Rajon Rondo sat there, perched in the leather chair, in a navy jacket and jeans, and witnessed up close the shorthanded Celtics at their best in a style forced upon them due to his absence.
It’s a scheme that relies on running, with players speeding up court after every defensive stop and rebound, trying for easy points as often as possible, because they’re without a key offensive playmaker who can create magic on a whim.
It’s a system predicated upon ball movement, with everyone working the rock around until an open, high-percentage shot becomes available, because they have no floor general who coordinates and orchestrates every possession with precision.
And it’s a structure that the Celtics executed best immediately after Rondo was declared out for the season Jan. 27, as they won seven straight games thereafter.
From then on, though, the Celtics have followed their new blueprint for winning only on occasion. Further injuries to key players have left them scrambling to fill holes and integrate new players and eek out wins in whatever fashion necessary.
But Friday, when Rondo returned to the Celtics’ bench for the first time since his injury, the Celtics truly returned to the style they have to play without him on the floor, and it culminated in a 118-107 win over Atlanta at TD Garden.
“I wish he was on the court,” Jeff Green, who scored a game-high 27 points, said of Rondo, “but I think it was a big emotional boost for us to have him on the bench with us.”
It must have been some boost, as the Celtics tied their season high point total, a mark they hit in a triple-overtime win against Denver on Feb. 10.
Paul Pierce registered his third triple-double of the season (20 points, 10 assists, and 10 rebounds), Jason Terry scored 24 points and hit five 3-pointers off the bench, and forward Shavlik Randolph dominated down low, with 9 points and 13 rebounds.
The Celtics also won their season series with the Hawks, 3-1, and moved to within 1½ games of Atlanta for the Eastern Conference’s sixth playoff spot.
Boston’s defense wasn’t exactly crisp, a point that several Celtics pointed out after the game.
“But sometimes the defense is there and the offense is going,” said Pierce. “It’s nice when you have them both at the same time. Tonight was definitely an offensive-paced game for both teams and sometimes it goes like that.”
The Celtics used a 25-8 run in the second quarter to take control of the game. Terry hit four 3-pointers in that frame to help spark the Celtics.
Later, Atlanta closed, cutting the Celtics’ lead to 100-94. Following a jumper by Brandon Bass, Terry hit another 3-pointer after a wild scramble for the ball.
Terry’s shot and a pair of jumpers from Green, the latter a 3-pointer, put the Hawks away for good.
“Every time we play here, it seems like Jeff Green hits a big 3,” said Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, who scored 17 points.
Mike Scott, playing 23 minutes off the bench, led Atlanta with 19 points, while Josh Smith had 18 points.
The Celtics had many highlights, but the most surprising was Randolph, who joined the Celtics last month after playing in China.
The Duke product had steadily progressed in the spare minutes he’s played recently, and Doc Rivers played Randolph for nearly 22 on Friday and the results were impressive.
Of Randolph’s career-high-tying 13 rebounds, seven came on the offensive end, where he constantly battled opposing big men and found himself in prime position.
“He gave us so much energy,” Rivers said. “You can see the bench jumping around for rebounding; that’s really impressive. And then I thought he did a lot of good things with the ball once he got it. Some of the times he put it back up, a lot of times he threw it back out. I just thought he did a lot of good things. Really happy for him.”
Said Randolph: “I mean, it meant one more win for us. It wouldn’t have meant anything if we had lost. The most important stat for me is not rebounding, it is, what is my plus-minus?”
It was plus-12, meaning the Celtics were 12 points better when he was on the floor.
As the score-fest continued, so did the Celtics’ ball movement, largely behind Pierce, who calmly found open shooters all over the court.
“He’s just so smart. He’s never in a rush,” Rivers said. “We just told him to ‘Be an aggressive scorer. Your instincts will have you pass.’ ”
Said guard Avery Bradley, “Paul just gets everybody involved. I love playing with him.”
Terrence Williams scored 6 points, including back-to-back length-of-the-court drives for thunderous slam dunks. Jordan Crawford had four assists, which gave Rivers ammunition after the game to again say that Crawford is more than a shooter.
Courtney Lee returned after missing three games with a left ankle sprain, but he wasn’t called into action much. Lee played about six minutes off the bench, scoring 2 points.
It was the kind of win that infuses confidence and serves of a helpful reminder of how the team has to play not only without Rondo, but Kevin Garnett, too.
And now the Celtics prepare for a back-to-back set on the road, one that starts Sunday against New York, which handed the Celtics a humbling loss Tuesday.