Break helped them put it back together
With 3.8 seconds remaining in the third quarter last night at TD Garden, Paul Pierce flipped a pass to Rajon Rondo, who with fierce determination drove the length of the floor, swerving around defenders like cones in a driver’s test, beating the buzzer with a layup.
The bucket was a prime example of the Celtics’ energy after a three-day break. Eight games in 12 days wore them out, and that was evident during a sloppy 86-76 win over New Jersey last Saturday. With time to regain their strength and work on execution, the Celtics resembled the team that spent the first week blowing out overwhelmed opponents.
Last night’s 105-86 victory didn’t come against a cream puff. The Utah Jazz, when healthy and clicking, are a Western Conference contender. But they were reduced to a patsy, unable to solve Boston’s help defense, and an ailing Deron Williams appeared a step slow, while Carlos Boozer was dwarfed by Kevin Garnett.
Garnett ensured that the end of the Celtics’ bench would turn into “Club Parquet’’ in the fourth quarter. He scored 8 of his 18 points in the third, capped by a swirling dunk between mammoth Utah center Kyrylo Fesenko and power forward Paul Millsap for a 77-56 lead with 3:01 left. Shortly thereafter, a limping Garnett returned to the bench and put on his long-sleeve warm-up, a sign his night was over.
It had been more than a week since the Celtics could chill on the bench and Garnett could enjoy himself.
“For 48 minutes, we were very well-connected tonight,’’ Garnett said. “It was a good group effort tonight. You could tell the three days paid off in a big way.’’
Last night’s win gave the Celtics a boost of confidence, which had been sagging a bit after a loss to Phoenix and the unimpressive win at New Jersey. But there was nothing like rest and rejuvenation for this bunch of 30-somethings.
“Most of what we did in the last two days was practicing because of that [Phoenix] loss,’’ said Ray Allen, who scored 15 points last night on 6-of-8 shooting. “Just getting up and down and getting some bad wind out of you, working on your shot, getting some lifting in was great for us.’’
The Celtics methodically pulled away from the Jazz with stifling defense and crisp passing that had been missing the past week. Rondo countered Williams’s scoring prowess with assists (11 in 31 minutes). And the rest of the starters flourished by reemphasizing their strengths.
Garnett took advantage of his quickness and scored on Boozer with short jumpers. Pierce began the second half with consecutive 3-pointers to give the Celtics a 14-point lead. Allen’s savvy against the overaggressive Ronnie Brewer resulted in runners and layups. And Rondo’s creativity and ability to drive into the paint generated layups for Kendrick Perkins (10 points, eight rebounds), who stayed on the floor and evaded foul trouble.
The Celtics are the lone NBA team that has avoided a blowout loss or clunker. Although a 10-point win against a depleted New Jersey team could be considered a subpar effort, Boston has maintained enough focus to prevent a major letdown.
And that is commendable. The Magic, considered a title contender, were blown out at Oklahoma City (102-74). Cleveland dropped a 10-point decision at Toronto and Denver took a 25-point beating at Atlanta. Even the Lakers were pounded, 94-80, at home by the Mavericks.
No NBA team can be depended upon for maximum sharpness 82 nights a season. However, the Celtics take pride in bringing their best as often as possible and lamenting those nights when they don’t.
What the three-day break did was allow reflection time for the stretch of eight games in 12 days. While they finished that part of the schedule with the league’s best record (7-1), they concluded with a mistake-filled loss to Phoenix followed by the ugly victory at New Jersey.
“I don’t think we were upset,’’ said Pierce, who added 13 points on just seven shots last night. “But again, we realize it was a building process. It’s early in the season. Everybody expects us to be perfect but we are going to take some lumps. It was good to get back to practice.’’
For most teams, there would be a sense of relief and accomplishment, but for the Celtics there was disappointment. The practices Monday and Tuesday were intense, ending with Rasheed Wallace taking countless 3-pointers, swishing several consecutive shots, and he refused to allow himself to leave the court on a miss.
“We were happy but not satisfied,’’ Pierce said. “It’s a process, it’s a long season. And our job is to keep more highs than lows. We don’t want to have too many lows to where we lose a few games. By no means have we reached our peak as a team, we’re still coming together defensively. We’re still coming together as a unit.’’
Coach Doc Rivers said his players reported to training camp seething from the playoff loss to Orlando and humiliated they were unable to successfully defend their title. So there has been added focus on the beginning of this season. What we have learned is that the Celtics are sidestepping the chemistry pitfalls felling other teams, and the loss to Phoenix is looking less stunning with every Suns road win.
Adding Wallace only increased the team’s veteran guile and regular-season concentration. So last night’s performance was hardly a surprise, especially after a long break, meaningful practices, and much-needed rest. Remember, some of these guys are nearing their mid-30s.
“We’re a mentally tough team and a team that never gives in,’’ Pierce said. “Even when we battled injuries a year ago, we always fought. The guys just never lose their spirit, just keep their spirit regardless. And we feel like we can win no matter who we put on the floor.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.