They’re cooking now
Chemistry is key for this squad
It’s mid-January and the Celtics are still in the midst of establishing their personality for this season. When Kendrick Perkins went down with a torn anterior cruciate ligament last June, it robbed them of the chemistry they spent three years establishing.
And Sunday was the first time in seven months the original starting five practiced together as Perkins nears his return. Last night, Kevin Garnett returned from a nine-game absence with a strained right calf to anchor the defense and make a key steal in the 109-106 victory over the Magic.
While other clubs reconstruct themselves with trades, the Celtics are doing it with good health. To a man, every Celtic acknowledged Sunday’s practice was motivational because Perkins and Garnett were back, and the team was whole.
Glen Davis came off the bench last night and took shots in rhythm, after uncharacteristically turning into World B. Free in Garnett’s absence. And Shaquille O’Neal didn’t have to defend Dwight Howard one-on-one for the entire night. Garnett offered help, especially in the fourth quarter.
The Celtics are approaching their natural order and that gives coach Doc Rivers a feeling of comfort. He tends to harp on injuries too much, as every NBA coach does, but without Perkins as an option and injuries to Rajon Rondo and Garnett, the starting five has undergone more cast changes than “General Hospital.’’
Davis and Nate Robinson were pressed into the starting duty and that reverberated throughout the lineup. Semih Erden was grabbing quality minutes because Davis was no longer coming off the bench. Avery Bradley and even Paul Pierce had to assume point guard duties with Rondo out because Robinson was in a starter’s role.
Things are still out of synch with Delonte West about a month from returning from a broken right wrist, and Jermaine O’Neal might make a decision today on whether to undergo season-ending surgery, but the Celtics will accept never being completely healthy, as long as the core is sound.
“I saw a glimpse of [the team I want to see Sunday] in practice,’’ Rivers said. “It’s going to help our starters. It’s really going to help our best. To me, that’s where it’s going to help the most. The starters are the starters, they are going to be good regardless. When you can have [Davis] and Shaq with Nate and Delonte? That’s good for us. But I’m concerned because they have to learn to play together and they haven’t all year but they have enough time if they can come back quick enough.’’
The team was as close to whole as it has been all season last night. And the proof was the performance of Pierce. The Celtics managed to score 109 points with Pierce attempting just seven shots, one fewer than Robinson, who launched an alarming eight in 11 minutes.
Pierce realized Garnett and Davis were generating offense in the paint and Ray Allen was nearly a cinch from the 3-point area. So Pierce waited his turn, finally converting a 3-point play when he pump-faked Orlando’s Jason Richardson at the right elbow, then drained an 18-footer for a 107-104 lead with 38.7 seconds left.
Garnett, Davis, and Allen combined for 34 shots, so Pierce shifted his focus to defending Hedo Turkoglu, who finished 4 for 11 from the field and looked uncomfortable offensively most of the night.
“Some nights it goes like that,’’ Pierce said. “We got other guys really stepping up. Putting Kevin back out there really got it going. Ray with the way he’s shooting the ball. It’s a pleasure to be able to sit back and take a load off and not have to worry about scoring night in and night out, taking 20 shots when I got these guys. I just take advantage of the opportunities that’s given to me. I don’t complain about shots like I used to back in the day when I was younger, even though I got all the shots.’’
Pierce laughed because he was right. Being part of a team with many options has extended his career. As the Big Three has progressed and been joined by the emerging Rondo and Perkins, the Celtics have established their roles and depended more on each other.
When the group is missing members, the sound isn’t the same. The performances are out of whack and the Celtics are relying on more talent than teamwork. Last night’s win was about that teamwork and chemistry that had been absent for a few weeks, and it will only improve as more good health approaches.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.