CLEVELAND - The Celtics were in the midst of their best stretch of the season - nine wins in 10 games - when they split back-to-back matchups with the Cavaliers late last month. In both contests - an 88-87 home loss and 93-90 away win - the Celtics played without Rajon Rondo and struggled to match up with rookie guard Kyrie Irving.
Rondo will be available when the teams meet tonight, the Celtics returning from the All-Star break with a five-game losing streak that assured they would finish the first half of a lockout-shortened season below .500 at 15-17.
“[Irving] has carried the entire franchise on his back, in some ways,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said last night of the top overall pick in last June’s draft. “He’s proven his pick was a pretty good pick.
“He’s tough, he’s a heck of a player. He controls the tempo of their team, makes big shots. You’ve got to try and keep him out of the paint but it’s difficult because he’s such a great shooter. It’s rare you see a point guard who shoots like he’s shooting, 40 percent above the three. And he’s a rookie - that’s unheard of.’’
Rondo has returned to health after missing eight games with a sprained wrist. Jermaine O’Neal, who is slated to be examined by a hand and wrist specialist today, will miss tonight’s game, but Brandon Bass (left knee strain) and Chris Wilcox (groin) could return.
Injuries have seemed to knock the Celtics off balance as they have attempted to blend in players such as Bass and Wilcox.
“Health is very important for us and that, to me, will take care of consistency,’’ Rivers said. “When you’re healthy you have a chance to be consistent and when you’re not healthy it’s very difficult to be consistent.
“But that’s just the luck of the draw - nothing you can do. I didn’t spend the All-Star break worrying about health. Either you have it or you don’t, there’s nothing I can do about that.’’
But even when they haven’t been affected by aches and pains, the Celtics have often self-destructed by choosing the wrong time to gamble defensively or improvise offensively. During the team’s most successful run this season, with Rondo out, the coaching staff simplified the offense, often with Pierce acting as a point guard.
In recent days, Pierce and Rondo said the Celtics had to become more disciplined defending.
“I think they’re right,’’ Rivers said. “It’s something we’ve talked about all year but it’s difficult when you don’t have practice times, you don’t have the right guys on the practice floor.
“They have to trust each other more, this year more than ever, defensively and offensively. You can’t, defensively, go double or go switch on a play where we haven’t worked on it. Usually, with a lot of practice, you can get away with it because someone will cover up for you. Execution is very important and probably more so this year than any year I’ve ever coached.’’
Rivers said the Celtics are making adjustments, starting with Rondo’s direction from the point.
“Rondo learned the hard way,’’ Rivers said. “He would come down and, instead of running our secondary break, he’ll come down and call a play from last year that four know and one guy doesn’t. And they screw the play up and then everyone is mad and you just can’t do that this year.
“That’s hard for him, that’s hard for the other ones. I mean, really hard for Kevin [Garnett], Paul, and Ray [Allen] - they think you should know it.
“What we’re doing now with Rondo is trying to give him a group of sets. The problem with this year is we could run three or four plays that Chris [Wilcox] would know that Brandon wouldn’t know because he wasn’t here.
“So, you’ve just got to be careful with the group that’s on the floor. You’ve got to recognize the five on the floor. You can’t run certain sets where you throw the ball to the ‘big’ and he has to make the decision - with this team, Kevin is the only big good enough to do that.’’
Bass, who has not played since a 10-point, seven-rebound performance during a Feb. 10 visit to Toronto, had individual training sessions during the All-Star break.
“I worked out a few times, and it felt pretty good,’’ Bass said. “Let’s see how it goes, though. I feel good.’’Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.