HARTFORD, Conn. -- For a game that meant next to nothing to the Boston Celtics in terms of the big picture, Saturday's 98-95 overtime loss to the New York Knicks at the XL Center certainly felt like it had something riding on the outcome.
Per preseason policy, Celtics coach Doc Rivers yanked many of his main rotation players late in the third quarter, leaving the game in the hands of a lineup full of rookies. Jared Sullinger, Jamar Smith, Micah Downs, Kris Joseph, and Dionte Christmas took over down the stretch for Boston, battling a New York lineup that wasn't quite as inexperienced, with the likes of Jason Kidd and Steve Novak still on the court.
But the young guys held their own, withstanding a 12-0 run from the Knicks midway through the fourth quarter, and overcoming a six-point deficit with just over three minutes remaining to force overtime. They weren't alone on their quest, as every time they looked over at their own bench, they saw a truly spirited group of veterans rooting them on.
The bench was animated for the entire evening, but the fourth quarter brought out a different animal. There was an unbridled excitement coming from Boston's stars, as if their input alone would will the rookies to a victory. Jason Terry and Jeff Green were throwing their hands up to excite the crowd, Paul Pierce was bent down on one knee, and Kevin Garnett, shoeless at one point as he spilled onto the court in celebration, was his typical well of limitless energy, hopping up and down as he cheered on his understudies.
"I love when I look over to the bench, you've got [Garnett], [Brandon Bass], [Rajon] Rondo, Courtney, everybody's standing up, cheering us on, that gives us extra confidence," said Christmas. "When we make the big plays and we look at the bench and everybody's just sitting down, clapping, it's whatever. But when you see those guys, the leaders of our team, standing up and just rooting us on, even if we make mistakes. We went to the bench and Kev and all those guys came over and said, 'That's over. You five on the court, get it together.' We were down six with three minutes left, and the game wasn't over, and we end up making it go to overtime. And just from those guys having that confidence in us, that made us have super confidence. So that right there said a lot, not to just us, but the team as a unit."
Sullinger, perhaps boasting the most late-game experience of the group, shouldered the scoring load, scoring seven of his team-high 14 points over the final 12 minutes, to go along with three rebounds. But Christmas, Downs, and Smith all contributed key jumpers down the stretch to preserve Boston for an extra five minutes. And through it all, the veterans kept up their outpouring of encouragement.
"They like our young guys, they really do. You can see that," Rivers said. "I think they had more fun watching the game at the end than they did playing at times. Just cheering for the guys. They wanted them to do well, and that’s always nice."
Boston ultimately fell in overtime, as Sullinger fouled out early, Downs saw a putback layup spin out, and Christmas and Smith suffered from a communication breakdown on the club's final play, designed to get Smith a look at a 3-pointer with a chance to tie.
"I thought coach said one thing and it was another," Christmas said. "It was a whole communication problem. Things like that can't happen if we're going to win games, so that's something we're definitely going to change and get out of my system -- one and done for that."
It wasn't the only mistake the younger unit was guilty of. Smith had trouble getting Boston into its offense at times, and there were a handful of breakdowns on the defensive end. But the mistakes were quickly brushed aside, replaced by calls of encouragement by the veterans on the sideline. During timeouts, Garnett and Co. often met the younger players at halfcourt as they advanced towards the huddle, and even after the timeout had ended, Rondo and Green were still pulling guys to the side to offer last-second instructions.
"When you've got us out there and we're trying to win a game and you've got the veterans behind your back, constantly talking to you, constantly helping you out, it really helps out your confidence," said Sullinger.
Said Rondo: "They did a great job. They got down a little bit as far as scoring-wise. I think they hit like a 6-0 drought, but they stayed with it, they kept their composure, and they fought back and tied the ball game back up. So, they're learning. For a lot of them it was their first time experiencing, as far as NBA players and being down in a situation, as far as a real game, so it was good for them to learn, and, like I said, hopefully next time we'll be able to get the win."