Feb 3, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics shooting guard Jason Terry (4) gestures to the crowd during the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Clippers at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Boston Celtics on Paper: Prodigal talent rises to the occasion

Motivation is a fickle thing, subject to mood and degrees of fatigue.

But sometimes, something happens that motivates a group of people for the same purpose, regardless of mood or fatigue.  History is rife with examples of how tragedy or loss motivates many to come together toward a common goal.

And that is what is happening to the Boston Celtics.

All season Boston coach Doc Rivers has been searching for the proper combination to unlock the enormous potential of the Celtics – and just when he thought he would find it, the team would pull the carpet out from underneath him.

What the injuries to Rondo and Sullinger have done to the Celtics is to force them into a different style of play – a style that newcomer Jason Terry claims is better to take advantage of his skill set – and the rest of the team seems to be on board with it as well.

“It’s free-wheeling and the defense can’t sit on particular plays” Terry said of the spread offense that the Celtics are using. “This league is great with scouting and they get used to you and they kind of know your tendencies. So in this offense it’s very unpredictable. We don’t know who’s going to get the shot, but we know we’re going to get a good one.”

It wasn’t but a few weeks ago that TNT NBA analyst Kenny Smith was lamenting the Celtics’ propensity to rely too much on Rondo to keep things squarely inside the philosophical box, to run the pick and roll and to feed the wings when their base offense was defensed.  He questioned the motivation and fortitude of the team in stating that they weren’t moving to create their own shots.

The offense stagnated.  Pierce fell into a horrible shooting slump where Garnett was already floundering.  Terry had been relegated back to the bench once Avery Bradley returned to the lineup and there was a mixture of Jason Collins and Brandon Bass trying to help Garnett hold the fort underneath…

…which made the Celtics methodical and plodding, playing the power game without the crucial component of power.  They missed Ray Allen, who took his talents to South Beach.  He was always there for Garnett or Pierce to kick the ball out to when they got clogged in the middle because he was pure smooth Hell moving without the ball – the opposition had to respect his outside game which opened up things nicely in the key.

Even when the Celtics were winning in chunks they were mired in this reality….and Rondo took it upon himself as the floor leader to do everything himself.  Everything ran through him as it was, but now he was outrebounding and outscoring everyone else just about every night in addition to dishing out a league leading number of assists.

When Rondo had the big impressive stats for long periods, it coincided with losing streaks, a more balanced approach resulted in winning streaks, yet the team failed to maintain momentum either way for more than 4 or 5 games at a time before bouncing off in a different direction.  Rondo knew this, so did Doc – and things evened out once Bradley and his smothering defense returned, but the excitement over that waned after a few games and the team hit the skids once again.

So, now Rondo is out for the year, and the Celtics have run off four straight wins since his torn ACL was discovered – which means nothing.  This is the Celtics being the Celtics.  They don’t win a couple here, lose a couple there – they have been winning and losing in chunks all season, so the question looms:

Has Doc discovered the pot of gold and it was at the end of the Rondo Rainbow or is this a continuation of Celtics’ standard operating procedure?

Or, is it a matter of Doc’s hand being forced by the loss of both Rondo and Jared Sullinger, and the players that are left just happen to all excel at the spread offense?  Suddenly, they are athletic.  Suddenly they are moving without the ball, suddenly they are creating their own shots off of their movement.

Terry, for one, is enjoying the new offense. “It’s a lot of fun,” Terry said. “Winning’s fun, so we’ve just got to continue to do the things that we need to do to be successful every night. That’s play defense, get out in transition, and spread the ball around.”

Pierce has also broken out of his scoring funk and Garnett has seen visible increases in his scoring an rebounding – the spread offense giving the long-tenured veterans room to move around, playing in space and getting the matchups that they want.  They can control the tempo of a game in this offense, it’s unfathomable why they weren’t running this with Rondo in the lineup.

“We put four smalls out there at times, one big, and we drive the ball.” explained Pierce of having Terry, Jeff Green, Leandro Barbosa and Courtney Lee seeing increased minutes. “We set picks, make the extra passes and when you’ve got a combination of those guys who can knock down shots, especially from the 3-point line and drive the ball to the basket, it’s such a hard thing to defend when you spread the court like that.”

Which is what the Celtics were able to do before Ray-Ray bolted for Miami.

It remains to be seen if the stock in the Celtics will continue to rise, or if they continue to be streaky.  They have a real opportunity to find out if this is truly who they are, as they play seven of their next ten games on the road starting Wednesday night in Toronto, and closing out the month of February on a five game roadie that features games at Denver, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Portland and the always tough Jazz at Salt Lake City.

So the only thing fans can do is wait and watch, cringing slightly, waiting for the crash but hoping the newly found athleticism was the key all along – hoping that the Celtics’ good fortune of late is a matter of prodigal talent finally being unleashed as one and not something that is governed by something as wavering as motivation.

Because motivation is fickle, subject to mood and fatigue – and routine can become so redundant that sometimes the thing that motivates a player fades in intensity over the course of the long NBA season.

But winning is fun, as Jason Terry said,  and having fun is one the greatest motivators there is…

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