BOSTON — Let’s start by insisting that the Celtics aren’t better off without their star point guard. So long as they’re aspiring to win championships, the Celtics desperately need the talent of Rajon Rondo, who has earned his winning reputation by playing his best in the biggest games. It wasn’t so long ago that Boston was seizing a 3-2 lead against Miami in the Eastern final because Rondo was the best player on the floor.
And yet the Celtics are now winning more often without Rondo than they had won with him for most of this constipated season. They were 18-20 with him and are 6-3 without him, with four straight wins overall since Rondo’s season-ending ACL injury. Overall the Celtics have earned three wins without Rondo against top-five contenders Miami, New York and now, on Super Bowl Sunday, the Clippers, who were especially out of sorts. “The turnovers are what did us in,” said coach Vinny Del Negro of the Clippers’ 106-104 loss.
Why did they commit 21 turnovers for 33 points? The easy answer is that the Clippers were trying to make do without Chris Paul, who has missed 10 of their last 12 games while recovering from a bruised right kneecap. The good news for the Clippers is that Paul will be back sooner than later to renew their championship hopes.
The bad news on Sunday was that they didn’t know quite what to do without him. In a game defined by two missing point guards, the winner was the team that has no realistic hope of returning to contention before next season. The Celtics won this game because they are now committed to life without Rondo.
That’s a choice the Clippers were happy to not be making. “We’re a little out of sync right now with the rotations and with the injuries we have,” said Del Negro. “But that’s no excuse.”
A loss like this serves, in the strangest way, to remind the Clippers of all that they’re missing, and of how good they’ll be when Paul is back. Blake Griffin won’t be having to work so much for his 20 points, which came from 14 mostly hard-earned shots with 4 turnovers layered in. They won’t have to lean on backup point guard Eric Bledsoe (23 points and 10 assists) for 38 minutes, and they won’t be in so much trouble as they were in the second quarter, when the Celtics ran out to a 59-40 lead at halftime while the Clippers were committing 9 turnovers and going 4 for 18 from the field because they had to sit Bledsoe with two early fouls.
“Then they took control of the game against our second unit,” said Del Negro. “We were fighting them uphill the whole second half.”
They fought back like a team that has faith in better days to come. The Celtics, for their part, have been running and playing as if liberated. Their bigger-picture hopes have dimmed, and yet Brandon Bass (9 points and 8 rebounds), Jeff Green (14 points) and especially Jason Terry (13 points on 7 shots with 6 assists) have been revived after frustrating first-halves of the season. The shot clock was all but emptied out with 69 seconds remaining overall when 6-2 Terry drained a fallaway jumper over 6-7 Matt Barnes to restore Boston’s lead to 103-98. It was the afternoon’s crucial play, and it didn’t make Terry look like a new man so much as it reminded him and everyone else of the player he used to be — and could well be for the rest of this season.
“We’re running a lot through him,” said Rivers of Terry, who became one of two options for the Celtics’ final possession. They were either going to put Terry into a pick-and-roll or give the ball to Pierce when they inbounded with a 103-101 lead and 26.6 seconds left. Del Negro declined to foul, and that decision was second-guessed when Pierce (22 points) waited until 2.5 seconds remained to burn a fallaway three over Barnes.
There is a big difference between trying to live up to expectations without your best player versus not having to deal with any expectations whatsoever. The Celtics have spent the past week playing without pressure because no one expects anything of them now that Rondo and rookie rebounder Jared Sullinger (back surgery) are gone. They have no point guards and no back-to-the-basket game, apart from the occasional post-ups of Pierce. Their perimeter defense is better now that Courtney Lee is starting alongside Avery Bradley, the ball is zipping around more quickly and equitably, and the team is running as often as possible and shooting whenever a shot is available.
“You would rather have him back,” said Rivers of Rondo. “But at least you know. It’s like that year when Kevin (Garnett was injured in 2009) — it looked like he was coming back every week and never came back. You just kept running some of your stuff, you didn’t want to change it because Kevin’s coming back. And then all of a sudden he never came back and you were stuck in what you’re doing.”
They won despite a lousy second half that gave the Clippers hope of avoiding their sixth loss in eight games. For Rivers a game like this gives him all that he could hope for in Rondo’s absence — a big win and something to gripe about at practice. “In my mind we can be better,” said Rivers. “Much better than we were tomorrow.”
But how good can they be? Can they challenge Miami or Indiana or Chicago with a healthy Derrick Rose? The answer is no, they probably can’t.
It is the opposite of the optimism that was being embraced by the Clippers. Even as they turned the ball and the outcome of this game over to their shorthanded opponents, the Clippers had to feel better than the Celtics. Walking off the court with them in a bright blazer and his fake hornrimmed glasses was Chris Paul, the best point guard in basketball. The Clippers were transformed when Paul arrived before last season, and he’ll transform them again with his return sometime in the next month.