With (mercifully) just 11 games left in the regular season and a long summer vacation now just around the corner, the Celtics are beginning to devolve into a group of individuals, a hodgepodge that's hardly worth more than the sum of its parts. At 23-48, there's not much use for team unity or collective purpose. All that's left in the Boston locker room is a collection of guys looking to hone their skills and put the right punctuation mark on this season.
It's hard to say what the Celtics will have to work with next season. The guys still playing for this team are a collection of expiring contracts, trade-fodder guys and rookies with uncertain futures. When you're the fourth- or fifth-worst team in the NBA, you hardly have a cornerstone. No one's truly indispensable.
But this Celtic team does have two clear best players, both of whom would make excellent building blocks for 2014-15 and moving forward, and both put their skills on display tonight in a closely contested loss to the Toronto Raptors. Those would be Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger.
Rondo racked up nine points and 10 assists in the first half alone, looking dazzling as the C's kept it close before the break. He took a hard shot to the face in the third quarter and left to get stitches, and Sullinger put on a show in the interim, drilling a quartet of 3-pointers and giving his team a chance to win the game in crunch time.
Ultimately, the Celtics lost, a 99-90 final on their home floor, but their two star players were awesome in defeat. Rondo finished with 9 points and 15 assists despite missing a chunk of the game; Sullinger threw down 26 with 8 rebounds.
Rondo left the game with 6:18 left in the third quarter after taking a rough foul from Greivis Vasquez, who hit him directly between the eyes. It was a scary moment when it happened - coach Brad Stevens thought Rondo might have broken his nose. A couple of team medical staff members feared maybe worse - a concussion.
Rondo, however, was determined to fight through it, and after receiving nine stitches in his face, he was indeed back with 8:04 left in the fourth quarter.
"I just wanted to play," the Celtics' point guard said. "I knew I could. I didn't feel like I had a concussion or anything - they asked me a couple questions and I got them right, so I was able to go back out there. I just wanted to win. I hate losing."
"It obviously says a lot," Stevens added. "He wants to play. And the most important part is he came back and guarded [DeMar] DeRozan. He went after him, and I thought he did a pretty good job on him. Going back through it in my mind, all the chances we had to take control of that game, he was in the center of a lot of them. He made nice passes on the break. He played a great fourth quarter."
With Rondo quarterbacking the offense and Sullinger hitting big shots, the Celtics had a chance late. They were down only three, 93-90, with 1:49 left in the game. Their hopes were quickly dashed when Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross drilled back-to-back 3-pointers and put the game out of reach, but not before the Celtics did a lot of encouraging things down the stretch.
Obviously one of those things was getting an offensive spark from Sullinger, who topped 20 points for the first time in a month and a half, fueled in large part by those four 3s, which matched a career high.
"I saw that we needed some production, and I just took it upon myself to get the best shots possible," Sullinger said. "We needed somebody to bring a different type of energy to the game. It was time for somebody else to step up, and that was me."
While Sullinger has struggled from 3-point range this season, hovering around 24 percent, he's shown that he's capable of lighting it up when called upon. The Raptors left him open, the Celtics recognized it, and they were able to take advantage.
"Sully got hot," Stevens said. "Those were actions with options - maybe one of them was specific to Sully shooting the 3 in the corner, but the other two were the same action with options. Once he hit one, Rondo chose him again, which was a good play."
This is a major development for the Celtics moving forward. Rondo and Sullinger, when healthy, are the two best talents on this team, and you could argue they're the only two guys worth building around in future seasons. To see them play so well together is the best thing a C's fan can ask for at this point in the season.
Whether that cohesion translates to wins is another question, and the answer right now is a definitive no - the team's loss tonight was its seventh in eight games, and 14th out of 18. But the Celtics have two star-caliber players right now that anyone in the NBA would be privileged to have, and that's something that a million losses can't erase.