BOSTON — Kevin Garnett was nowhere to be found, not just in uniform but likely not even in the building as the big man battled a strained adductor in his left thigh. Without their defensive glue to keep them together in the post, Celtics coach Doc Rivers was asked if he was concerned with how his team would respond.
“I’m always concerned,” Rivers said.
Rivers need not to have worried. After a back-and-forth start, the Celtics spread the floor in the second and third quarters to turn a close game early into a runaway late for the second straight game. The only difference Saturday against the Bobcats was that this time, they did not have Garnett. As their 105-88 win attests, they did OK without him.
Although they might prefer not to have to keep doing this, the Celtics are getting really good at stepping up with a man down. They improved to 16-6 without Rajon Rondo, who is sidelined for the rest of the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. They have also shaken off the losses of Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa. They did not respond as well Tuesday in Charlotte with Paul Pierce taking a rest, but they exacted revenge back at home.
“We’re going to fight,” said Jeff Green, who was thrust into the starting lineup in place of a future Hall of Famer for the second time in four days. “Everything’s not going to be perfect, but as long as we’re out there playing hard, playing as a team, we’ll cover up a lot of mistakes we do on the floor. We’ve just got to continue to play the way we are now and continue to play together.”
Since Rondo went out, Rivers has consistently stated that he does not expect any of the healthy players to go out of their comfort zones to compensate for the absence of their point guard or any other player. Still, each one has quietly expanded his game in subtle ways. Courtney Lee has flashed an offensive mid-range game he seldom revealed early in the season. Jason Terry is handling the ball far more than he has in the last few years. Pierce and Green have embraced their roles as all-around threats who pick up a different responsibility every night, depending on the situation. Although they are loath to admit it, many of them have dusted off aspects of their games they have not been asked to utilize since college, or even AAU.
Brandon Bass, who has attacked the basket and posted up more often in the last few weeks, acknowledged that he has expanded his offensive game because of Rondo’s absence.
“When Rondo’s out there, he makes it where you just catch and shoot,” Bass said. “We’ve got different guys out there now that are playmakers, and I guess I have to be one of those playmakers, so you just see me doing different things.”
Similarly, Garnett’s injury forced a number of Celtics to dabble in new areas against the Bobcats. Chris Wilcox, whom Rivers has implored to be more attentive on defense, played more than 22 minutes off the bench and 14 minutes in the second half, the third-most of any Boston player. By necessity, he became the captain in the back of the defense, simultaneously demonstrating the intricacies of the system to newcomer Shavlik Randolph, who responded with a team-high eight rebounds.
Normally, Rivers’ stock quote is that he would rather never deal with any injuries, and always have his full roster healthy and ready to play. Come the playoffs, that definitely would be ideal.
There is an advantage in not having certain key players available all the time, however. Given the right collection of talent and personalities, some players could step up in ways previously not thought possible and show off skills nobody realized they had. The Celtics will welcome Garnett back in a heartbeat, particularly against the Heat on Monday. Yet as indispensable as Garnett is, the rest of the Celtics are giving Rivers reason to trust them, too.