Blowout victories over the New Jersey Nets are one thing. The Celtics' 104-87 wipeout of the Phoenix Suns at TD Banknorth Garden last night was something else.
The Celtics (34-9) won their fifth successive game, following the energy-efficient game plan to perfection in building a 35-point advantage by late in the third quarter. The result was an impressive follow-up to shreddings of the Nets (118-86 and 105-85) and launched the Celtics on a trip to Miami (tomorrow) and Orlando (Thursday).
Center Kendrick Perkins (left shoulder) is expected to return for the trip, but the Celtics hardly missed him against Shaquille O'Neal (16 points, 11 rebounds), their aggressiveness and quickness leaving the Suns standing still from the opening tip.
Paul Pierce scored the first 6 points of the game in 94 seconds and every Celtic starter had scored within the opening 4:08. Pierce was slowed by a right ankle strain and did not score after totaling 12 points in the first 15:08.
The Suns' normal ball distribution was disrupted by the Celtics' defense and an overreliance on O'Neal in the low post. Rajon Rondo (23 points) outdueled Steve Nash (12), setting the defensive tone and igniting the Celtics' transition game.
"Halfcourt, Nash is going to hurt us," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "If we play halfcourt, half speed - but speed, we just felt that that was our advantage, and Rondo did it."
The Suns gave solar energy a bad name, seeming slow from the start. They had only one offensive rebound (a Louis Amundson tip-in) in the opening half. By early in the second half, Rondo had matched Phoenix's total of two offensive rebounds, following his own miss for a 75-46 lead. Rondo's fast-break dunk with 29.5 seconds remaining in the third quarter provided an 89-56 lead.
"When Rajon is up and pressuring the ball and he's active you can see it in his eyes," Celtics forward Kevin Garnett said. "He is going to sort of take over and he wants the ball. When he's active like that it is hard to beat us, especially when he's up and playing against Steve Nash - it doesn't get any better than that."
The Celtics used Garnett and Glen Davis on O'Neal and Brian Scalabrine to clamp down on Amar'e Stoudemire (0 for 7 from the field).
"Scal really just used his quickness to play the angles with Stoudemire," Pierce said. "We didn't want to give him any easy catches in the lane, to where he gets the ball and dunks it. I just thought it was a great job with our pressure all night long, turning them over and not giving them anything easy. Stoudemire and Shaq are the guys who make them go - no offense to Nash - but when those guys play well they usually win games."
The Celtics went on 10-0, 11-0, and 8-0 runs in the opening half. The 10-point rally concluded as Garnett blocked O'Neal from behind, O'Neal remaining behind as Rondo converted a layup with the Celtics in a five-on-four advantage - giving them a 21-7 lead 6:06 into the game.
"It's like holding up a wall," Garnett said. "Go home, knock out the foundation in your house and just hold up the wall. And when it's about to fall on you, that's what it's like holding Shaq. Every now and then, let it fall on you and try to pick it back up.
"You're not going to stop Shaq. Shaq's too big and too clever. You don't just score 25,000 points bullying people. You're just trying to slow him down, that's it."
But, once the Celtics poured their own solid foundation, they made certain the game was played at a fast pace.
Any chance of the Suns recharging after halftime was dulled by the Celtics' full-court pressing defense. Ray Allen's 3-pointer made it 87-52 with 2:44 to go in the third, then the Celtics went on cruise control.
"We thought Rondo had to have ball pressure and deflections and Scal the same thing," Rivers said. "We got our hands on a ton of balls in the first quarter, which started breaks for us. And I thought that was the difference, in the first half and in the third quarter. We felt if we could get multiple stops, we could absolutely run.
"We came out with a great spirit. I've said it about four or five games ago, I just like where we're going right now as a team. We're starting to make plays for each other. And everything is about each other."