CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The run by the Celtics bench in Monday’s double-overtime loss to the Washington Wizards was galvanizing. The starters, who joined the rest of the reserves on the bench, formed their own cheering squad as the impromptu lineup chopped down a 23-point lead.
The stirring run, the production of rookie Marcus Smart, the fearlessness of Evan Turner, and the effort of Marcus Thornton, was a perfect short-term solution for what had turned into a listless effort by the starters.
The question is whether Brad Stevens’s decision to bench Rajon Rondo for the final 27 minutes will carry long-term repercussions with their relationship and Rondo’s status as a staple in the lineup.
Rondo didn’t appear pleased with the decision, but Stevens said the point guard was one of the more vocal guys on the bench during the run. After notching his second triple-double of the season Sunday, Rondo was rather unimpressive Monday with no points, 4 assists, 3 turnovers, and 3 fouls in 21 minutes.
If there ever was a time to replace Rondo with Turner, boost the offense, and find someone to corral John Wall, this was the occasion. The move hardly makes Rondo disposable, but it does offer the club another option when he is ineffective or erratic.
He committed two reach fouls in the waning minutes of the first half, one on Bradley Beal and another on Paul Pierce that resulted in four free throws. Rondo’s three fouls all occurred in the final 5:12 of the first half. It was obvious Rondo wasn’t himself and Stevens made the bold but correct decision to give him a break.
“Yeah I’m very competitive, I wanted to compete, I wanted to be on the floor,” Rondo said afterward. “But the guys in front of me, the guys that were out there were playing great. I didn’t want to mess up any momentum.”
When asked if Stevens told him he was sticking with another lineup, Rondo said: “There was no communication but there was none needed. Our bench did a great job and they deserved to play.”
If you subscribe to the plus/minus theory, the Celtics starters were a combined minus-82 during their time on the floor compared with a plus-77 for the five reserves. It was the right move for a team that lacks a dominant superstar and prides itself on balance.
In other words, you wouldn’t bench LeBron or Durant or Carmelo for the final 27 minutes because they are volume scorers. They could begin the night 1 for 15, but then hit the next seven shots to revive a sagging team. But when your team doesn’t have a prolific scorer and look rather uninterested after falling behind, 88-65, Stevens has the right to call on Cedric Maxwell and Tom Heinsohn if they could give him five minutes.
Stevens realized he may have caused some irritation among his starters, but he can’t be so compassionate with a team that’s 7-12 and has blown countless leads while looking apathetic in other games. Perhaps some ruffled feelings or bruised egos is exactly what this team needs to gain some consistency.
The Celtics played a stellar game Sunday against the Wizards, jumping out to a 25-point lead and making plays in the fourth quarter to preserve a 101-93 win. On Monday, they played with Washington until late in the second quarter, then became the less energetic team, and that included Rondo.
There are going to be nights when Rondo is at his absolute best, stuffing the stat sheet with points, assists, rebounds, and steals. When he is playing with energy and when he is an initiator and an irritator, he is the All-Star player the Celtics covet.
And there has also been nights during his comeback season from anterior cruciate ligament surgery that Rondo doesn’t appear as comfortable or confident. In 33 minutes against Detroit on Dec. 3, Rondo scored 2 points on 1-for-6 shooting with 8 assists and 3 rebounds. In 28 minutes at Memphis on Nov. 21, Rondo scored 4 points with 4 assists and 5 rebounds.
Monday was one of those nights when Rondo was far from his best, so perhaps Stevens is knowledgeable enough after their short time together to determine when it isn’t his night.
“Give Rondo as much credit as anybody else on our team,” Stevens said. “Rondo’s the loudest guy on the bench. I think Rondo was very comfortable in saying let’s bring this home. I give him a lot of credit for being that kind of guy, because he doesn’t have to be.”
But make no mistake, this was a one-night appearance on the bench. Rondo wants to play and he wants the opportunity to play through his struggles. But the Celtics have blown myriad games and need to capitalize on a soft schedule before heading West next month. There was need for change.
Stevens’s rather drastic decision was welcomed for an organization that can no longer accept mediocrity. If the Celtics are to advance beyond their rebuilding plan and if they truly want to capitalize on their balance, then there are nights when the starters’ performance will have to determine whether or not they remain on the court.
That’s only fair.