It would be too easy to bury this Celtics group. Haven't we learned our lesson yet?
Boston will be without its best player for the remainder of the season, but that doesn't mean the Celtics will stop playing. In fact, if Sunday afternoon was any indication, this team has plenty of heart and pride left. Whether or not they have enough to overcome a devastating injury of this magnitude is yet to be seen, but it's too early to assume.
No one is saying that Boston is better off without Rajon Rondo on the floor. We're not even sure that major moves won't be made and the white flag for this season won't be raised. We can only go on what the potential of the team is with its current roster and personnel and it might come as a surprise that it's not as bleak as one would think.
As much as we've been fed the line that Rondo is now the leader of the team, he's still never assumed the position of being the head of the snake. That's Kevin Garnett and it always has been. Why? Because for everything Garnett does offensively, his value is at the defensive end as the anchor. Defense is where the Celtics have shaped their identity. With Rondo out, Boston will likely improve on that end and has the chance to regain the reputation as an unrelenting unit that it's had for the past few years.
It's pretty simple. Courtney Lee and Avery Bradley will receive more playing time and more opportunities to defend opposing guards. Rondo is not in Lee or Bradley's class as an on-ball defender but to be fair, not many guards in the league are. In terms of being off-the-ball, we've seen mental lapses by Rondo in leaving shooters open on the perimeter. That will almost never happen with either Lee or Bradley. What's even better for Boston is that the duo will have plenty of time on the court together now and as a combination, they can switch on screens without losing much in the ways of ball pressure.
In the win over Miami, the Heat backcourt scored 44 points between Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. Allen and Wade scored 21 and 17 points respectively, but the guards connected on just 16-of-46 field goals (.347), including 2-of-13 from beyond the arc. Chalmers has been a thorn in Boston's side and was especially effective in the Eastern Conference Finals last year when he averaged 12 points per game, so his zero points in 22 minutes on Sunday was indicative of the strong backcourt defense.
The defense will improve but at the cost of a drop-off on offense. Still, being a more defensively-focused team again will keep games close and force the Celtics to stick to the all-too-familiar identity of being a fighting, grind-it-out squad. Think "bar fights."
While there aren't really any benefits of losing your point guard and primary playmaker, the one and only positive effect offensively, especially with a deep bench, is that more players will get opportunities. Inconsistent minutes won't be a valid excuse anymore for offensive struggles. With no one player in charge of creating the offense, several players will get the chance to facilitate ball movement. At worst, it will get everyone on the court more involved but with that comes added responsibility. Boston though, does have guys who are used to that responsibility, namely Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa. Both have spent much of their careers with the ball in their hands and have shown they're most comfortable in that situation.
Above all, the Celtics are at their best when their backs are against the wall. Well, enter wall. There's no more room left for error. No longer can they coast and rely on their experience to turn it on during the playoffs. Assuming they make the postseason (again, dependent on what direction Danny Ainge chooses), they will be without their point guard for the first time in the KG era. Rondo won't be around to carry the team in big games. The only way they can fill his shoes is as a collective unit.
Maybe the only two instances this season where Boston truly played together and received contributions from everyone were in the wins against Miami and the New York Knicks. Both happened without Rondo. If that doesn't speak to this team's ability to unite in the face of adversity, nothing will.
The expectations have changed and the Celtics have gone from contenders to underdogs. They probably won't compete for the title, but don't believe for a minute that this team will go down without a fight. It's just not in their nature.