So what can we take out of yesterday's win over the Orlando Magic? What did we learn about this team in Paul Pierce's absence?
I'll start with the defense. Yesterday's defensive showing was a complete and total team effort, which is usually the case even when Pierce plays, but with Paul out, the rest of the guys appeared to rally around that fact and worked that much better together because of it. There were a handful of great individual defensive plays (Perk's killer block on J.J. Redick with 2:37 left in the second and Rondo's steal on Vince Carter after Orlando failed to convert shots off of like 30 straight offensive rebounds with 5:37 left in the fourth come to mind), but overall, the help defense was sound, the rotations were on time and in most cases early and besides Vince Carter, no Magic player really got out of the box scoring wise.
I really want to highlight Kevin Garnett's defensive performance yesterday, especially on Rashard Lewis. KG finished the game with only 10 points and seven rebounds, so his impact might not have been noticed in the box score, but he smothered Lewis, particularly in the first half. Lewis didn't convert his first field goal attempt until there were just under two minutes left in the third quarter. Lewis finished the game with 19 points, but shot just 5-14 to get there. KG held him out of rhythm for three of the four quarters, which is basically all one can hope for when talking about a talent like Rashard, who's usually going to find a way to get his points one way or another.
Before I get to Rajon Rondo's sterling performance, I do want to give defensive credit to Kendrick Perkins and Rasheed Wallace, who smothered Dwight Howard into a season-low five points. Howard racked up 20 rebounds, but the Celtics as a team (48 boards) eclipsed the Magic as a unit (43 rebounds). Arguably the most impressive feat was Perk and 'Sheed holding Howard to just four free throw attempts on the afternoon, despite Howard leading the league in FT attempts heading into yesterday's game with a whopping 309. Pierce, who's no slouch at getting to the charity stripe, has 159 free throw attempts this season, to put that into perspective.
The icing on the cake from a defensive stand point was the C's holding Orlando's bench to just nine points, total. Orlando's reserves had next to no impact on the game yesterday, with the exception of Matt Barnes providing a nice spark for them in the fourth quarter. But with only two starters scoring in double figures (Carter and Lewis), the Magic needed something out of their bench, and the Celtics' defense flexed its collective muscle.
Quick Update: Not sure how I forgot to mention this the first time around, but the Magic only scored EIGHT points in the second quarter. It's a statement in itself. Thanks to Mizzy 21390 for pointing it out that I forgot to mention it.
Rajon Rondo's play in yesterday's win was down-right excellent. I think many of us were under the impression that the should-be All-Star point guard would raise his game to a whole new level in Pierce's absence and he certainly appeared to do that yesterday. Besides nearly finishing with a triple-double (17 points, 13 rebounds, eight assists), he visibly controlled the game for the overwhelming majority of the afternoon. He imposed his personal will on the game through a series of aggressive drives into the paint, a lethal amount of practically un-blockable floaters, some pristine ball movement in the fourth quarter and rebounds amidst guys like Howard, Lewis, Garnett, Perkins and Wallace.
You could tell Rajon wanted it yesterday. With KG caught up in guarding Lewis, Perk focusing on Howard and Ray Allen not finding his touch until the second half, it was Rondo's game to own and he stepped comfortably into a key leadership role that he filled quite well. Very early in the season there were games when Rondo slid into the shadows and let others dictate the game, but that simply wasn't the case yesterday, as he was everywhere. He pushed the tempo at ideal times, he relaxed the offense whenever it got ahead of itself and he kept the team attacking even when Orlando was making its run late in the fourth. Rondo flat out controlled the game, which should give us all a ton of hope moving forward with this road trip.
One last note about Rondo: Does any other player in the NBA hit the floor more than him? I don't mean just falling on your butt once in a while. Rondo hits the floor hard at a pretty intense rate. I've been noticing it for a while, to the point where at the start of the season I was keeping a running tally of how many times he hit the hardwood. Despite being only 6-1 and 171 pounds, Rondo seems to like playing physical and he never hesitates to throw his body around if it means there's an added chance to score, dish the ball to an open teammate or draw a foul.
Finally, Tony Allen passed his first test with flying colors. We're getting closer and closer to the point where we'll probably have to admit that he's a solid NBA player. He's playing within himself, not getting to careless in the open court, limiting his turnovers and he seems to play well next to Rondo. He finished yesterday's game with 16 points on 6-11 shooting, he shot seven free throws and had a nice collection of strong drives to the hoop that resulted in either lay ups or lay ups with a foul attached. From a straight scoring stand point, you could make the case the C's didn't miss Pierce offensively, seeing as Tony was only two points off Pierce's scoring average for the season. He ran the floor well and punctuated his performance with that nice slam off Rondo's behind-the-back feed with 5:37 left in the fourth.
The only thing I can really criticize Allen for was his string of jump shots midway through the fourth quarter. The leaners a step in from the free throw line aren't bad, since he's in some sort of rhythm for those shots. But the catch-and-shoot jump shots are not a part of his game and the offense staggered somewhat when he took two or three of those in the fourth. If he can limit those attempts and continue to drive to the hoop, he should experience a fair amount of success.
All in all, it was a flat out, impressive win over a very good opponent. The Celtics played great defense, they played with energy and they didn't feel sorry for themselves with Pierce out of the lineup. They earned the win and established themselves as a complete and resourceful team, which should give them a terrific sense of confidence moving forward on this road trip.