Six players scored in double figures and the Boston Celtics, playing their first game since learning that star point guard Rajon Rondo would miss the remainder of the season due to a knee injury, beat the Sacramento Kings 99-81 Wednesday night at the TD Garden. Paul Pierce led the way with 16 points and 10 rebounds, but the Celtics also got strong nights from Jason Terry, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, and Kevin Garnett. In fact every player who checked in made some contribution, with the possible exception of rookie Jared Sullinger, who went to the locker room 4:08 into the first quarter with back spasms and did not return. The Kings meanwhile got 19 points from Tyreke Evans, but star Demarcus Cousins managed just 13 points on 4-12 shooting with five turnovers. The Celtics have the talent to win games without Rondo. It was the Kings, who have just five road wins on the season, but it was a step in the right direction all the same.
After jumping out to an 8-0 lead early on the Celtics' offense struggled for the remainder of the first quarter, and they trailed by two at the end of the frame. Then Jeff Green suddenly took over, scoring six straight points to start the second. Sparked by Green, and a transition alley-oop from Kevin Garnett on a pretty feed from Leandro Barbosa, the Celtics went on to make their first 13 shots in the second quarter. By the time they finally missed (Avery Bradley rimmed out a wide open transition layup) the Celtics had turned a 24-22 deficit into a 54-36 lead and would take a 21 point lead into the locker room. They started the third quarter just as strong, opening the half on a 5-0 run and at one point stretching the lead to 28. They coasted from then on, at one point letting Sacramento close to within 14, but the lead was too large for even the Celtics to blow.
The Celtics typical move over the past five years after securing a defensive rebound has been to look for Rajon Rondo. For obvious reasons that isn't going to work anymore this year, but the Celtics still did an excellent job of getting out in transition against Sacramento. Bradley, Green and Courtney Lee in particular made a concerted effort to get up the floor quickly and attack Sacramento before they could get their defense set. Garnett, Pierce and Terry meanwhile did an excellent job of finding them with quality lead passes. The Celtics' half court offense is going to struggle without Rondo creating open looks, so it is crucial for them to generate as many easy baskets as possible. They did that very well on Wednesday. Hopefully it will continue.
Point Forward Pierce
The Celtics best ball handler other than Rondo is probably Paul Pierce, and he has repeatedly shown an ability to create offense throughout his career whenever Rondo has been sidelined. That talent was again on full display against the Kings as the Celtics ran their offense through Pierce, however there is still some room for improvement. Celtics101 repeatedly said that Pierce was shooting too much prior to Rondo's injury. On Wednesday he may actually have not shot enough. No one missed him hoisting up contested threes with 20 seconds on the shot clock, but early on Pierce passed up a number of wide open midrange jumpers, instead trying to force passes to Bradley or Lee when neither was open. He only had five points at the half, and didn't attempt his second shot until there was only three minutes remaining in the second quarter. Celtics101 is all for Pierce playing unselfishly. His jumper has looked really flat for a while now, and the Celtics need him to get others involved now that Rondo has gone down, but he still needs to shoot when he's open at the free throw line.
Answering the Bell
There a number of players who are going to have to step up for the Celtics with Rondo sidelined. Jason Terry in particular is going to have to start knocking down shots, and Wednesday was a step in the right direction for the JET who threw in 12 points on 5-7 shooting. Jeff Green meanwhile couldn't get his jumper to fall, but still managed 12 points despite picking up five fouls. Even Leandro Barbosa had a solid game, putting up seven points and adding the assist of the night when he found KG with a beautiful lob early in the second quarter. This Celtics team, with or without Rondo, has the talent to win a lot of games. What they really needed was a challenge that would get them to band together and start playing to their potential. It would have been nice if that challenge weren't their best player getting injured, but Doc Rivers has tried everything else to get their attention this year. Rondo's injury may finally have done it. They aren't actually better without him, but they may play better.
Defense – Grind It Out
Take away the 37 point second quarter and the Celtics actually struggled to score against Sacramento. Their highest scoring frame other than the third was 22 points in the first quarter, and that is probably about what fans can expect from the Celtics from now on. Without their point guard the offense is going to struggle, particularly in the half court. They probably are not going to shoot 53 percent very often and will probably finish most games in the low 80s. However what they can still do is play defense. The Celtics limited the Kings to just 39 percent shooting with 19 turnovers. The only thing that kept them remotely close was their 26 free throw attempts (they missed nine). The Celtics aren't going to put up many 37 point quarters, but look back to last year when the Celics' offense would look terrible for prolonged stretches. They routinely went five minutes or more without scoring, but their fantastic defense kept them in ball games and they ground out wins. With a back court of Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee this team has the potential to be exceptional on defense. That is their formula for success from here on out – defense, effort, and grind grind grind.
What It Means
Believability is a popular word in sports. If the Celtics didn't believe they could win without Rondo prior to this game then they must have a little more belief now. They aren't better without Rondo, but they still have the talent to win games. If they can respond to the challenge and enough guys can step up they still have the ammunition to make some noise in the second half of 2013.
Game two WOR (Without Rondo) tips of on Friday at 7:30 pm when the Orlando Magic visit the TD Garden.
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