|Rajon Rondo (right) had the Celtics looking in the right direction from the start with 9 first-quarter points. (chris young/Associated Press)|
TORONTO - The Big Three once again got a chance to pace themselves yesterday, this time thanks to their relatively small teammate - Rajon Rondo.
Rondo energized the Celtics in the early going of a 118-103 win over Toronto with lightning drives to the basket, knocking the Raptors off balance and keying the Celtics' 61.6 percent shooting. The Celtics scored the game's first 10 points and led by as many as 24, which allowed the starters to stay on the bench for most of the second half.
"It is just the speed we are playing right now," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I think the whole thing is set up around Rondo - I really do. When he pushes the ball up the floor, every single possession, we score out of our sets and we score out of our routes, and that makes us really good offensively.
"I thought the defensive pressure, pushing the ball up the floor, was huge for us. [Rondo] has done that three or four games in a row and we are winning by big margins. I really believe that is the reason."
The Celtics (13-2), who play host to Golden State Wednesday, have won five straight games - by margins of 5, 9, 18, 17, and 15 points.
Rondo (15 points, 4 assists) has averaged 15.3 points in the last four games, outscoring Detroit's Allen Iverson along the way. This time, Rondo needed only 26 minutes of playing time to outduel Jose Calderon (14 points in 39 minutes).
In the first quarter, Rondo scored 9 points and Kevin Garnett converted his first 3-pointer in two Celtic regular seasons. As Toronto missed its first six shots, the Celtics grabbed a 14-2 lead on Garnett's 18-footer 4:48 into the contest.
And the Celtics were just getting warmed up as they set a season-high point total.
Rondo converted two length-of-the-court drives, then hit a foul shot for a 22-6 advantage with 4:16 remaining. Garnett scored 7 points in the final 1:38 of the quarter.
The outcome was never in doubt, but the Raptors did show glimpses of their offensive prowess, rallying in the second quarter, Jamario Moon's foul shot cutting their halftime deficit to 59-49.
"We knew if we came in here and gave this team any life, we could get blown out," said Garnett (15 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists in 29 minutes). "Toronto is one of the top two or three teams at shooting the ball and we were conscious of that."
In fact, the Celtics did perform like a team with something to prove, rather than a complacent defending champion.
And when the starters did take a break, the bench made some spectacular plays.
The Celtics' control of the game could be symbolized by the fact Glen Davis (25 minutes) played a minute more than Paul Pierce (11 points). Ray Allen (21 points, 31 minutes) was the only Celtic to play more than 30 minutes.
Toronto struggled with Jermaine O'Neal in the lineup (he was a surprise starter despite reinjuring his left knee Friday) and without him (O'Neal missed the second half after straining his knee). Only Chris Bosh presented a consistent threat, but he scored only 8 of his 24 points when the game was being decided in the first half.
"The game plan was to run them off their 3s," Garnett said. "Obviously, they are a very good shooting team and my personal job was to slow Bosh down the best way that I could. But this team's philosophy is defense, defense, and for the most part, for 48 minutes, I thought we did that. Offensively, we are going to find ways to score."
Rondo's assertiveness set the tone in the opening minutes. Before the Raptors had scored from the field, every Celtic starter had at least one field goal.
"My job is getting into the paint by attacking off the dribble, and early in the game I was trying to get to the paint to create shots for my teammates," Rondo said. "I ended up creating shots for myself."