If there's one thing that's become crystal clear in the 72-plus hours since the news broke of Rajon Rondo's season-ending injury, it's this: There will be no quick fixes in the post-Rondo era. There's no magic elixir that cures a torn ACL overnight, and there's no All-Star caliber point guard sitting on the waiver wire, waiting to save the day. No -- if the Celtics are going to remain competitive without their superstar, it's going to be a slow and gradual process.
But man. For one shining evening at the TD Garden, it sure looked like that process was moving along just fine.
Seven Celtics had multiple assists tonight, but none had more than five, as a complete team effort was enough to topple the visiting Sacramento Kings, 99-81. The C's didn't have Rondo, but they had cohesion and poise on the offensive end. They made 13 consecutive field goal attempts in the second quarter to build a massive lead, and they never relinquished it. From there, it was smooth sailing.
"It's hard to replace Rondo, but we just have to use teamwork," Avery Bradley said. "Everybody passes the ball. Everybody makes plays for each other. Rondo made it easy for everybody, so now we have to make it easier as a team, getting the ball to our playmakers. The ball moved a lot tonight, and everybody played well."
"The chemistry, it's about repetition, just doing it over and over again," coach Doc Rivers said. "Keeping it simple, really. Every time we tried to dance with the ball or do too much with the ball, we turned the ball over and took a bad shot. That's all I talked about before the game -- if you're guarded, pass it. If you're open and it's your shot, shoot it; if not, pass it. That's all I wanted them to do, and I thought they did a great job of it tonight."
By moving Courtney Lee into the starting five to replace Rondo, Rivers has built a dynamic duo of starting guards. Lee and Bradley run up and down the floor together; they play relentless ball-hawking defense together. Together, the two of them have learned to control the tempo of a game.
"We definitely complement each other on the defensive end and the offensive end," Bradley said. "We're both able to bring the ball up, and on defense, when I'm pressuring a guy and I get tired, Courtney pressures him. He compliments me a lot. He's a great player, a great teammate."
With Bradley and Lee in the fold together, the Celtics have an amazing one-two punch running up and down the floor. All the talk when Bradley returned from injury was about Rondo finally having a "running partner" to add a transition element to Boston's game -- but as it turns out, the Celtics' running game this season will stem not from Bradley and Rondo, but from Bradley and Lee.
"That's one of the things me and Courtney told each other before the game," Bradley said. "We said, 'Get it and go.' That's what we were doing -- we were literally getting it and passing it, pushing it up the floor. That's how we have to play. It's hard to play a team like that. Miami plays like that, a lot of teams play like that. That's how we have to play."
It's only been three days, but the Celtics have already forged for themselves a new identity for the post-Rajon Rondo portion of this season. They defend like pitbulls, they run, they move the ball, and their energetic defense fuels their energetic offense, play after play. No one guy can replace Rondo, but as a team, the C's can come together.
"Everybody's going to have expanded roles," Paul Pierce said. "A little more ball-handling out of Courtney Lee, a little bit more ball-handling out of myself, more out of Avery, Jason Terry. A lot of guys have a little bit more responsiblities now, and they've got to be responsible with it. Everybody played the right way -- no one felt like they had to take all the shots tonight, we all moved the ball. That's how we have to play for the rest of the season."
It starts with a win over lowly Sacramento. We'll see where it goes from there.