Maybe the Celtics needed the distractions of what coach Doc Rivers calls “silly season’’ trade rumors to get them to focus.
The Celtics’ 107-94 victory over the New Jersey Nets last night was their third in succession. But this was one of the first times in this post-All-Star break week that the Celtics concentrated effectively enough to limit their turnovers, dominate an opponent they should dominate, and follow through to the end.
During wins over Cleveland and Milwaukee earlier this week, the Celtics showed a propensity to self-destruct, nearly squandering big leads.
This time, the Celtics set the tone with a two-turnover first half, taking a 58-40 lead, stretching the advantage to 26 points in the second half, and allowing the starters to rest up in anticipation of tomorrow’s game against New York.
“That was awesome,’’ Rivers said of the Celtics’ turnovers in the opening half. “You know, it’s funny, that was the first and last thing I said at halftime. It just makes us better. We score much better when we don’t give it back and take away half our shots.’’
Rajon Rondo (14 points, 13 assists), at the forefront of what Rivers called trade “gossip,’’ led the way with a zero-turnover opening half and also initiated a tactical move - a second-quarter full-court press - that keyed a 14-0 Celtic run.
With Ray Allen (illness) and center Jermaine O’Neal (wrist) out, the Celtics went with Mickael Pietrus and Brandon Bass in the starting lineup, with Kevin Garnett at center. Pietrus allowed the Celtics to switch to the press, and the Bass-Garnett combination upped the team’s frontcourt quickness and speed.
“Preference-wise, I don’t like it, to be honest with you,’’ Garnett said of playing center. “I’ll do whatever this team needs me to be, other than a cheerleader.’’
Paul Pierce (27 points) capitalized on the increased amount of space. Garnett (20 points, 10 rebounds) completed his third double-double in four games.
The Celtics went to the press early in the second quarter, holding the Nets without a field goal for 6:34.
After Robin Lopez pulled New Jersey within 34-30 with a foul shot 4:58 into the quarter, the Celtics scored 14 successive points over a 3:42 span. Pietrus dunked twice off Rondo assists, and a Rondo jumper upped the Celtics lead to 48-30 with 3:25 remaining.
“I think we stopped the head of the snake, you know - Deron Williams,’’ Rondo said. “He came out with 10 points in the first quarter and he was really aggressive. And our ‘bigs’ did a great job helping me out as far as slowing him down.’’ Williams finished with 12 points.
The Celtics ignored Rivers’s halftime advice, committing seven turnovers in the third quarter. But, by then, Pierce had found the range, upping the edge to 26 points with two 3-point plays and a 3-pointer in a 72-second span. Pierce’s free throw gave the Celtics a 79-53 advantage with 5:15 remaining in the quarter.
The Celtics had not scored more than 100 points in a winning effort until this week. Now, they have accomplished that twice in succession, scoring in triple figures in three of four contests.
“We’re getting stops,’’ Rivers said. “I think two games in a row now for Rondo, as far as just offensive execution, was off the charts. He made some sensational calls through our sets.
“I think Kevin at the ‘5’ has been very good – we’re athletic all of a sudden. You have Kevin and Brandon on the floor at the same time with Rondo, all of a sudden we’re flying down the floor and we’re getting low posts, we’re scoring.
“Obviously, we’re winning. But you sensed the first game out of the break [at Cleveland] – our locker room’s good. They know that this is the stretch and they’re really into it right now.’’Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.