PHILADELPHIA — With Tuesday night’s 109-101 win over the Sixers making the Celtics 12-4 since Rajon Rondo tore his right ACL, some have said the team is better without him. But the Celtics say his absence created more of a sense of urgency, which has sparked their rise in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Celtics began Tuesday two games from the fourth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage in the first round, which is stunning considering Boston was 20-23 when Rondo went down and was expected to sink in the second half.
“I just think we’re playing better, for whatever reason,” said coach Doc Rivers. “You have all those injuries, you usually go the other way. I just think our guys kind of came together and realized we don’t have a margin of error anymore.
“And maybe that’s why. But overall, I think a lot of things happened, too. I think Avery [Bradley] was just coming back, so our defense improved dramatically with him.”
Rivers said Bradley’s presence has been critical. The Celtics had improved to ninth in the league in points allowed entering Tuesday night’s game.
“When the guy is on the point of the ball putting pressure, it makes everyone else kind of join in, I think that helped,” Rivers said. “I thought our second unit was just about to take off before all the injuries. So they were finding their way.
“And with all the new guys, they were starting to get what we’re doing. You rarely see a team go from 23d in the league in defense to [ninth]. That’s hard to do and we did it because I think guys bought in.”
Forward Paul Pierce said the players who remained after injuries to Rondo, Jared Sullinger, and Leandro Barbosa listened to the detractors.
“I think when you have the type of adversity we been through, the sense of urgency is a little more kicked in,” Pierce said. “It’s giving guys an opportunity to step up, being able to elevate their play, and it’s showing. You always see the character when you get a group that has to go through some adversity.
“Everybody was hearing the rumblings after the injuries. We were going to fall out the playoff race, this team can’t play with the elite teams in the Eastern Conference. Guys in the locker room are going to hear that and there’s a sense of pride about them and [it’s] making them better and making them compete.”
Kevin Garnett said the team’s decision making has drastically improved to compensate for Rondo’s missing floor leadership.
“I would say [we’re] more decisive,” he said. “You get to whatever you’re doing and if you’re going to pass it, pass it, if not you make your move. Consistency is something that I always put our hat on. The more consistent we can be with stopping the ball . . . that’s been the formula for success since I’ve been here and getting guys to buy in.”
He’s been there
Rivers is a close friend of Philadelphia coach Doug Collins. The two were dining together at the London Olympics when Collins received the call that the 76ers had acquired Andrew Bynum from the Lakers in the Dwight Howard trade.
The move was supposed to make the 76ers elite contenders in the Eastern Conference, but Bynum has not played all season because of bone bruises in both knees, and with Jason Richardson (also acquired in the trade) out for the season after knee surgery, Philadelphia has nothing to show for the deal.
Rivers said the Bynum situation was reminiscent of his ordeal with Grant Hill while coaching in Orlando. Hill was acquired by the Magic through a lucrative sign-and-trade deal with the Pistons in 2000 but played just 200 games over seven years because of numerous ankle surgeries. Hill’s limited play was one of the things that led to Rivers’s firing in Orlando.
“I had Grant Hill for three years and we made the playoffs every year with that group, but it was hard,” Rivers said. “[The 76ers] are doing that same thing we did.
“You go into the year with your offense and defensive schemes for Grant and for Bynum, and then you’re running half of it but you don’t want to change too much because if he comes back, then you’re going to have to change back.
“You just felt like you were caught in flux the entire season. In our case, Grant would play, like, three games and sit out 30 more. It was really hard.”
Collins said his club will not relent despite entering Tuesday night seven games out of the final Eastern playoff spot. He chided his team after a disheartening home loss to Orlando last week, and the 76ers play 15 of their final 23 games on the road.
“We’ve still got younger guys that we’re trying to continue to grow and develop every day,” said Collins. “We’re going to play to win every single game, keep the spirits high.
“I thought our guys at shootaround were great. We had a tough loss the other day in Washington, but keep guys positive, keep them competing, keep them having fun.
“I want them to have fun playing and not make it look like you’re playing out the string. I’ve never been in that situation before, so you’re asking somebody who’s a little foreign to that. From our standpoint, we’re going to try to play hard every night.”
Lee is OK
Courtney Lee was poked in the right eye with 2:14 left in the third quarter while attempting a jump shot and did not return. He said afterwards he had vision issues throughout the fourth quarter but it cleared up following the game and he will play Wednesday against the Pacers . . . Garnett had a season-high six turnovers . . . The 76ers attempted a season-high 100 shots, given extra possessions because of 22 Boston turnovers . . . The 76ers were without swingman Nick Young, who has a sprained left ankle.Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe