By Gary Washburn
While the Celtics’ victory Monday night over the Charlotte Bobcats at TD Garden wasn’t a masterpiece, or even moderately appealing for those who don’t bleed green following every loss, it was a rewarding effort.
Countless times the past few years, the Celtics have played down to the level of their opponent, unable to motivate themselves out of their lethargy. But a rough beginning to this season apparently has taught them to cherish opportunities for victory, and they rallied to top the Bobcats, 100-89, after blowing an 18-point lead.
There was more relief than celebration, as the Celtics still struggle with prosperity. Very few times through their first 37 games have they faced a clearly inferior opponent. But Sacramento embarrassed them in the fourth quarter last month on the road. Cleveland rallied back with a 20-2 run to tie a game before the Celtics pulled away. They beat Washington twice by a combined 9 points. Detroit dominated them in November in Auburn Hills. Orlando took them to overtime.
The Celtics have not always flourished in those situations, but Monday night they erased any suspense after Charlotte’s big run by continuing to defend with passion and avoid fouling. After attempting 24 free throws through the first three quarters, Charlotte attempted none in the fourth, shooting 39.1 percent in the period.
The Bobcats, who snapped an 18-game losing streak Dec. 31 at Chicago, finally relented in the late going.
“I thought the fact that we started out well gave us something we knew that was already there,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “I think it’s a lot tougher when you start out poorly and then try to get things going. You don’t like [blowing big leads], and I thought tonight was a definite letup, and the Houston game as well.
“But the other teams are NBA teams and they’re going to keep fighting and making shots. It’s nice we can catch it instead of losing those leads and losing the game.”
These weren’t the pushover Bobcats of the past. Charlotte has improved under new coach Mike Dunlap, and it challenged the Celtics in the second half, forcing them into scramble mode by scoring the first 9 points of the third quarter.
Behind the mastery of Rajon Rondo, who collected his third triple-double of the season and the 26th of his career, the Celtics clamped down defensively and began breaking Charlotte’s tight zone defense for baskets.
They finally pulled away for their sixth straight win with a 9-0 fourth-quarter run for an 87-74 lead. The Celtics were 10 for 17 from the floor in the final quarter and Rondo (17 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists) was in total control.
“I think our defense is creating [scoring opportunities],” Rondo said. “When guys are wide open on transition, it’s easier for me to pick the teams apart, and sometimes when I would end up with a big on me, and I attack the big . . . that leaves room for corner 3s and they were knocked down tonight. We had a good mismatch in transition and we were able to get the lead early on.”
A seemingly comfortable 11-point halftime lead suddenly was reduced to rubble after the Bobcats went on a 13-2 run to begin the third quarter to catch the Celtics at 58 after consecutive layups from Gerald Henderson and Ramon Sessions.
While offensive ineptitude could be blamed for Boston only scoring 2 points in the first 4:12 of the quarter, credit also could go to switching Charlotte defenses that confused the Celtics into nearly wasting the entire 24-second clock before making a decision.
Having blown that 18-point lead, the Celtics worked hard to recover, beginning with a 7-0 run capped by Avery Bradley’s 3-pointer for a 65-58 lead with 6:11 left in the quarter.
Charlotte got as close as 72-68 after a 3-pointer by rookie Jeff Taylor, but the Celtics never allowed their opponent within one possession. Kevin Garnett ended the quarter with his first field goal of the game, a layup with 2.7 seconds left for a 76-70 lead. Garnett (2 for 11, 7 points) added his second basket late in the fourth quarter.
Rondo had 4 points and four assists in the final quarter and the Celtics used a jumper from Paul Pierce and a layup from Rondo with 40 seconds left to create a safe 96-85 lead.
Pierce (19 points on 6-for-16 shooting) and Garnett didn’t address the media. Rondo was subdued but said the six consecutive wins have changed the team’s fortunes and confidence.
“Our spirits are better, obviously,” he said. “It’s not fun losing, and since we’ve been winning, the locker room has been a little bit more relaxed and guys are smiling again and joking, so it’s back to where we’ve been from the start.
“We lost a couple games, we never got down, we just tightened up the locker room to try and get us back to the way we play. We play loose, we’re smiling out there on the floor sometimes. [We] get that swag back, and I think we’ve done that the last couple of games.”