Elite Clippers offer stiff test to patchwork Celtics

Boston Celtics forward Kevin Garnett reaches for the ball against Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic, right, during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Boston, Friday, Feb. 1, 2013. The Celtics won 97-84. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Kevin Garnett, reaching for the ball in Friday’s win over the Magic, said the Celtics have a lot of fight in us.” (AP)
AP

Sacramento was amateur hour. Orlando? Child’s play.

But the Clippers are NBA royalty — not historically, of course; just lately — and on Sunday the team called Lob City will offer the Celtics their first true test since losing two key players.

If the Celtics’ small-ball ways fare as well against the 34-14 Clippers as they did against the woeful Kings and the miserable Magic, then they’ll not only earn their fourth straight win, but they’ll have proven this new scheme is for real.

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According to Kevin Garnett, though, this offensive system — installed in light of season-ending injuries to Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger — is pretty much the norm throughout the NBA.

“It’s what the league is,” Garnett said after the Celtics’ 97-84 win against Orlando Friday.

Specifically, Garnett said, teams are playing with one taller player in the paint and four smaller players around the perimeter. He cited examples in Oklahoma City, Miami, Brooklyn, and New York.

“I think everybody is going to start doing that,” Garnett continued. “I’ll probably be out of the league by the time they start doing all small ball with five small guys in the game.

“It makes the game fast, and I think as long as you have the players and you have the defensive skills to guard it, I think that, yeah, we will be able to continue to survive and play small ball.”

As for how the team has responded without Rondo and Sullinger, Garnett said it has taught him that “we have a lot of fight in us.”

Garnett referenced comments Doc Rivers made in late November about the team being “soft,” but the veteran big man said this team is anything but.

“We are very competitive, we’re very prideful,” Garnett said. “When you lose pieces and you lose certain things [from] your team . . . you see the fight within each other, and you just follow that.”

Mound of reboundsThe Paul Pierce of late looks a little like the Paul Pierce of old. He has grabbed double-digit rebounds in three straight games, a feat he hasn’t achieved since 2005.

“Well, he’s our rebounder,” Rivers said. “He’s one of them. He has to be. I mean, he literally has to be a rebounder for us.”

Pierce has also been a distributor, with 21 total assists in the last three games.

“I’m capable of doing a little bit of everything,” the Celtics captain said. “Just trying to give the game what it needs. So regardless, if it’s playing Rondo’s role, Sully’s role as a rebounder, I’m going to try to fill the needs of what this ball club needs.”

Collectively, the team has worked to fill Rondo’s shoes by sharing the ball more. The Celtics had 30 assists against the Magic, their third-highest total this season.

Forward Jeff Green used the term “gang rebound” in reference to how the Celtics have to respond without Sullinger, a player often cited as the team’s best rebounder. But 10 Celtics grabbed at least one rebound against the Magic, led by Pierce (11) and Garnett (10).

Off and running

Against the Kings, the Celtics raced up the court at every opportunity. Against the Magic, they didn’t really run and gun until the third quarter — and it was then that they sped out to a 23-point lead.

Also key for the Celtics is their second unit, specifically guards Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa. Each scored key transition layups during the game-deciding stretch against the Magic when the Celtics turned the game into a track meet.

“We kind of let them play,” Rivers said of Terry and Barbosa, who each had 12 points off the bench.

“I called the one timeout, and they kept asking, ‘What are we running?’ I said, ‘I have no idea. Just go out and space the floor and play. And play through it.’ ”