Last night the Celtics played their third game without point guard Rajon Rondo since he suffered a sprained right ankle against the New York Knicks back on December 15. And while Boston handled both the Atlanta Hawks and the Indiana Pacers by double digits in the first two games of his absence, things were appreciatively more difficult against the Philadelphia 76ers last night.
While Rondo was obviously missed against Atlanta and Indiana (those wins certainly didn't come easy), the Celtics managed to get by largely because of the performances of Paul Pierce (who assumed the unofficial role of a point forward), who kept the offense flowing by accumulating 10 assists and 12 assists against the Hawks and Pacers, respectively.
Last night against the 76ers, however, Pierce struggled, and the offense sputtered, and Rondo's services certainly would have helped the cause. Boston shied away from using Paul Pierce as a point forward for much of the first half, attempting to rely instead on Rondo's substitute, Nate Robinson. Unfortunately, Robinson struggled to find a comfort zone while trying to bring the ball up and initiate the offense against the bigger Jrue Holiday and his credible ball pressure.
The stats will show that the Celtics shot a season-low 38.8 percent from the field in last night's game, but they weren't necessarily taking bad shots, particularly in the first half. Pierce and Ray Allen were still able to penetrate Philly's defense and take quality mid-range and short-range shots that rolled around the rim before ultimately falling out. Kevin Garnett, Shaquille O'Neal, and Glen Davis all missed very makable layups and other shots inside the paint. While I don't want to necessarily dimiss the 76ers' defense entirely, I'm inclined to believe that last night was simply one of those nights where nothing was dropping for the Celtics on offense. In the words of Philly head coach Doug Collins: "It happens."
The C's did use Pierce, who went scoreless in the first half, as more of a playmaker in the second half, leaving the offense in his hands and sending Robinson to float around the perimeter. The results were mixed, as Pierce did produce 11 second half points, but the Celtics never assumed control of the game, despite a number of momentum-building plays.
After trailing by six at the half (44-38), Boston produced its first real spurt of legitimate offense, as it went on an 11-6 run to start the third quarter to make it 50-49. With his team surging, Robinson lined up a three-pointer from the left corner that gave Boston its first lead of the second half at 52-50. The lead was short-lived, however, as Philly did not wilt under Boston's momentum, and re-assumed control a mere three minutes later.
The game stayed tight and the offense remained murky all the way through the fourth quarter, when the Celtics relied primarily on free throws to seal the deal, but also two vital shots from Pierce and Garnett. The pair, who combined to shoot 8-25 for the game, reverted to form late in the fourth, just when the Celtics needed them the most. Garnett buried one of his customary 19-foot jump shots from the left wing, which knotted things up at 74, and then, after Pierce and Allen each sank two free throws, Pierce buried one of his standard fade-away jumpers (a shot that refused to drop earlier in the game) from the right wing after using a Shaquille O'Neal screen to put the C's up 82-78.
As a further sign of the strangeness of last night's game, O'Neal helped to finish Philly off for the majority of the fourth quarter, as opposed to Glen Davis, who, like the majority of his teammates last night, struggled mightily from the field, making just two of nine shots.
It was a battle from start to finish. Who knows, maybe Philly is just "that team" this year - the one that gives the Celtics trouble, similar to the Wizards back in 2007-2008, as well as the Bobcats back when Jason Richardson was in the fold. After all, just two weeks ago the Sixers pushed the Celtics to the brink in Philly as well (with Rondo in the lineup). But hey, a win's a win, right? The offense was putrid, which gave cause for headlines to be produced that mentioned the Celtics grinding out, eking out, and fighting for the win last night. Hey, it doesn't always have to be pretty. Or even conventional. It just has to work.