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With the Celtics playing arguably their best basketball of the season over the last two weeks, the question has been raised as to whether or not the team is actually better off without Rajon Rondo. Some may look at the results and say that yes, they must be. On the other hand, how can a team lose their All-Star point guard and have that be a good thing?
On January 27th, the Celtics were riding a six game losing streak into a Sunday matinee with the Miami Heat at the TD Garden when the team, and the world, learned that Rajon Rondo would be out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. What easily could have been a seventh straight loss and the true beginning of the end for the 2012-2013 Celtics turned into a double-overtime thriller and the C’s came out on top. They have still not lost since, and their triple-overtime victory last night over the red-hot Denver Nuggets leaves them 7-0 without their star point guard.
In the immediate aftermath of the injury news, many fans and media were calling for Danny Ainge to wave the white flag and deal pieces with a focus on building for the future. Rumors swirled, but Doc Rivers and his squad insisted that they were not going anywhere and would continue to compete. He was right: the winning streak has included victories over the Heat, Clippers, Lakers, and Nuggets, who were riding a nine-game winning streak of their own.
Supporters of the theory that the Celtics are better now will point to the seemingly more effective offense and quicker ball movement that has led to the 7-0 run. Even before then, the squad seemed a tick more productive without him. At the time Rondo went down, the Celtics had played 744 minutes without him on the floor compared to 1423 with Rondo, including four other games that he missed with injuries earlier in the season (the team won 2 and lost 2). Their offensive and defensive efficiency came in at 100.4 and 100.0 without Rajon, compared with 99.2 and 100.5, respectively, with him on the court. The differences are slight, sure, but it is a swing of 1.7 net efficiency points per 100 possessions.
Those numbers have improved further over the last seven games, and with wins against four teams that either are or were supposed to be forces in the NBA, it is easy to think that losing Rondo was addition by subtraction. Without Rondo’s minutes, the Green have relied on a combination of Courtney Lee, Jason Terry, and Leandro Barbosa to pick up the slack. The trio seem rejuvenated by Rondo’s absence, perhaps due to an increase in touches and, in turn, more confidence to play like themselves. KG has been getting more looks and hitting more shots, and Jeff Green has finally turned into the player that he was supposed to be when acquired in the Kendrick Perkins trade.
There is certainly reason to be skeptical, however, as six of the wins have come at home, and four have been by less than five points. With six of the next seven and eight of the next ten games on the road, including a swing to the West Coast, it is not unfathomable that the Celtics could hit a slight skid over the next couple weeks. If that happens, it is unlikely that this debate will continue, but if somehow the Celtics manage to come out, say 7-3 or 8-2, then it may be time to start thinking about how this team will do in the playoffs.
To answer the Rondo question, it is simply too soon to tell and too little of a sample size to make any concrete conclusions. We do know two things, though. The first is that right now, the Celtics are playing better without Rajon Rondo. The second is that it is impossible for them to stay undefeated the rest of the season. Exactly how they finish will depend on their ability to continue moving the ball as they have been and getting efficient shots, while managing to avoid injuries to any of their other major contributors. The bottom line is that this team is, as Ainge put it, "different." Whether or not that means that they will be more successful down the stretch than they were at the beginning of the season remains to be seen, but it should be interesting to watch.