Celtics pick up slack
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Celtics coach Doc Rivers did not want to presume where two-thirds of the Big Three were watching their teammates face the Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday while taking a night off in midtown Manhattan. He knew moments after the 94-82 victory that they tuned in because he received congratulatory text messages from both.
Wherever they were in the Big Apple, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce had to be beaming with pride. Without the Big Three (Ray Allen has not played at all on the road trip because of a sore right ankle), the Celtics took the lead midway through the first quarter and never trailed again, handing Charlotte its 16th consecutive loss.
Pierce and Garnett were left in New York after Saturday night’s victory over the Nets, and will rejoin their teammates to prepare for Tuesday’s game against the Knicks.
Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, and Brandon Bass combined for 64 points on 26-for-50 shooting, and Rondo notched his 22d consecutive game with at least 10 assists, dishing out 16 to go with 20 points. Rondo played 43 minutes 14 seconds, including the first 34:26.
He collected 11 assists in the first half to go with 16 points, as Rivers stressed his being more offensively aggressive without the Big Three.
“It was a terrific win,’’ Rivers said. “When you don’t play those three guys, that’s 60 points out of your offense, and to be able to score the way we scored, I thought Rondo was sensational. He led it. He basically didn’t want to come out of the game. He was terrific, Avery, Brandon. Those are the guys we said we had to get points out of and we did. I thought everybody else played their role.’’
Greg Stiemsma started in place of Garnett at center and tied his season high with six blocked shots. Mickael Pietrus received his first start since returning from a concussion and added 11 points and six rebounds. The Celtics toyed with the bumbling Bobcats most of the evening, but Charlotte used consecutive baskets by Kemba Walker (3-pointer) and Derrick Brown to cut their deficit to 78-74 with 6:55 left.
The Celtics delivered the knockout with a 12-2 run, including a Pietrus three and layup, for a second consecutive victory on their lone back-to-back-to-back stretch of the season. After an 84-79 loss Friday in Toronto, the Celtics responded with 94-82 wins over the Nets and Bobcats. And they were able to give two of their most valuable commodities some much-needed rest.
Rivers made the decision late Saturday to leave Pierce and Garnett in Manhattan while the rest of the team boarded a flight to Charlotte.
“I keep saying our locker room is as tight as maybe [it’s] ever been and they cheer for each other,’’ Rivers said. “You could see before this game they wanted to win this game, they really did. When you sit guys people assume you are just going to show up and play, and our guys, you could see in their demeanor, I knew we were going to play hard.
“I don’t know where [Pierce and Garnett] were watching, and I probably don’t want to know, but they watched it and they were very happy about it. That has to help their confidence.’’
And those who make the trip here realized that this victory was more significant than most. The Celtics didn’t rely on a Pierce stepback, Allen 3-pointer, or Garnett midrange jumper.
Bradley was instrumental in gaining control in the second half, scoring 13 of his 22 points.
The Celtics led by as many as 12 in the first half, but allowed the Bobcats to chip away and led just 52-49 at the break. It was similar to Saturday in New Jersey when the Nets rallied to even the game at halftime.
But the Celtics reestablished themselves to begin the third quarter Sunday, scoring 8 of the first 11 points to extend their lead to 8.
Bradley scored 8 of the Celtics’ first 10 points of the quarter, and then a 3-pointer with 5:38 left in the fourth for an 81-74 advantage.
Rivers squeezed nearly 35 minutes out of Pietrus less than a week after his return, while Sasha Pavlovic grabbed a season-high seven rebounds in 15 minutes.
“It gave them confidence,’’ Rondo said of those who received increased playing time. “So they will be ready when a guy gets in foul trouble. I’m pretty sure [Pierce and Garnett] thought we would win this game. We believe we were going to win with them or without them. Every night we look in the mirror and we play as hard as we can, we challenge ourselves, we’re going to get the win.’’