The Boston Celtics got their most impressive win of the season on Sunday afternoon, snapping a six game losing streak with a 100-98 double overtime win over the Miami Heat. However, the win was clouded by the news that all-star point guard Rajon Rondo will miss the remainder of the season after tearing his ACL. The loss of Rondo, Boston's most important player, is seen by many as the death knell on a season that never really got going for the Celtics. They have stumbled to a 21-23 record, just good enough for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. And now with their star point guard shelved the chances of the Celtics making any kind of run this year seem more farfetched than ever. However one sliver of hope remains for the 2012-2013 Celtics and it lies in their defense.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers has always preached a defense first approach to his team. Since the beginning of the "Big Three Era" the Celtics have never been a particularly high scoring squad. However they have routinely been amongst the very best on the defensive end. They force teams into bad shots and thus make them shoot a low percentage. This enables them to hang around in games when their offense isn't clicking (which happens almost every night) and then pull it out in the end by executing better down the stretch. This is how they have remained amongst the best teams in the league over the past six years despite seemingly suffering a rash of injuries every single season. Their defense keeps them in games.
The 2012-2013 Celtics have thus far failed to grasp this approach. They played exceptional defense during their six game winning streak sparked by Avery Bradley's return. Then they completely fell apart on the defensive end and promptly lost six straight before Sunday's win over Miami. Many will reason that the loss of Rondo will only make them even worse on the defensive end. After all while opinion is divided on Rondo's offense, few will deny that he is excellent defender, most of the time. Yet that has been a major problem with Rondo this year. He has the ability to be a shut down defender when he wants to. We have seen him extend full court pressure on Lebron James, repeatedly frustrate Dwyane Wade, and hold Brandon Jennings scoreless for almost an entire game. However he isn't a great defender all the time. He gambles way too often, goes for steals when he should just focus on staying with his man, and takes way too many plays off. This isn't a formula for sustained defensive success, and his defensive inconsistencies have been reflected by the Celtics' team as a whole throughout the 2012-2013 season.
Rondo's likely replacement Courtney Lee, while not half the all around player that Rondo is, is an excellent defender as well, and an excellent defender all the time. Fans have had some brief glimpses of what the backcourt duo of Lee and Bradley is capable of from a defensive standpoint. The Celtics will be less efficient on offense without Rondo, but they weren't efficient enough to mask their defensive inadequacies with him, so it may not matter. Having Lee and Bradley in the starting lineup pressuring the ball will give them a truly scary defensive lineup. They are going to need a lot of other players to step up to replace the innumerable easy looks that Rondo used to generate. Jason Terry is going to have to start knocking down shots, they are going to need to give Jared Sullinger some looks in the post, and Jeff Green is going to have to get out in transition for easy baskets way more often. However the Celtics offense wasn't good before Rondo's injury. Their only chance is to hope that their defense can improve. It is time to see what this team is made of. They still have a lineup that is capable of winning games, with or without Rondo. But they are going to have to commit on the defensive end first: It's their only hope.
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