After explaining to the media his part in the Celtics’ latest improbability — a 118-114 triple-overtime victory over the streaking Denver Nuggets — Kevin Garnett wiped the sweat off his bald head, placed the towel on a jug of Gatorade, and touched the Celtics logo that welcomes those who walk into the locker room.
It was more than a symbolic gesture. Garnett said last week that he bleeds green, but his dedication to the organization that saved him from insignificance in Minneapolis is the primary reason he wouldn’t allow the Celtics to sulk and then sink after losing Rajon Rondo to a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.
It’s been two weeks since the Celtics found out the devastating news after a win over the Heat. They realized that they quickly had to reinvent themselves, understanding that he wasn’t coming back.
So they were faced with either succumbing to the situation or responding with rejuvenated vigor and moving forward with the talent in the locker room.
Their seventh consecutive win is evidence of their direction. The Celtics have revived their season on the fly, turning into a formidable team without Rondo and Jared Sullinger (back surgery).
It’s ridiculous to say the Celtics are a better club without Rondo, but their versatility and balance has become a strength, which inexplicably they didn’t use while Rondo was healthy. Paul Pierce has become the all-around player he was six years ago, Jason Terry is hitting open jumpers, and Jeff Green has finally become consistent.
Whether the urgency created by Rondo’s injury, the threat of being broken up through trades, or the embarrassment of losing a 27-point lead at Atlanta caused such a drastic change is uncertain, but the Celtics have made it clear they plan on hanging around this playoff race. Their surge is likely encouraging team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge to make additions instead of subtractions.
The Celtics defeated a team Sunday that had won nine straight, including victories over Chicago and Oklahoma City. Denver is the type of team that usually flourishes against the Celtics. The Nuggets are athletic, young, and were second in the NBA in rebounding. Yet, the Celtics led most of regulation and refused to wilt despite the pressure placed by the brilliant Ty Lawson and suddenly hot Danilo Gallinari.
Pierce hit a 3-pointer to send it into a third overtime, a step-back shot with 5.2 left over Andre Miller, and Terry, after missing six of his previous seven shots, made his biggest shot as a Celtic with a 3-pointer with 1:13 left in the third OT that was the eventual winner.
The Celtics have thrived under sudden adversity and created a new attack that must be respected.
“This is not a new game plan that he’s given us,” Terry said of Doc Rivers’s instruction. “If you’ve been around this locker room, been around this team, he stressed ball movement. He stressed defense. Those are keys to victory for us, regardless of who’s in those Celtic uniforms. That’s the way we have to play. We’ve all bought in. I guess Rajon and Sully being out makes you, forces you, to buy in and it’s been a blessing in disguise, but we’d still love to have those guys out there.”
What’s interesting about this run is the Celtics have no idea how far it can take them. With Rondo present and the team spending the first half of the season swimming in mediocrity, they were hardly a contender in the Eastern Conference. But now? Who knows.
They are climbing up the playoff standings when most observers believed they would struggle just to hold on to the eighth and final playoff spot. Currently the seventh seed, the Celtics are 3½ games behind third-seeded Indiana. While the Celtics ran off six straight wins about a month ago and looked to emerge as a contender, the difference now is they are playing more to Rivers’s liking, in the system and style he orchestrated in training camp with Rondo.
“For good or worse, that’s what we are [a team without Rondo and Sullinger],” Rivers said. “Neither one can play for us. And this is who we are. We’re going to mix and match. We’re winning games and we’ve got to keep it going.
“Honestly, I don’t give [the streak] a lot of thought, probably because I don’t want to. I just think our team’s in a good place and we just want to stay there.”
What happens next is uncertain. The Celtics hit the road again Monday against the Charlotte Bobcats with Pierce, Garnett, and Terry coming off the equivalent of a double shift. But the Celtics’ confidence is brimming now, they have faith in their versatility and know they can move forward without Rondo.
The Celtics had to embrace reality and they realized that there was too much at stake to collapse in self-pity.
“Since we lost Rondo, I figure we’ve been playing basketball really hard putting forward a Grade-A effort,” Garnett said. “I know we’re a bunch of fighters, I know we’ve got some competitive guys in here. We got a bunch of talent in here. A lot of guys can do great things. It’s all about putting it together and seeing what we can do together.”