The Celtics knew full well that the Bulls dismantled the Bobcats by 31 points Friday night - without Derrick Rose. So when they found out yesterday that Rose would miss a second consecutive game with a sore back, they kept their mental focus - and they were right to hold their ground.
Regardless of whether the reigning Most Valuable Player is in the lineup, the Bulls are a mirror image of those Celtics teams of a few years ago, defensively sound and relentless. So the Celtics, after Friday night’s disaster in Toronto, made a statement in front of a national television audience, most of whom likely are convinced that Boston is little more than a distraction for the Eastern Conference powers.
If Rajon Rondo continues to play as he did yesterday against Chicago point guard C.J. Watson, and the Celtics big men run the floor, they may be more than a distraction.
The 95-91 win was perhaps the biggest of the season, given that the Celtics had dropped two straight and will head on the road for two weeks beginning Thursday in Chicago.
Rondo controlled the game from the opening tip, collecting his second triple-double of the season and his 15th overall. His 32 points, 10 rebounds, and 15 assists were a throwback for those who cherished those Sunday afternoon CBS games when Magic Johnson would masterfully orchestrate the Lakers offense en route to an entertaining victory.
After a poor showing in Friday’s 86-74 loss in Toronto, Rondo responded, as did the rest of the Celtics.
Coach Doc Rivers, who was livid at the lack of execution during Friday’s game, used Saturday to adjust the team’s approach. Despite their advanced age, Rivers demanded the Celtics push the ball and speed up the offense.
They had been taking 15 seconds to get into their offense and then been relying on fadeaway jumpers from Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett or a 3-pointer from Ray Allen.
Yesterday, the Celtics picked up the pace, giving their horses a chance to run free on the fast break. JaJuan Johnson, replacing the injured Brandon Bass, and Chris Wilcox combined for 23 points, and even the 35-year-old Garnett was darting down the floor.
The Celtics scored 33 fast-break points, 26 more than their opponents, and respirators weren’t needed in the locker room. The tempo suited the players just fine.
“I thought we played at a better pace,’’ Rivers said. “You could see it, we were trying to run today. And that’s how we have to play. If we didn’t turn the ball over we would’ve had far more points. But I just liked our pace, and that’s all we talked about after the game in Toronto and today in our morning walkthrough . . . enough of the walking.
“And it was not Rondo, it’s the team. The bigs have to run the floor. Paul and Ray have to run the floor. And it does a lot of things . . . we get early posts from our bigs, we get jump shots from the break, and we get Rondo in the open court. And when you walk, it’s easy [for the other team] to guard.’’
The Bulls are perhaps the best defensive team in the league, and they locked down Pierce and Allen for the majority of the game. The two combined for 7-for-19 shooting and 20 points. But Rondo offset that by driving constantly to the basket and at the Chicago big men.
Rose backup Watson had trouble keeping Rondo in front of him and Rondo drained four key free throws down the stretch after the Bulls sliced an 86-72 deficit to 91-88 with 1:23 left.
Chicago kept grinding away and forced the Celtics into making one more offensive play.
Pierce, who had been bottled up by fellow All-Star Luol Deng, hit a straightaway 15-footer for a 91-86 lead with 1:32 left. But he then committed consecutive turnovers. Watson missed a long 2-pointer and Rondo was fouled twice in 12 seconds and his freebies sealed it.
Beating a first-place team, despite its star being unavailable, was a confidence-booster for a team still seeking consistency.
“It was a huge game for us after everything that happened in Toronto,’’ said Garnett, who scored 13 points and had 12 rebounds. “Today was a needed win . . . and I think we played like that. Definitely came out with a lot of energy - we hit first, we were aggressive, played through calls.
“Got to finish games better, but that was some miscommunication between the bench and the players who were on the floor. Other than that, I thought we played with an edge, I thought we played like the old Celtics that I know we are.
“Doc came in and really gave us a good talking to - something we needed to hear. Showed us the film. The film is always humbling. I thought we went out and responded.’’