Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports
Before the Super Bowl, the Clippers (without Chris Paul) met the Celtics (without, of course, Rajon Rondo). This is what happened.
Because I couldn't decide which one to write about.
1. It's possible to believe that the Celtics are not better without Rajon Rondo and also recognize that without him they are forced to play simple, unselfish basketball and when a team plays that way with the talent the Celtics still have they can be very successful. The tricky question here is whether the two things are related. To put it another way, are the Celtics playing this way because of Rondo's absence or in spite of him?
"We're not better without Rondo," Courtney Lee suggested. "We're better because we're playing for Rondo."
2. Here's Doc Rivers explaining the flipside of the Rondo equation, aka how to blow a 19-point halftime lead at home:
"We stopped playing. You could see it in the third quarter. It's back-to-back games, and I told our guys that. I hate as a coach when you're telling them that and they're agreeing with you after the game, and we still did it. That's back-to-back games where we were playing really good basketball. We were pressuring, we were getting up the floor, we were playing in space, our offense was early clock -- and we get into the third quarter in the middle of it and all of a sudden they're scoring in five seconds, we're walking the ball off the floor. And I'm trying to tell them, ‘That's not who we are. We can't be that anymore.' We just can't. We can't play that way."
There's a reason why players who can create offense in this league are so valuable. It's possible to play well without them for a time and it's even possible to thrive without them if everyone is committed to playing a certain way. But it's a very, very thin line and the Celtics had no real margin for error even when Rondo was healthy. Now they have none. That's the crux of the Not Better Without Rondo argument.
3. Still, it's not hard to see that the Celtics' roleplayers are playing with a different purpose and passion. Perhaps it's because they know they will get minutes or shots. Perhaps it's because they know if they miss a few their fate will be determined by an all-for-one system and not the whims of a demanding point guard. It's also fair to wonder where the hell this has been all year and if things would be different if all those shots Rondo created for his teammates had gone down.
4. Avery Bradley calls Leandro Barbosa "Instant Buckets." Barbosa scored 14 points in 20 minutes that included an end-to-end dash PUJIT at the end of the third quarter. It can't be denied that Barbosa is thriving without Rondo mainly because he's getting more playing time.
It's also obvious that Jason Terry is playing much better without Rondo, a fact he's not shy about expressing.
"It's much more open, its free-wheeling," Terry said. "The defense can't sit on particular plays. This league is great with scouting and they get used to you. They know your tendencies. But in this offense, it's very unpredictable. You don't know who's going to get a shot, but we know we're going get a good one."
5. This is doing nothing to help Rondo's standing with a certain segment of Bostonians who never got his game in the first place or its importance for the Celtics. Yet it's worth noting that the people in the Celtics front office whose opinions really matter do not feel this way. They made their decision to ride with Rondo last year and this has not changed their thinking at all.
6. On a related note, I'm still waiting for a team to pressure the Celtics' guards fullcourt.
7. The Clippers should have fouled. Down two points with 26.7 seconds left on the clock, they elected to allow the Celtics to run the clock down and left themselves at the mercy of a Paul Pierce contested three that put the game away. They got the shot they wanted, but Pierce beat them anyway. It happens.
But it didn't have to come down to that. The Clippers could have forced the issue. They could have pressured Courtney Lee who brought the ball up the court -- they almost got a turnover -- or they could have fouled Lee, who is an 88 percent free throw shooter but on only 42 attempts this season.
Instead they let it play out and they got burned. It makes no sense for a team who lives on creating chaos and has shotmakers like Jamal Crawford to give up that advantage, but that's what they did. Kevin Garnett was asked if he was surprised the Clippers didn't foul. "A little bit," he said. "But I don't know their gameplan and what they were thinking, so that's on them."
8. Here's Garnett on Pierce's end of game three-pointer: "He's the original Celtic and we know how he goes. This is Truth's house. It's never been misunderstood since I've been here."
We spend so much time telling players how to play, but sometimes it's worth it to simply acknowledge their ability and willingness to do things other players can't or simply don't wan't to do. Pierce wanted that shot and he stuck it. We shouldn't forget to celebrate those moments.
9. The trade rumor that made the rounds before the game started -- Garnett for Caron Butler and Eric Bledsoe -- was floated from the Clippers' perspective, but the Celtics don't have any interest. It would take a lot more than that to get KG out of Boston and that's before anyone gets around to asking him if he wanted to waive his no-trade clause to make it happen. You've heard it said many times before: KG changed the culture. Those aren't idle words.
10. Bledsoe was selected with the 18th pick in the 2010 draft, while Bradley went one spot lower. In both cases they were a triumph of scouting and projection.
The following players were drafted after Bledsoe and Bradley: James Anderson, Craig Brackins, Elliott Williams, Trevor Booker, Damion James and Dominique Jones. All were more experienced and more polished prospects. With the exception of Booker, who has found work as a bruising backup forward, none of those players have found consistent playing time and Anderson, Brackins and James are all either barely hanging on or out of the league entirely.
"I have a lot of respect for him," Bradley said to me about Bledsoe. "He's a good player, plays hard. That's hard for him to come in and back up Chris Paul. We're in similar situations. We were talking about it during the game. All we can do is go play hard. At the end of the day, when in doubt, play hard."