Despite the Milwaukee Bucks hanging around for far too long on Tuesday night, the Celtics winning streak, then at seven games, never seemed to be in complete jeopardy. That humble sense of comfort was apparently left in Boston, as the eight-game streak appeared very much at risk last night against a pesky Washington Wizards squad that took the Celtics to the wire, before ultimately falling to the Green, 104-102.
As was the case on Tuesday, Rajon Rondo was the savior of the streak, as his assertiveness on the offensive side of the ball kept a freewheeling Celtics offense moving, despite Paul Pierce plodding through four personal fouls and shooting just 2-8 from the field for a total of 12 points. Rondo more than shouldered the burden, as he took 20 shots, made 10 of them, scored 21 points and dished out 11 assists as the C's won their ninth straight game.
Boston needed every ounce of Rondo's contributions, as the Wizards refused to fade away after facing a 15-point deficit late in the second quarter, as well as a nine-point hole entering the fourth quarter. Washington cut the deficit to a single point (91-90) with 4:18 to play on a Gilbert Arenas (25 points, eight assists) drive, but Rondo answered back by finding a wide open Kevin Garnett for a trademark jump shot 16 seconds later.
After Antawn Jamison (16 points, eight rebounds) tied it up at 96 off an Arenas feed inside, Rondo sank a floater while falling to the floor with 1:46 to go, putting Boston up 98-96. Jamison converted a tough putback in the lane to tie the score once again, but Rondo's next move, while still worth only two points, was something of an exclamation mark that the Celtics were going to win this game. Using a Garnett screen, Rondo drove hard along the left baseline, rose up just outside the paint and threw down a thunderous slam with 1:12 to go, giving Boston a 100-98 advantage.
"Rondo was great, especially down the stretch," said head coach Doc Rivers. "I thought the fouls kind of threw Paul off his game a little bit (and) they were face guarding Ray (Allen). So it was really the Rondo - Kevin pick and roll show and I thought we got a lot of good stuff out of it."
Arenas later missed two free throws with 26.7 seconds left, which would have tied the score at 100, as well as a three-point attempt with 11 ticks left (he was defended by Rondo), which would have knotted the score up at 103. Kendrick Perkins (16 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks) then sealed the win at the free throw line with five seconds to go.
Certainly not lost in the translation of the win was Allen surpassing the 20,000 career point plateau, which he reached on a three-pointer with 4:46 left in the third period. He becomes only the 37th player in NBA and ABA history to reach 20,000 points and joins Garnett on the illustrious list. That three from Allen was also pivotal to the contest, as it snapped an 11-0 Washington run at the time. He followed it up with a deep two thirty seconds later and finished the night with 18 points.
"It was nice," Rivers said of Ray's momentum stopping three. "I thought we fell in love with the three, honestly."
The halftime score gave next to no indication that the Wizards were going to make this a final minute affair, as Boston held a 64-50 lead at intermission, largely due to the play of Rondo in the final six minutes of the second frame. Hindered by two quick personal fouls in the opening period, Rondo took the floor again with 6:05 left in the second, and the Celtics leading 42-38. He wasted no time in tossing a quick lob pass to Garnett (17 points), who slammed it home and the pair hooked up again on Boston's next possession, this time on an uncontested alley-oop to Garnett, making it 48-38 Boston.
Rondo then scored on a tough floater over Andray Blatche with 4:03 to go in the second, followed by a layup less than two minutes later. He capped the first half off with an alley-oop pass to Perkins, who kissed it home off the glass and a pull up jumper of his own. When the dust had settled, Rondo had propelled the Celtics to a 14-point halftime advantage.
"Clearly (the Wizards') game plan was they weren't going to guard (Rondo)," said Rivers. "They were going to give him shots and he took them. That's what we tell him: 'Once it's your shot, it's your shot. No more passing or being a point guard. When it's time to shoot, it's time to shoot. You're a shooter.'
But the Wizards opened the third on a 22-6 offensive blizzard that would have made the snowstorm that tackled the midwest jealous. Fortunately for Boston, Allen's aforementioned three halted that spurt and Tony Allen (eight points, three rebounds, two steals), who spelled Pierce for most of the night, later slashed to the hoop to give the guests an 83-74 advantage heading into the final frame.