Bench players stood tall
Starters the ones who let it slip away
With Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo out, injuries have left craters in the Celtics’ starting lineup at two important positions, and the losses were quite noticeable in yesterday’s 83-81 loss to the Hornets. The Celtics had to lean on the second unit to rally, only to have the starters give it away.
“Listen, our bench won the game, or almost won the game for us,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “When I put the starters back in both times — first half and second half — is when they closed the gap.’’
The Celtics trailed, 66-57, entering the fourth quarter, and Rivers sent Marquis Daniels, Jermaine O’Neal, and Luke Harangody onto the floor with Ray Allen and Nate Robinson. They started the quarter with a 16-0 run, handing the starters the lead. With 10 points, 4 assists, and 3 rebounds, Daniels was plus-8 in 25 minutes for the game.
“We were just trying to get some stops and get easy baskets,’’ said Daniels. “We got Ray some open shots. Things were rolling for a little bit.’’
O’Neal got two of his three blocks in the fourth quarter, continuing to improve since returning to the lineup Christmas Day.
“He’s playing great, he’s doing exactly what we want him to do,’’ Rivers said. “He’s rebounding, he’s blocking shots, and you know he’ll go and make a shot.’’
Harangody missed four of his five shots, but his defense impressed Rivers.
“Luke Harangody was guarding Emeka Okafor,’’ Rivers said almost in disbelief. “I mean, what a matchup that is. And Luke was phenomenal. He just played so darn hard.’’
Okafor finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds, but didn’t score in the fourth quarter, when Harangody played seven of his 13 minutes.
“Being a small guy just means you’ve just got to work that much harder to put a body on him and just do your job out there,’’ Harangody said.
But from the time Paul Pierce came in for Daniels with 5:17 remaining, the Hornets outscored the Celtics, 13-8, to end the game.
“We should have kept Marqius in for me,’’ Pierce said.
Seeing the starters struggle was concerning to Rivers.
“Right now with all the guys out, we’ve got so many different combinations on the floor, our starters have to be solid every night through the stretch,’’ he said.
Rondo not ready Rondo tested his sprained left ankle before the game, and didn’t like the results.
“I tried to play one-on-one and wasn’t able to do what I usually do,’’ said Rondo, sitting at his locker while icing his foot after the game “Nothing’s bothering me right now, I’m just not game-ready yet.’’
Rondo also has been hampered by a strained hamstring and plantar fasciitis, but he said it’s been hard to judge how either will affect him without being on the floor.
“That was the only trigger really, when I played and when I had a burst of speed,’’ Rondo said.
Still, Rondo was looking at next week to return. “It’s day-to-day,’’ he said. “Maybe Sunday, maybe Monday. Maybe Chicago [next Saturday].’’
“He’s getting close,’’ Rivers said. “So far, each time he’s worked out, there’s been some swelling, and that’s a concern. So we’re going to take it slow. We’re not going to push him back, we’re just going to wait until he’s ready to play.’’
Putting in his time O’Neal kept racking up the minutes, and Rivers kept checking to make sure it wasn’t too much, knowing he had been back for only four games after sitting out six weeks with a sore left knee. O’Neal finished with 33 minutes, by far the most he had played since returning to the lineup.
“He handled them very well,’’ Rivers said. “He surprised me. Honestly, before the game I thought there was no way that that could happen.’’
O’Neal played nine minutes in the third quarter and all but one second of the fourth.
“I thought he was going to play well because he’s been playing well, but not  straight minutes,’’ said Rivers.
Before yesterday, O’Neal’s season high was 25 minutes against the Bucks Nov. 3.
“I try to be better than the game before,’’ O’Neal said. “You don’t really know what to expect.’’
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.