It was already clear how tired Rajon Rondo had grown of losing. Before game time Friday night, he walked out of the trainers room wearing the face that showed how frustrating it’s been to come to work the past week. Four straight losses by the Celtics soured his mood completely.
He got a coworker’s greeting from teammates as he walked toward his corner of the locker room. A few stalls away, Courtney Lee asked him, “What’s up?”
The first thing Rondo said was, “Nothing, man, trying to stop this slide.”
The Celtics managed that with a 94-75 win over the Pacers behind 18 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds from a fed-up point guard. It was their largest margin of victory this season and their biggest since they hammered the 76ers by 24 last April.
“This wasn’t an empty win,” Rondo said. “It was like a substance win. It doesn’t mean anything, honestly, because you’ve got to keep doing it, but it’s a substance win. I keep saying we need a blueprint of how we need to play. I don’t know if this wasn’t the best one. But then we need to do it again tomorrow and then the next one. So it’s a first step.”
It was the fewest points the Celtics have allowed all year. The Pacers shot 31.8 percent, easily the lowest clip from a Celtics opponent this season, falling apart altogether in the second quarter when they missed 17 of 24 shots.
“Since we’ve been in this funk, [Doc Rivers has] been saying that throughout this tough ordeal no matter what we’re doing, offense can’t dictate defense. For the most part we did just that,” said Kevin Garnett. “Some nights it clicks, some nights it don’t. We just knew we needed a win. Tonight was the night to stop the bleeding. I felt like we went out and did it.”
Standing in a pile of losses, there was nothing else for the Celtics to do but respond.
“You could see from how we came in the locker room that we needed this win,” said Garnett. “And I thought we came out and actually played like it.”
Coming in, they were three games below .500 for the first time since last January, but Paul Pierce told his teammates before the game to just survey the East.
“It’s not one team out there that we feel like we can’t beat,” Pierce told them.
The Celtics had beaten elite teams like Oklahoma City, he reasoned, and hung with teams like San Antonio. They could run with the Warriors, Kings, and Grizzlies of the world.
“There’s no reason that we can’t play well against everybody like that,” Pierce said. “If you look at the elite teams and we can compete with them, then why can’t we compete with these other teams that come in here like the Milwaukees, like the team that came in here tonight, like the last game we played against the Memphis Grizzlies. I just wanted to keep the confidence in the locker room going and help them understand that when we want to, we can be this type of team.”
With Avery Bradley healthy, Rivers decided to go with the lineup that helped his team climb out of a 15-17 hole a year ago, starting Brandon Bass and sitting Jason Collins.
Bradley was 3 for 11 shooting, but bloodthirsty defensively.
“That’s what I try to bring every night,” Bradley said. “I try to bring that intensity on the defensive end. That’s my role. I just try to make it hard on the opponent every single night and that’s all I did tonight.”
Bass scored just 4 points on 1-for-4 shooting, but grabbed eight rebounds. He knew Thursday that he would be back in the starting lineup after an extended stay with the second unit.
“We’re back to building from last year,” he said.
Heading into Saturday night matchup at Atlanta, which had won five of six before losing to the Pistons Friday night, the Celtics were able to snap a four-game skid. They avoided what would have been just their fifth five-game losing streak in the Garnett era.
Garnett, however, was ejected in the fourth quarter after a hard foul across the face of Tyler Hansbrough was reviewed and ruled as a flagrant-2. Rivers threw his hands up in disbelief. Garnett, bug-eyed, was visibly puzzled, but eventually saluted his bench and walked toward the tunnel to a standing ovation having put up 18 points and seven rebounds.
At that point, though, the game was well in hand.
By the 2:25 mark in the fourth, Rivers had emptied his bench and Rondo was headed for the locker room, too.
And for the first time in more than a week, it was with a win.
“It’s just one game,” Rondo said. “We want to build on this game, but it’s just one game.”