Paul Pierce looks energized, Jason Terry reborn, Jeff Green unleashed. Maybe it is all just a coincidence. Or maybe it has something to do with the absence of the petulant Rajon Rondo.
The Celtics held on by their oversized shoelaces for a 106-104 win over the Los Angeles Clippers at the TD Garden on Sunday, Boston nearly torching a lead as big as 19 with five minutes to go in the third quarter. And yet, when all was said and done, the Celtics improved to 4-0 since losing Rondo to a season-ending knee injury, which cannot help but make one wonder about addition by subtraction.
"It's 'The Truth,' " Kevin Garnett told reporters when asked about the late-game heroics of Paul Pierce, who rained a step-back 3-point in the kisser of Clippers defender Matt Barnes to lock down the victory with 2.5 seconds left. "He's the original Celtic. We go how he goes."
My, how quickly things change. For the bulk of this season, Garnett and the rest of the Celtics repeatedly told us how Rondo was their new leader, their soul, their heart. Now Rondo is gone and the Celtics look and sound as unified as they have ever been, regardless of what waits at the end of this season.
Here's the thing about being a fan of any team, be they the `86 Celtics or the `13 Bobcats, the '27 Yankees or the '12 Red Sox: all you can ever really ask is that they max out. Anyone with half a brain recognizes that the Celtics are in the sixth year of three-year plan. People can delude themselves into thinking that the Celtics ever had a chance at a championship this year, but the goal has always been to go as far as LeBron James (or possibly Derrick Rose) would let them.
The Celtics aren't going to win the championship without Rondo this year and they weren't going to win it with him, either. But they are now playing better team basketball than they have at any other point this season and they infinitely more likeable, a combination that makes them far more entertaining, particularly to those of us who have long felt Rondo is, well, overrated.
For those who watched the first half of Sunday's victory, here's what you say: a brilliant demonstration of team basketball that bordered on the scintillating. Ten Celtics stopped on the floor in building a 59-40 lead. All of them scored and contributed at least one rebound or assist. Nobody reached double figures. The Celtics moved the ball, played defense (at least in the second quarter), ran. James Naismith was glowing.
Was the entire game like that? No. But for the last week, the Celtics have generally given maximum effort, shared the ball, played to their potential. They look a little like the Indiana Pacers of a year ago. The most damning blow the Celtics have suffered in the last week or so has been the loss of Jared Sullinger, whose absence on Sunday was a significant reason the Clippers dominated the paint, sometimes dunked at will, generally controlled the boards.
If the Celtics missed Rondo at all in this game -- and, at times, they did -- his absence was most noticeable (and costly) in the second half, particularly the fourth quarter, when the Celtics inexplicably slowed their tempo and their offense grew stagnant. Boston simply took no care of the basketball. The Celtics turned the ball over an astonishing seven times in the fourth quarter, Pierce and Courtney Lee taking turns spitting up the ball as if each were Ray Rice.
This is why Doc Rivers wants the Celtics to push the tempo now more than ever, of course. He knows that if the Celtics get dragged into a methodical, half-court game where defenses can effectively pressure the ball, Boston is cooked.
Beyond that, ask yourself this: how many players on these Celtics have played their best basketball since Rondo's season ended? Terry looks a different player. So does Pierce. Lee and Bradley are a dynamic defensive tandem, the latter drawing a huge offensive foul on Jamal Crawford late in Sunday's game because he was simply in Crawford's shorts. All too often, players like Rondo are praised for making people are them better, but it certainly feels as if the opposite happened to these Celtics.
Rondo made them all worse.
Will this all continue? Only heaven knows. Between now and the Feb. 21 trading deadline, Danny Ainge certainly has some decisions to make, as it pertains to this season and beyond. According to a Sporting News report on Sunday, the Clippers are interested in acquiring Garnett for package that included Eric Bledsoe and the 32-year-old Caron Butler, and trading Garnett is one of the many scenarios Ainge must consider. The Celtics simply do not have any untouchables on their roster, though that has been true for years, not weeks or months.
What the last week should confirm for all of us, beyond a doubt, is that Rondo is hardly untouchable, too.
If you couldn't see that before, you should certainly see it now.
Tony's Top 5
NFL story lines in 2012