BOSTON – The outlook was bleak.
Rajon Rondo’s season-ending knee injury was certain to hurt the Celtics’ hopes for a playoff berth. How could Boston possibly survive without its offensive catalyst, the NBA leader in assists and triple-doubles and one of the league’s best rebounding guards?
But not only have the Celtics survived, they’ve thrived.
They’re 6-0 since Rondo tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, including wins over LeBron James and the Miami Heat and Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers. They’ve adjusted to Coach Doc Rivers’ new approach now that Rondo isn’t controlling the ball, waiting to make a pass or drive to the basket:
Shoot it if you’re open, pass it quickly if you’re not and spread the court.
And they’re 4-0 since losing another key player for the season when rookie Jared Sullinger, an outstanding rebounder, underwent back surgery.
“Our guys just think they’re good,” Rivers said after the most lopsided win in the stretch, 116-95 over the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night. “They didn’t ever doubt themselves. Others did, and they should have, really. When you lose guys like Rondo and Sully, I get that. But the guys in the locker room, they like what they are.”
After Rondo’s last game, the Celtics held the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, just two games ahead of Philadelphia. Thursday’s win left them in seventh place with a 26-23 record, four games ahead of the 76ers and one behind the sixth-place Atlanta Hawks.
“We’re not going to make excuses, who’s out there, who’s not out there,” Paul Pierce said after scoring 24 points against the Lakers. “We’ve got a lot of talent in this (locker) room. The rest of the teams are going to take it how they’re going to take it. We’re fine with flying under the radar (with) no expectations and everybody doesn’t expect anything of us, but we’re going to keep moving along like we’re moving and trying to get better.”
In their six games since losing Rondo, the Celtics have outscored opponents by an average of 102.8-92.8 and hit 49.1 percent of their shots.
Before his injury, they were outscored 96.4-95.0 and made only 45.7 percent of their shots.
But as well as the Celtics have played, other factors have contributed to their success.
Of the six wins, five came at home and four were against teams with records of 23-27 or worse. Pau Gasol of the Lakers and Chris Paul of the Clippers missed the games against the Celtics with injuries. On Sunday, the Denver Nuggets bring an eight-game winning streak into TD Garden.
The Celtics did, of course, beat a healthy Heat team in double overtime, 100-98, to start the streak. And the loss of Rondo has given other players opportunities.
“Rondo does so many different great things for this team, you can kind of get lackadaisical,” Kevin Garnett said. “It’s very similar to if you have someone cooking for you and you’re expecting it every day.
“And, all of the sudden, that someone is not there, obviously, to do that, and it’s up to you to feed yourself. And, all of the sudden, you start making these gourmet dishes and then you have some more people over to the house, more people eating. You never know you possessed that, unless you lost that person who was cooking. It’s kind of like that.”
Without Rondo, the Celtics have tossed in an extra dash of guards Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa, forward Jeff Green and center Chris Wilcox. And another, Avery Bradley, has been one of the NBA’s top defensive guards after missing the first 30 games while recovering from surgery on both shoulders.
“Everybody’s relaxed out there and we’re just having fun moving the ball around,” Bradley said. “It’s simple basketball. We almost feel like we’re playing summer ball. Everybody’s just passing it. If you don’t have anything, pass it. That’s just how we play and it’s hard to beat a team like that.”
Rivers didn’t have much choice. He knew he had to pick up the offensive pace.
“I like our vibe and our spirit and we’re playing selfless and free,” he said. “We’re not, honestly, good enough ballhandlers to play halfcourt. We just can’t. We can’t get stuck in that because we don’t have one guy that is good enough with the ball to be able to orchestrate our offense.”
The defense also has been outstanding.
“You make (the opponent) use 20 seconds every time down defensively and, even if your offense goes stale, you can still win the game,” Rivers said.
Even without Rondo.
“Everybody’s touching the ball and playing with a lot of confidence,” said Garnett, who became the 16th player in NBA history to score 25,000 points on Thursday. “We are playing together on both ends and that’s important right now.”
There was a temporary slipup in Wednesday night’s 99-95 win at Toronto when the Celtics slowed the pace and trailed by 10 points in the fourth quarter.
“You could hear them talking about it throughout the game. ‘This is not us. This is not us,”‘ Rivers said, “and then when we finally got the pace, you could hear them, ‘This is who we are.’ “