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The Boston Celtics split two games without Rajon Rondo and are now 5-5 since his return from a two-game suspension. Despite Rondo’s desire to put an end to Boston’s inconsistent play and “run off eight or nine games straight,” it is Doc Rivers’ assertion that the Celtics are “a .500 team” that has prevailed so far.
In a guard-driven league, Boston’s stacked backcourt suggests an extended winning streak is doable, but the chemistry and consistency of Boston’s guard rotation will determine whether or not the Celtics can consistently compete with the league’s best.
Boston’s backcourt is headed, of course, by Rondo, averaging around 14 points and 12 assists this year and netting his first triple double of the season last week. An improved jumper and a near-record breaking assist streak still rank the mercurial 26-year-old as an outside MVP contender, but Rondo’s ridiculous playoff form (17 points, 12 assists, 7 rebounds and 2 steals per game on 47% shooting) continues to elude him on a nightly basis.
Tasking a player with an almost triple double every night sounds unreasonable (and is), but these are the Herculean demands Rondo embraces.
“We ask him to do a lot,” Paul Pierce said after a double overtime win against Dallas. “We ask him to do a lot because he can do it.”
Simply put, Rondo needs to evolve into a point guard who doesn’t come out flat, ever, period. He needs to be a player who can single-handedly put away sub .500 teams if his teammates are struggling. The Celtics have long been notorious for losing to lottery teams (look no further than a 20 point loss to Detroit) and Rondo needs to be the man to fix this.
Meanwhile Leandro Barbosa, Rondo’s primary back up so far, is averaging just under 5 points per game, slightly less than Courtney Lee despite playing half the minutes. Barbosa will likely slip out of the rotation soon, but his instant offense is something the Boston bench has been unable to replicate since the losses of James Posey and Eddie House, and he remains the only Celtic willing to drive to the rim on a regular basis.
Alternating starters Lee and Jason Terry were forced to get in step with each other while Rondo endured his recent suspension. Their newfound friendship could be key to turning the season around, and the glue that keeps Boston’s second unit together.
“We’ve built up some good chemistry, he and I,” Terry said. “It took a while, but we’ve gotten there now because [we] both can handle the ball, we both can get us into our offense early, and we both like to fly out in transition. And you don’t lose much defensively, either.”
Lee’s defense has been impressive along the perimeter and when pressuring opposing ball handlers, and Terry has been increasingly effective on the offensive end, recently shooting 70% with three 3′s for 17 points against the Wolves.
Still, Terry can (and will) improve offensively, while Lee’s troubling 6 points per game is well below his career average (not to mention a troubling 28% from deep). Lee is taking five shots per game, and while Boston certainly does not need a volume scorer, Lee would need to shoot 100% from the field in order to produce the 10 PPG Boston signed him for. As the rotation settles down Lee will need to get a better idea of when and how to attack.
Avery Bradley participated in his first contact basketball activities since May earlier in the week. “I think our timetable is to get him back probably after the West Coast trip,” Ainge said. “I mean, that’s hopeful. I hate doing timetables, but we are getting closer, and he is looking good. We’d like to get him practicing, and we’re going to contemplate the possibility of some rehab games in Portland, maybe one or two. Maybe none. But we’ll be really careful with Avery.”
According to Ainge’s timetable, a January 2 return to action seems likely, when the Celtics host the Memphis Grizzlies. In the same interview Ainge said that Rondo appreciates how badly he is needed on court, and that Rondo “is always maturing.”
The NBA is no longer dominated by big men, and Boston has been a small team for some time now. Boston must make up for size with speed, strength with savvy. As the Celtic guards slowly start to gel, fans are remembering what they were so excited about this off season. Now about that nine game winning streak….