Let’s rewind for a minute. Go back two Sundays, when the severity of Rajon Rondo‘s injury was just coming to light. If someone had told you then, as the Celtics prepared to take on the Heat and attempt to avoid their seventh straight defeat, that Rondo would suffer a season-ending knee injury and Paul Pierce would score more than 17 points just once in the next five games, what would you have said?
Unless you are delusionally optimistic or lying to me right now, you would have predicted bad things ahead for the Celtics. With their top playmaker sidelined, it figured that their best scorer would need to come through with some gargantuan point totals to keep them afloat.
Instead, Pierce has exemplified his favorite mantra of “giving the game what it needs.” For the fourth time in five games — all Boston victories — Pierce posted a low scoring total on Wednesday in Toronto, going for just 12 points as the Celtics held off the Raptors for a 99-95 win. Kevin Garnett, who came through with a season-high 27 points and 10 rebounds, was the much more obvious hero for the guys in green. But in other ways, Pierce was just as crucial to the Celtics’ cause.
Pierce nabbed 11 rebounds against the Raptors, marking the fourth time in five games since Rondo’s injury that the Celtics’ captain recorded double-digit boards. While Rondo’s loss has fundamentally affected the Celtics’ style of play, the loss of Jared Sullinger may prove to be just as costly. Teams can learn to play differently on offense without a true point guard and have some success. Learning to play without a top-notch rebounder might be even trickier. Celtics coach Doc Rivers has gotten creative with a spread, motion-style offense since Rondo went down, but so far Rivers has been unable to magically transfer Sullinger’s boxing-out skills to Jeff Green.
“My responsibilities go up in other departments now, not so much scoring,” Pierce said last week. “But, hey, maybe some nights it will be. When you lose one of the best rebounding guards, one of the best rebounding guys off the bench, you just try to put the extra effort in to fill in in that department.”
Pierce also went for six assists on Wednesday, the third time in five games that he has handed out at least that many dimes, adjusting his game on a night when he shot just 2-for-11 from the field. Garnett, recognizing that the team’s best scorer was having trouble finding the net, adjusted his game accordingly. That was the most impressive aspect of Garnett’s offensive outburst — not the point total per se, but that he changed his approach to give the game what it needed.
Once Rondo went down, players and pundits fell over each other insisting that there was no way the Celtics could be better without Rondo. They were right. Pierce and Garnett’s abilities to shift focus, however, demonstrate that anyone who predicted the Celtics would fold entirely without their All-Star point guard was just as misguided.
Good players can play to their own strengths. If their talent is scoring, they can score. If their talent is dribbling, they can dribble. Rudy Gay and Kyle Lowry, respectively, are these types of players. They can provide one thing, maybe two if they are stretched, but if their primary tool is not working or the team needs contributions in other areas, they will struggle.
Great players play to their team’s strengths. If their No. 1 talent is scoring or defending, but their team needs a different emphasis on a particular night, they alter their games accordingly. This is the group in which Pierce and Garnett belong. They can be spot-up shooters, defensive backbones, go-to isolation scorers or garbage men from game to game. These are the sort of guys who help assure that, while their teams might not always been championship contenders, they will never completely stink. They have too much versatility — more importantly, too much pride — for that.
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