Without Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger, you would think the Celtics would fully understand that the mental lapses, silly mistakes, and fourth-quarter breakdowns that plagued their first 40 games would need to be minimized.
That appears to be a difficult task for the remaining Celtics, because once again, with a large lead, they came unglued. The Celtics went into prevent-defense mode in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Los Angeles Clippers, allowing Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe to nearly complete a comeback from a 19-point deficit.
Whether the Celtics would survive the Clippers’ flurry depended on executing one play.
The Celtics were ahead, 103-101, with 26.6 seconds left, and the Clippers made the difficult decision not to foul, instead banking that their opponents would botch the possession. It had happened before.
Paul Pierce, however, took the responsibility in his hands with the Celtics needing a hoop. Against defensive menace Matt Barnes, he faked a forward dribble and then released one of his customary 3-point, stepback jumpers. The result? Swish.
That shot with 2.5 seconds left proved pivotal as the Celtics held on for a 106-104 victory, their fourth in a row without Rondo.
The Celtics were prepared for an early Clippers foul and to
play the free throw game. But Los Angeles coach Vinny Del Negro took a chance with 2.6 seconds separating the game clock and 24-second clock, and with the Celtics committing seven turnovers in the quarter, his hunch was understandable.
It had been a while since Pierce had delivered in such a situation. And he was 5 for his last 29 on 3-pointers before Sunday. But this one was released with confidence, after he created space against Barnes.
“I just wanted to hold it until the last possible second,” Pierce said. “I wanted to let it wind all the way down, we got a shot off, and worse comes to worst, by the time they get the rebound it would be like two seconds left. I was surprised they didn’t foul.”
Pierce struggled for most of January with his offense, but it appears Rondo’s injury has sparked his production. He finished with 22 points (15 in the second half) on Sunday, with five rebounds and four assists. He has been erratic from the perimeter for most of the season, but his teammates’ confidence in him never wavered.
“A ton [of faith], it’s ‘The Truth,’ ” Kevin Garnett said. “He’s the original Celtic. We go how he goes. On nights when he’s not going, obviously we try to support him and help him. But this is Truth’s house. We have all the trust in the world with him.”
The shot saved the Celtics from the type of embarrassment they felt after blowing a 27-point lead to the Hawks in a double-overtime loss Jan. 25. The Celtics led by 15 points entering the fourth quarter, but the Clippers rallied, using the speed of Bledsoe, the shooting prowess of Crawford, and the brute strength of Blake Griffin (20 points, 11 rebounds).
The Celtics went 6:33 without a field goal, and by the time Jason Terry woke them from their slumber with a jumper with 1:09 left, they led just 103-98. Bledsoe countered with a 3-pointer to slice the deficit to 2.
After Terry missed a runner, Crawford, the sixth man who can score in bunches, was making his move for the tying score until he bulled into Avery Bradley for an offensive foul with 26.6 seconds left, setting up Pierce’s heroics.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers was annoyed by his team slowing the pace in the second half while the Clippers pushed the tempo. That same behavior had allowed the Hawks to rally.
“We stopped playing, you could see me [angry] in the third quarter,” Rivers said. “Back-to-back games [we let up], and I told our guys that. I hate as a coach when you tell them that and they’re all agreeing with you after the game. But we still did it. That was back-to-back games where we were playing really good basketball and we get into the third quarter and all of a sudden they’re scoring in five seconds and we’re walking the ball up the floor.”
Without the ballhandling and decision-making of Rondo, the Celtics have had to increase ball movement and up the tempo.
“That’s not who we are. We can’t be that anymore,” Rivers said. “We can’t play that way. We got a little tight at times. But that happens when you turn it off. We won the game. We beat a heck of a team and I’m very happy with that, but in my mind we can be much better than we were today.”
Overall, Rivers said he was pleased with his team’s offensive production. The bench shot 17 of 26 for 52 points, including 14 apiece from Jeff Green and Leandro Barbosa, and 13 from Terry. After shooting 27 percent from the 3-point line in their previous nine games, the Celtics were 11 for 18 from beyond the arc.
After getting pounded by the Clippers, 106-77, at Staples Center on Dec. 27, the Celtics were able to exact some revenge, and test their new, Rondo-less style against a formidable opponent.
“We’re playing in good spurts right now. We have to continue to learn, even in games like this,” Pierce said. “I always say you can always learn in wins, also. We have to learn that, hey, we have to run through the finish line and continue to execute our offense. We made it a lot more difficult than we thought it should have been.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.