Losing Rajon Rondo and now Jared Sullinger for the rest of the season, the Celtics have endured a difficult week, but what’s left of their roster is adjusting to their new roles quite nicely on the fly.
Just hours after Sullinger was ruled out for the season following back surgery, the Celtics went out and again took care of business against an inferior opponent, using depth and a bench that has suddenly found a groove.
As the Celtics try to figure out who they are after losing two major contributors, they continue to batter opponents with their versatility, which was supposed to be the plan all along.
After the ragtag Orlando Magic worked their way back into contention in the third quarter, the Celtics used the sudden dominance of Jeff Green and silky moves of Leandro Barbosa to pull away for a 97-84 victory Friday night at TD Garden, the Celtics’ third win in a row.
Boston returned to .500 as it attempts to gain a new identity without two key contributors. Sullinger, who had played the first 45 games of the season, left Wednesday’s win over the Kings with 7:52 left in the first quarter with back spasms.
Those spasms were apparently a prelude to more serious back issues, and the Celtics decided on season-ending surgery instead of constant treatment that would have only delayed the surgery until the summer. The Celtics lost one of their top rebounders in Sullinger, who was having a strong first NBA season.
Without Sullinger, the Celtics managed to pull down 48 rebounds, 11 by Paul Pierce, who finished with 14 points and 7 assists. Kevin Garnett added 14 points and 10 rebounds in just 23 minutes as the Celtics pulled away with a 14-4 run to begin the fourth quarter.
And it was Green who sparked the surge. After 42 games of mystifying the organization and Celtics fans with his infuriating inconsistency, he has put together four consecutive double-figure scoring games, his longest streak as a Celtic.
Coach Doc Rivers has been urging Green to take more control and responsibility of the team after signing a four-year, $36 million contract in the offseason. In the last four games, Green is averaging 14.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 53.6 percent shooting.
“We’re spreading the floor for him, which helps, too,” Rivers said. “But he’s just being aggressive. We’re getting the ball to him in the open court, which I think is really important for him because his speed, the defense can’t set and it gets him to the rim. He’s doing great and we’ve got to keep him thinking about rebounds, that’s important for us.”
The Celtics had six players score in double figures as Rivers’s plan to use the team’s depth to share the ball has come to fruition the past three games.
But the team continues to deal with major injuries. Rondo’s situation was shocking enough but they were blindsided by Sullinger’s debilitating back issues.
Rondo was actually placed on the team’s active list because the Celtics entered the game with only 11 healthy players — the minimum active is 12. Rivers said he spoke with his players about maintaining confidence despite the rash of injuries.
“I just talked to them a little bit before the game and I kept emphasizing it’s a great opportunity for some of us,” he said. “And we don’t back up. We just keep moving forward. That’s the way we’ve got to approach it.”
Team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge compiled the roster to flourish on its depth, and with two significant absences, the Celtics are leaning on players such as Courtney Lee, Jason Terry, and Barbosa, whose roles were blurred in the first three months.
Pierce said the team has to remain focused.
“It definitely is [a tough blow], but we have a job to do,” Pierce said. “We can’t look at it and say, ‘It’s time to stop playing.’ All of us have responsibilities as NBA players to show up and play as hard as they can in practice and games to win as many games as possible. The goal still hasn’t changed. So we’ve got to keep guys in line with what we’re trying to accomplish around here. Don’t stray off. Don’t use the injuries as an excuse and continue to move on.”
The balance Friday was apparent. Five players attempted 10 or more shots but no one attempted more than 14. They collected 30 assists by nine players. With Rondo in the lineup, the Celtics habitually relied on their All-Star to distribute the ball and when he slipped, the ball movement suffered.
Now they have been forced to move the ball to survive. While Orlando and Sacramento are both headed for the NBA draft lottery, they did provide enough resistance for the Celtics to enter Sunday’s showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers with evidence they can be successful when sharing.
“I mean the production is coming from everybody, as opposed to you know, Rondo, he’s our playmaker, he’s racked up a lot of assists with his playmaking ability,” Lee said. “And now we just have to move the ball and make sure we are in the right spots to execute the offense.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.