BOSTON — Shavlik Randolph, Terrence Williams and the Celtics’ bench just plain played harder than the starters on Friday, and for a while it looked like that might be enough. The Cavaliers had a tough time keeping up with Boston’s scrappy second unit, until foul trouble and a shortage of interior size eventually caught up with the shorthanded Celtics.
Afterward, everybody from Celtics coach Doc Rivers on down paid lip service to the energy brought by the reserves. Randolph was taken aback to find himself surrounded by reporters at his locker, possibly a little embarrassed by all the attention after his team’s 97-91 loss. Still, it was a career night for the journeyman center, who posted 16 points, seven rebounds and six personal fouls in 13 active minutes. He was the emblem of a bench that changed the complexion of an otherwise moribund effort at TD Garden.
“That’s something that we’re trying to make our staple in the last five or six games, just go in and try to play really great defense,” Randolph said. “That, and let our defense kind of create our offense. I think with the second unit, when we go in there and get stops and get rebounds, you see us get a lot of fastbreaks and easy baskets. That’s kind of what our focus has been.”
Randolph’s effort was refreshing, and it says a lot about his impact in the last month that the Celtics had to scramble when he picked up his fifth foul late in the third quarter, then again when he fouled out with a little less than seven minutes to play. Williams contributed nine points and six rebounds, while Jordan Crawford, of all people, led the Celtics with five assists. It was an all-around better effort than Monday’s game against the Timberwolves, when the Celtics were also without Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett, who were both sidelined Friday with ankle issues.
But there is playing hard and playing well enough to win. The former is no trouble for the Celtics’ newcomers and secondary role players. The latter is still a work in progress.
With the playoffs less than two weeks away, Rivers needs to figure out not just who can play a few minutes here or there, but actually help the Celtics win a game when it really counts. He needs Randolph, for all his hustle and hard work, to avoid the two silly loose-ball fouls that hastened his early exit.
“You’re asking guys to play minutes, some guys, more than they should, and I get that,” Rivers said. “But that’s basketball. You’ve just got to step up and do it. I told our guys, I thought when we played Minnesota, we didn’t have an expectation to win the game. I thought [Friday] we had that. Before the Minnesota game, I just felt our guys thought, ‘Well, maybe let’s show up and see what happens, and maybe we can win.’ At least [Friday], with all those guys out, they believed they could win. They’re disappointed, and that’s good.”
The Celtics had plenty of reason to be disappointed against the Cavs. Despite Randolph’s hustle, Cavs forward Tristan Thompson erupted for a career-high 29 points and 17 rebounds. The Cavs dominated the rebounding battle 58-42 and owned a 52-38 advantage in points in the paint.
Yet all of that might have been irrelevant if the Celtics simply had hit their free throws. No amount of boxing out or diving for balls can fix that. The teams shot an identical 36-for-89 from the field, but the Cavs were 22-of-26 from the foul line while the Celtics were 13-of-22. In that respect, Randolph’s most impressive contribution of the night may have been going 4-for-5 from the charity stripe.
Jason Terry was one of the few regulars who played extended, productive minutes for the Celtics. His shot was off, but he was part of a wave of Celtics defenders who helped hold Kyrie Irving, Cleveland’s fantastic young point guard, to 4-for-20 shooting. Terry egged on his less-seasoned teammates from the floor and the bench, but he did not do any high-fiving in the locker room after the game.
“We’ve just got to keep grinding it out,” Terry said. “With the numbers down the way that they are, it’s always tough, especially when you get in a tight game. You have guys like Kevin and Paul Pierce who are your closers, so it’s tough, but it is what it is. Hopefully, we can get those guys back here soon and all that will be over with.”
Garnett and Pierce could be back as soon as Sunday — at least, that is what the team is saying — which should bring a measure of calm when the game is close in crunch time. They cannot do everything, though. Garnett will not always be able to make up a 16-rebound disparity, and Pierce cannot hit his teammates’ free throws for them. However great those two have been throughout their careers, they cannot assure that the rest of the Celtics will make the correct reads on defense or run their sets correctly on offense.
The players who suited up Friday played hard. They also lost to one of the worst teams in the NBA. Effort is admirable, but honestly, it has to be a given. If the Celtics’ role players plan to be on the court in the postseason, it is not enough to merely play all-out. They will need to play right, as well.