Losing your best player usually means devastation for any team. Unless the team is loaded with stars and/or a stellar coach, a season-ending injury or the trade of the best player often results in the team effectively falling in the team standings.
Ask any fan of the Boston Celtics after Rajon Rondo’s recent season-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, and they would have probably admitted that their season was over.
But from the looks of it, they would have been wrong.
During a January 25 game against the Atlanta Hawks, Boston’s star point guard injured his knee. Despite that, he stayed in the game and played through overtime, even though the Celtics lost, 123-111. As is his wont, Rondo delivered another triple-double with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists.
Both Rondo and Boston coach Doc Rivers assumed it was just a minor injury, and that the 6-foot-1 product of the University of Kentucky would be back in action in no time.
Two days later, to Rondo’s utter disbelief, his season was over. Rivers said his point guard was "shocked" by the news.
"He thought it was his hamstring," Rivers reported. "He never said anything about his knee. At our shootaround (on Sunday morning), he had the (ice)pack on the back of his hamstring. 'Doc [Brian] McKeon took a look and started moving it around and said to me, 'I'm telling you, that's an ACL. I'm pretty sure.'"
While most of New England and the state of Massachusetts were devastated by the news, the veteran-laden Celtics were left to pick up the pieces from the loss of the 21st overall pick in the 2006 draft.
After Ray Allen left Boston to sign with the hated Miami Heat during the offseason, it became clear that Celtic leaders Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were going to have to hand over the reigns of the team to Rondo soon. Always a triple-double waiting to happen, and despite some clashes with Rivers, Rondo was poised to be the next great Celtic, leading this franchise of 17-time NBA champions into the future.
To most everyone’s surprise, however, the Celtics didn’t fold. They first snatched a 100-98 OT win over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the defending champion Miami Heat. Boston then defeated the Sacramento Kings, Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Clippers at home before a quick stop across the border to slam the Toronto Raptors.
Returning home, the Celts destroyed the archrival Los Angeles Lakers, 116-95, then held off the Denver Nuggets in OT, 118-114. It would take a huge effort from underachieving big man Byron Mullens for the Charlotte Bobcats to finally end the Celts’ seven-game winning streak.
Unlike the aforementioned Lakers, the boys from Beantown are actually in playoff position in spite of the Rondo injury. Leaning on Pierce and Garnett, Boston is actually getting some support now from their bench with the likes of Jeff Green, Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and the returning Avery Bradley. This may not be the physical, suffocating defense that this group of Celts has become known for and resulted in the 2008 NBA Championship, but it’s been just enough to secure wins, a 27-24 record, and (as of this story’s writing) seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
Addition by subtraction
Though Rondo brings many gifts to the table, it’s been noted that the ball tends to stay in his hands when he’s on the floor. Now, the basketball actually moves better as Pierce has become more of a “point forward” in the mold of LeBron James, with plays emanating from the post.
For his part, Garnett has picked up his scoring despite a rumor that Boston might trade the 18-year veteran to the Clippers. Once again playing out of position at center, KG has acted as Rivers’ defensive anchor and meanest trash talker.
The walking wounded
What makes the Celtics’ accomplishments even more remarkable is the fact that they’ve had to adjust to more than just the Rondo injury.
During their win over the Kings, rookie Jared Sullinger left because of back spasms and had lumbar disk surgery the next day. Aside from the loss to the Bobcats ending their streak, Boston also lost guard Leandro Barbosa to a torn ACL in his left knee. Yet Boston trudges on, playing at a high level in a relatively weak Eastern Conference.
Though no one will ever say that Boston is actually better without Rondo at the point, the recent streak is a testament to both Rivers’ coaching prowess, and the team’s collective guts. Instead of just giving up, falling out of the playoff picture, and looking forward to the 2013 Draft, the Celtics have actually held each other accountable and are playing as if they can contend for the title right now.
Realistically, this team, without Rondo, probably won’t last beyond the first round of the playoffs. But the mere fact that they went on their win streak and are in decent playoff position after the halfway point of the season shows the mythical “Celtic Pride” that legends such as Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, Dave Cowens, Kevin McHale and Larry Bird rode on their way to several championship runs.
Woe to the team that has the misfortune of facing Boston in the playoffs.