The Celtics had more than 72 hours to recover from and prepare for life without Rajon Rondo. Their reinvention was a rousing success for at least one night, as the Sacramento Kings served as the perfect guinea pigs for the Celtics’ desire to compensate with more ball movement and quicker pace.
It was just one game, but the Celtics entered Wednesday night’s contest rather insecure about their ability to play and flourish without a true point guard. Coach Doc Rivers simplified the playbook, and stressed to his players that they should pass quickly and often while Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett helped in other categories.
Sparked by 80-percent shooting in the second quarter, the Celtics took care of the Kings, 99-81, at TD Garden with balanced scoring — they had six players in double figures. They won their second game without Rondo and the first since he was declared out for the season with a torn right ACL.
Pierce and Garnett combined for 29 points and, more importantly, 19 rebounds and 9 assists as the Celtics again approached the .500 mark with their second straight win after six consecutive losses. Pierce had 16 points and 10 rebounds as he continues to emerge from his month-long slump, while the bench came through with 50 points, including 12 apiece from Brandon Bass, Jason Terry, and Jeff Green.
Midway through the second quarter it was apparent the Celtics were playing more against themselves than the Kings, rehearsing their new or re-adjusted roles in preparation for a playoff run.
“Not a bad start to our point guard being out,” Pierce said. “It has to come from a number of people. You are going to have a lot of opportunities to step up, moving the ball, spread the court. That’s the way we need to play. Nobody had the ball for more than a couple seconds.”
The Celtics definitely took the Kings seriously. They had just beaten the Wizards on the road two nights earlier and thumped the Celtics at Sleep Train Arena Dec. 30, sending Boston into its first major tailspin of the season.
These Kings, however, looked uninterested and apathetic most of the night, relying on one-0n-one play with little ball movement. Sacramento recorded just 13 assists and just three from the starting backcourt of Tyreke Evans and Isaiah Thomas.
It was Thomas who sank the winning shot against the Wizards and also torched the Celtics for 27 points in the Dec. 30 meeting. He finished with 8 points on 2-for-10 shooting, a testament to the Celtics’ increased emphasis on defense.
Sacramento shot 39.2 percent for the game as the Celtics led by as many as 28 (74-46). They spent the rest of the evening staving off Kings rallies and trying to maintain consistency.
“Well, the first game was Miami, but they didn’t know it. I did,” Rivers said about not revealing the extent of Rondo’s injury until after Sunday’s win over the Heat. “But it’s important. Listen, every game’s important for us. And we have to have that mentality every night, that this is a big game for us. We have to win every game.”
It was difficult to determine whether the Celtics were that stellar in the second quarter or whether the Kings were that disinterested. Trailing by 2 at the end of the first quarter, the Celtics converted their first 14 shots of the period, forging ahead with a 24-7 run.
Avery Bradley missed a layup at the 2:29 mark of the quarter, snapping the streak, but the Celtics still made 16 of 20 shots in the period and scored 37 points as they led, 59-38, at the half. When Pierce only attempted four first-half shots, Rivers pulled him aside and suggested his ditch the “distributor” tag in favor of “scorer”.
“I got on Paul at the beginning of the game because I thought he was trying to be the facilitator — he must’ve read some of all your articles – and then once he started moving the ball, he was great, because he’s still our scorer,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘Paul, you’re still our scorer, by the way.’ But overall I thought everybody just played their role, and played great.”
Pierce had 11 points in nearly 15 minutes in the second half, reaching the free throw line six times.
“I felt we had a good, good shootaround today, felt we had a good practice and kind of went over what we needed to do,” Pierce said. “Everybody’s going to have expanded roles, a little more ballhandling from Courtney Lee, a little more ballhandling from myself. A lot of guys have a little bit more responsibilities. I thought everybody played the right way, nobody felt like they had to take all the shots, [we played] tough defense and that’s how we have to play the rest of the season.”
The Celtics played aggressive D and the Kings responded with poor ball movement. On more than one occasion, center DeMarcus Cousins was left with a guard checking him and his teammates did not bother getting him the ball.
The Celtics were dramatically different in running the floor, using long lead passes instead of the usual Rondo-as-the-first-outlet. It resulted in the Celtics running more than usual and more ball movement. No Celtic recorded more than five assists but they notched 22.
The Celtics said they are going back to basics, realizing they are now decisive underdogs in the Eastern Conference.
“We have to win every game, that’s how we think,” said Rivers. “We have to go in every single game and look at them as single games now, and try to win them. But it’s always nice to get off to a start like this.”