No one in their right mind - save for the most blatantly biased of green pajama-clad Boston homers - would ever dare to put the Celtics in the same class as the Indiana Pacers. The C's, 20-39 entering the night, are one of the worst teams record-wise in the NBA, and the Pacers at 44-13 are the very best.
On paper, this one's no contest. Pit these two teams against one another 82 games, and Indy probably wins 70 of them, most of them blowouts.
But even the bottom-feeding Celtics are capable of surprising you once in a while, and tonight's game was a fine example. The C's were fiercely competitive with the Pacers for a solid 46 and a half out of 48 minutes tonight, eventually falling victim to a Paul George 3-point dagger and a couple of suffocating defensive possessions. This game will go down as a loss, but it's a loss that shows the Celtics' strong collective spirit and their ability to trade punches with even the NBA's best.
"I watched the first two games we played against Indiana on film," coach Brad Stevens noted after the Celtics' 102-97 loss. "The first one, here, we had an eight-point lead at halftime, but we just made a bunch of shots, and in the second half, we got dominated. There, we got completely dominated the whole time. Tonight, we just looked like a different team. We looked better. We looked more fluid. We got better shots. I was pretty pleased with how we looked as a basketball team."
You wouldn't have known from watching the Celtics tonight that they were 20-39. They got solid contributions from role players like Jerryd Bayless and Kris Humphries, a duo that powered them to a 30-21 edge over the Pacers in the third quarter, which gave them a fighting chance down the stretch. The TD Garden crowd was as loud and engaged as it's been all season.
Perhaps what exemplified the Celtics' competitiveness more than anything were the antics of Rajon Rondo, who was a captain tonight in more ways than one with his actions before the whistle and after. His stat line of 12 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds was typical Rondo, but his other shenanigans were even better.
There was the time he picked up Paul George at halfcourt and hounded him into submission. There was the attempted high five he broke up between George and Ian Mahinmi. There was the huddle he spied on. There was his double technical with Roy Hibbert. There was the moment where he hit the floor, saw Lance Stephenson offer to help him up, and declined.
This stuff is quintessential Rondo. Moreover, it smacks of the lessons the point guard learned from six years playing alongside Kevin Garnett. Love your teammate, hate your opponent, revel in the spirit of competition. Even in a loss, these are the moments that make the game worth the price of admission.
"That's just how I play," Rondo said. "I don't know if it helps or not. We're just out there competing. It's just how I play."
Rondo denied postgame that playing a top-tier Pacers squad brought out the best in him, offering merely that "we want to win every game," regardless of the competition. But it sure seemed like, from watching Rondo, the guy was taking it to another level. The point guard has been back from his ACL injury for six weeks now and showing steady progress, but his performance this week in particular has stood out.
"He didn't want to come out, ever. That was a good sign," Stevens said of Rondo. "I thought he was good. I thought he was really good Wednesday, and I thought he was good again tonight. He got inside the defense. The 11 assists could have been 13 or 14."
For a lot of Celtics fans, tonight's outcome was ideal in every way. They saw a competitive game, enjoyed some memorable Rondo moments and ultimately got the loss that moves them one step closer to a successful spring tank job. The Celtics themselves, however, don't see it that way. Loss No. 40 - matching last year's total with 22 games still to go - was a painful one.
"I'm excited because we're getting better, but it's rough," Stevens said. "I wanted to win that game. We had a shot to win. We're down two, and George hits that 3 - if we get a stop and get the ball back, we've got a shot to win that thing. Against a really good team."
Added Jeff Green: "When it's all said and done, we want to win. We don't take moral victories. Our one goal is to win, and we just didn't get it done."
Maybe not, but against the cream of the NBA crop, the Celtics can do a lot worse than 46 and a half really good minutes. Amid all of this year's struggles, tonight's game was an encouraging one to see.