I'm done trying to figure this thing out. I really, truly don't care if this is a better team without Rondo or if they just happen to be playing better without him. Either way, what they are doing right now is working, and working well.
Earlier this year I (melodramatically) said that a similar 6 game win streak (on the heels of Avery Bradley's return) "saved the season." Well, by that logic, this 7 game streak (on the heels of losing Rondo and then losing Sullinger) might very well have saved the team from detonation.
Two weeks ago, we were staring at the 8 seed and wondering if Ainge would just decide to set the charges and give the all-clear to the demolition crew. Then Rondo went down and it almost seemed inevitable, ...for about half an hour. Then the Heat win happened. Fast forward to now and where are we? Well, we're in the 7th seed and just a half game out of the 6 seed (behind an Atlanta team that is shopping Josh Smith).
Frankly, I'm not sure how much it matters what seed the Celtics end up with anyway. Do you think any team wants to face Boston in the playoffs? True, some of Rondo's greatest moments have been in the playoffs and we'll miss that element. But as last night and the last 2 weeks should remind us, this team still has two Hall of Famers with enormous amounts of pride. They know full well that this could be their last ride together (man, how many times have I used that line over the years and every time it has seemed perfectly legit).
You never count out a team that plays championship defense and Kevin Garnett is not going to allow this team to give anything less. You can likewise never count out any team featuring Paul Pierce, regardless of how far the chips may be down. The team will have to rely more heavily on those two down the stretch and into the playoffs, so fatigue will be a concern.
However, the supporting cast has been stepping up as well. Jason Terry is ...well, looking like the JET again. Jeff Green is flat out playing his best basketball since becoming a Boston Celtic. Avery Bradley is who we thought he was and then some. Courtney Lee has had some big games in this stretch. Same goes for Barbosa and Bass as well. This is the kind of execution that Danny Ainge was envisioning when he put this team together.
But how far can it take us without Rondo? It always comes back to the Heat doesn't it? They've already proven that they can beat the Heat in one game. That's encouraging but ultimately not worth a whole lot once the second season starts. The Heat have the best record in the East and you get the feeling that they haven't even really turned it on yet. They now have a continuity that comes with playing with each other for years and when all else fails, they can hand the ball to LeBron and let him win a game all by himself (like he did in game 6 last year).
Still, in a 7 game series, the Celtic defense will frustrate the Heat in ways they aren't used to. They'll have to account for Pierce and Garnett and this time they can't pack the paint daring Rondo to shoot. Which leaves driving lanes for Jeff Green and others. It is going to be a big, big challenge. But this team will not be intimidated by it in the least. They will stare down the Heat and growl in their faces.
Of course, it has to get that far first. There's a lot of time left and as we've learned, a lot can happen in a short period of time. We've still got a trade deadine and 32 games left before the playoffs begin. The Knicks, Nets, Pacers, and Bulls (with Rose back) are not to be overlooked or dismissed either. Each is dangerous and talented in their own right.
But so are the Celtics and that's the wonderful thing about this 7 game streak. The whole narrative changes from "will they blow it up" to "how far can they go?" That alone is something to celebrate and appreciate.