It wasn’t that long ago, that swing through California that saw the Boston Celtics lose three straight games by double digits.
They hit the Staples Center a couple of nights after a solid road win at Brooklyn, full of optimism that they had surpassed the .500 mark after a sluggish start to the season, looking to use the game against the Los Angles Clippers as a measuring stick of where they stood as a team going forward…
…and why not? At the time, the Clippers were in the midst of a winning streak that had seen them take 13 in a row coming in and sporting an NBA-best 22-6 record.
Two hours later the Celtics were dropped at LAX, severely beaten by the local team, clutching a one-way ticket out of town, their measuring stick snapped in half by the freakishly athletic residents of Lob City.
The Celtics are not the same team that got annihilated by the Clippers that Thursday night in Los Angeles, but neither are the Clips…the Celtics have plugged along, losing and winning in streaks while the Clippers have been wildly erratic, as evidenced by their 11-8 record since, including a dismal performance in Toronto on Friday night, losing to the bottom feeding Raptors by 25…
So this afternoon’s matinee between the two teams at TD Garden in Boston doesn’t have the early season spring and appeal as the meeting in Los Angeles the week of Christmas, but it certainly has more intrigue – and can still be viewed as a measuring stick for the Celtics.
Gone now is Rajon Rondo, the Celtics’ point guard who suffered a torn ACL last week, and gone is power forward Jared Sullinger who underwent spine surgery on Friday morning – but the Celtics are nevertheless riding high on a three game winning streak since Rondo went down, including a gutsy home win over the reigning Champions Miami Heat.
This is not to say that the Celtics are a better team without the two, just different.
Forced by circumstances to juggle a lineup already in disarray, the Celtics have suddenly discovered an athleticism that they were missing in Los Angeles, and seem to be dealing with their injury situation far better than the Clippers, who have been missing their own point guard, Chris Paul, who has been out of their lineup in 9 of their last 11 games after suffering a bruised kneecap.
Paul likely will not play in today’s game, though the Clips have a capable backup in the feisty Matt Barnes, who torched the Celtics in their last meeting to the tune of a season-high 21 points, and will be depending on him once again, fresh off a suspension for slugging Minnesota’s Greg Stiemsma on Wednesday.
“We have to play with an edge more, especially on the road and especially when guys are out,” coach Vinny Del Negro said yesterday, referring to the fact that his team has lost 4 of their last five on the road.
For the Celtics, it’s the mantra of “Next man up”, an attitude shared between good friends Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots and Celtics’ coach Doc Rivers. “We have to be a team by committee,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I’m asking guys to play different spots.”
The team is responding to the adversity with swarming defense and the sudden capability to control the tempo of a game – with the ability to go small and quick to match the athleticism of teams like the Clippers, then to grind it out at the end of games with the powerful big lineup.
“With the injuries, a number of guys are stepping up and that’s what we are going to need,” said Captain Paul Pierce, who broke out of a horrendous shooting slump just as Rondo was going down and is being looked to as the catalyst for the Celtics’ offense.
Without Rondo and Sullinger, the Celtics have discovered a toughness to themselves that they probably didn’t know even existed – so they may not be as naturally talented without the two, but they have defiantly shown the intestinal fortitude that carries a team farther than talent alone could.
How good can this team be? Well, we’re about to find out where they stand against a team that thrives on superior athleticism – a win against Lob City would go a long ways to helping the Celtics establish confidence in going forward without their All Star point guard.