Over the Celtics' roller-coaster last four years, with peaks as high as the Eastern Conference finals and valleys as low as a bottom-five NBA record, one persistent source of frustration has been the team's inability to get its two best backcourt players on the floor together.
Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley are a natural fit together - one ball-dominant point guard, one off-ball shotmaker. One ball-hawking defender at the top, one rover on the wing. Their strengths complement each other perfectly. And yet throughout the four seasons since Bradley was drafted in 2010, a seemingly never-ending string of injuries to both players has kept the duo from meshing together.
Tonight was more of the same on that front, as the Celtics were still without Bradley and his hobbled ankle as they faced the Atlanta Hawks. But for the first time, the C's coaching staff and their fans got a look at a new starting guard duo - Rondo and Jerryd Bayless. At least for one night, that pairing was a revelation.
With a combined 51 points and 13 assists, Rondo and Bayless carried the short-handed Celtics to victory over the Hawks, 115-104. After an ugly four-game road swing, the C's nabbed their first win since the All-Star break, and the two starting guards were largely to thank.
"It was good that they played well together," coach Brad Stevens said. "We haven't seen that pairing much thus far. Maybe we will more as we move forward. I certainly think that makes a lot of sense based on what we saw tonight."
For Rondo, tonight's win was a continuation of his solid trend of improvement throughout February. Six weeks after his return from ACL surgery, the point guard continues to improve his on-court instincts and his aggression, and the stat sheet showed it. Rondo finished with 22 points on an efficient 8-for-14 scoring clip, plus 11 assists. His initiative was what sparked the C's comeback from an early 13-2 deficit.
"We created some turnovers, and where I'm best is out in transition," Rondo explained. "We were able to get some stops, and off the turnovers, I just tried to push the pace. Guys ran with me, I attacked in the open court, I got to the free throw line, and we got into the bonus pretty early. I think that's what got us going."
As for Bayless, his performance tonight was his best so far in Celtic green, a 29-point explosion bolstered by 5-of-8 shooting from deep. He's been viewed primarily as a combo guard since arriving from Memphis last month, capable of handling point guard duties or wing play, but Bayless was a full-blown shooting guard in his role next to Rondo, and he was brilliant.
"I just like to play well, whether it's scoring or passing or doing whatever I can to help the team," said Bayless. "I'm not really looking to score all the time. I think there's been other games where I've distributed well, so it's not just about scoring with me. Tonight, I was playing more off the ball with Rondo, so I just got going and was able to make some shots."
"Jerryd's a scorer - he doesn't even need me out there to make plays," Rondo noted. "He makes a lot of plays for himself. But when I did find him or other guys found him, he was able to knock down the shot tonight."
Time will tell whether we see much more of this Rondo-Bayless pairing. It may only be a temporary thing - Bayless arrived in Boston on an expiring $3.1 million contract, so he's only got another month and a half before he can explore free agency. He's currently just a spot starter in place of the injured Bradley. But Bayless showed tonight that he fits well next to Rondo, giving the pathological passer a pure shooter the likes of which he hasn't had since Ray Allen.
A rebuilding season is a time for experimentation, and Stevens has an opportunity these next few weeks to play with some interesting combinations of players, seeing what works and what doesn't. This Bayless thing might be a non-starter if the shooting guard simply walks this summer, but there's a chance that the 2008 lottery pick is worth keeping. Now's the time to find out.
At the very least, Bayless is a guy who understands his role in Stevens' system and is willing to be a team player. If he decides he wants to stay in Boston past this spring, he's doing a fine job of proving he's worth keeping.
"Shots are going to come and go - some days, they're going to be there, and some days, they're not, depending on the day," Bayless said. "But when we play well together defensively and we're helping each other and everyone's covering up for each other, we're a good team. We've just got to do that more consistently, and we'll be OK."