to consolidate that responsibility through everybody.”
Since one of their most versatile players went down, the Celtics have shared the burden of making up for his absence. They also share the responsibility of keeping up their intensity, because they will seldom be able to walk over any opponent now off pure talent.