Paul Pierce returned with a vengeance. - Jared Wickerham
The Celtics are fond of saying that "every game counts" -- even the forgettable ones against the Bobcats and Raptors. Against the visiting Raps at the TD Garden tonight, the C's actually played like it.
The Celtics were without their captain Tuesday night in Charlotte -- it was the first night of a back-to-back and he was nursing a handful of nagging injuries, so Paul Pierce agreed to take the night off as the C's took on the lowly Bobcats. Against a team that was 13-50 and riding a double-digit losing streak, they figured they could get by without him.
Of course, they were wrong. Pierce watched from the sidelines as his team got thumped by the NBA's doormats, 100-74, and he could hardly believe his eyes.
"That just wasn't our team," Pierce said. "I was looking at that team and I was looking around, wondering where I was at. I must have been in someone else's locker room. That wasn't a team I recognized."
Less than 24 hours later, the Celtics were back in Boston to host the Toronto Raptors, and they needed this one. A lot. They'd abruptly ended their five-game winning streak with two losses in three days, and they were starting to feel a shot at a high playoff seed slip away.
Their response was an emphatic one. The Celtics exploded for a season-high 112 points, including 58 off the bench, and cruised to a blowout victory over the Raptors, 112-88, at the TD Garden. Things were sluggish midway through the first half, and the Raps briefly reclaimed the lead, but the outcome still never seemed in doubt. The C's weren't going to be denied this time.
"I was expecting the kind of effort that you saw tonight," said Pierce, who returned to drop 15 points on only six shot attempts. "A team that was pissed at the way we played. Motivated. You could feel the mood on the plane last night. They were going to come out and show something tonight. We knew it was going to come."
"We came out and threw the first punch tonight," Courtney Lee added. "We were definitely frustrated and upset with ourselves after the game. But we knew we had another one the next day that we could get, so we just switched our focus onto that."
They switched a lot of things. After shooting just 40.9 percent in the ugly Charlotte loss, the Celtics turned things around and shot 51.3 percent against Toronto. They were outrebounded 48-29 by the Bobcats; against the Raps, they crashed the glass with ferocity and finished up 40-34. On Tuesday night, they were sluggish and unwilling to attack the basket; on Wednesday, they gleefully shared the ball and found good looks with ease.
It's a long season, and there will be good nights intermixed with bad ones all the time. But for the Celtics at this point in the year, these quick recoveries are vital. We're in the home stretch, with the C's angling for playoff position against a large clump of mid-level teams, and these wins all count big-time.
This team loves to talk the talk about how "every game matters." If they really mean it, they need to step up during weeks like this and walk the walk, proving they can bring the same effort against the Charlottes and Torontos that they do against the Miamis and OKCs.
One win doesn't prove anything, but it is a small step toward this Celtic team gaining a little perspective.
"I've been in this league a long time," Kevin Garnett said. "I know nights like [Tuesday] are going to happen. It's how you bounce back, how you rebound from those nights that counts. I thought tonight we came out with an edge. We have to continue to play like that for the duration of these last 18 games. Tonight I thought we were aggressive, we were the firm ones, we were the ones coming out attacking. That's something we have to do consistently, coming out and playing every night."
Easier said than done. But at least now, the Celtics are trying.