Three nights ago, after the Celtics took on the New York Knicks without Kevin Garnett on Tuesday night at the TD Garden, Paul Pierce addressed the media and said there would be no excuses for the team's performance in Garnett's temporary absence.
"This is what it is," Pierce said. "This is what it's going to have to be out here. We can't look over our shoulders and wait for Kevin to be back tomorrow, or Courtney Lee, or our regular starters. The guys that are filling their roles have to be ready to step up and play expanded roles. They have an opportunity."
Those words rang hollow on Tuesday night. The Celtics had just an ugly one to the Knicks, 100-85, getting absolutely wrecked by J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony. There were no opportunities in that game -- it was just a vast chasm of KG-less hopelessness.
It took a couple nights, but eventually the Celtics were able to clarify what Pierce meant on Tuesday. In a decisive 118-107 victory over the Atlanta Hawks tonight, it began to show through.
True, Pierce himself was dominant, putting up a triple-double with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. But this win was an unexpectedly well-rounded team effort -- Jeff Green and Jason Terry each outdid Pierce in the scoring column, and Shavlik Randolph came out of absolutely nowhere to throw down nine points and 13 rebounds.
Randolph was the story of the night. It was by far his best performance in the NBA since returning from China a month ago, and it provided a glimmer of hope that the Celtics might be OK without Garnett after all.
"He does what he does," coach Doc Rivers said of Randolph. "He's proven that he can rebound, and he mixes it up. He's been put in that position, and he's doing it. I'm really, really happy for him.
"I thought he gave us so much energy. When you see the bench get up and jump around for a rebounder, that's really impressive. Then I thought he did a lot of good things when he got it, too -- some of the times he put it back up, and a lot of the times he threw it back out. I just thought he did a lot of good things. I'm really happy for him."
The thing about this particular effort, though, was that it wasn't just one guy. Randolph was tremendous, to be sure, but Green made 11-of-20 shot attempts including 3-of-5 threes, and Terry was similarly efficient with 7-of-10 shooting and 5-of-7 from long distance.
The key to this game wasn't any one player getting his numbers. The Celtics won with unselfishness and smart ball movement -- they passed when it was right to pass and shot when it was right to shoot. It sounds simple, but it's a technique that's failed the Celtics countless times this season.
When the C's offense clicks, it's hard to stop.
"It's tough," Green said. "You never know who's going to get it going what game. You've just got to go with the flow of the game, and whoever has it going, you've got to feed him. Tonight JET had it going and we fed him the ball, and when he's got it going, it's tough for the defense to pack the paint when we've got a guy who can shoot the 3."
"Ball movement and execution," added Terry. "When we didn't have it, we lost six in a row. It's a glaring fact -- when we don't move the ball, we're not a good team. It doesn't allow us to get our defense set -- it allows other teams to get out in transition and run on us. With the numbers we have, without KG, we have to take good shots. We have to execute and make sure we get what we want every time."
All season long, this team has been finding a way. They lost Rajon Rondo, they lost Jared Sullinger, and so on and so forth. With each loss, they adapted and moved on.
Without Garnett, this team realistically has zero chance of making a peep in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But at least for one night, it showed a little bit of life, and there's something to be said for that.