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Despite added depth, the Celtics are still leaning on their Big Three to start the 2012-13 season.The Celtics woke up on Sunday grateful for a 1-2 record, as an unsightly 0-3 mark to start the season was very much a possibility in the waning moments of an 89-86 victory over the Washington Wizards on Saturday.
But they pulled it out, largely thanks to the combined efforts of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Call them the newest installment of The Big Three, or whatever you'd like, but, more important than anything else, they're the three players who will be called upon to do a little bit more for the time being, as the Celtics suffer through some necessary growing pains.
Their performances on the court will matter most, such as Pierce exploding for 27 points on 10-of-22 shooting on Saturday night, knocking in the go-ahead 3-point field goal from the right wing with just over 2½ minutes to play; or Rondo being a better first line of defense -- something he criticized himself for late last week. Then there was Garnett being his usual intimidating presence on the defensive end, particularly late in the game, when he helped to force a wild throwaway pass from Washington's Kevin Seraphin with 28.2 seconds left and the Celtics nursing a one-point lead.
"That's what he does," coach Doc Rivers said of Garnett afterward. "I thought Rondo, too, tonight. I thought at the beginning of the game he started with great ball pressure, got into bodies, got over picks, and, all of a sudden, our pick-and-roll defense was good. It also allowed us to rebound because bigs were back. They didn't have to help as much, and I thought that was big for us."
Saturday also saw Garnett come through with his most productive offensive stint of the young season, as his string of jump shots indicated a better offensive rhythm. He and Pierce combined for 42 points on 17-of-37 shooting.
"I made a point of it," Rivers said. "I reminded our guys that Paul was on our team and Kevin was on our team. I loved at halftime they had the most shots, you know? And that's how it's got to be every night."
For the time being, at least.
This Celtics team, purposefully or not, was built to help Pierce, Garnett and Rondo, to make things easier for them, in a sense. The added depth is supposed to take some of the burden off of Pierce and Garnett's ever-aging shoulders, and the younger, athletic talent would give Rondo some running mates on the break and further enhance his unique ability to control a basketball court.
But until Jason Terry finds his jump shot, Jeff Green carves out a more defined niche without plays being called for him, Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa figure out how best to be effective, and until Rivers uncovers his best big-man rotation, the opposite will be the case. More will be asked of Pierce, Garnett and Rondo for now, as the Celtics basically figure themselves out. Not only are they the team's three best players, but they're the only remaining members of the 2008 championship squad. They know what this team needs to do in order to be successful, and they're the ones capable of guiding this group there until everyone gets adjusted.
The building process also includes recapturing that team-first, defensive-minded culture that's been a hallmark of this franchise for the last five seasons. Garnett made strides there with his players-only meeting following Friday's loss, in which he spoke of hyenas working together to achieve a common goal. Rondo followed suit, taking the brunt of the blame for the team's defensive and communication problems.
It's a necessary burden for the immediate future, as the Celtics still expect to turn into the well-oiled machine Rivers and president of basketball operations Danny Ainge envisioned when they assembled this group over the summer. And when the likes of Terry, Green, Brandon Bass, Lee and Jared Sullinger do have it figured out, a vision of a more balanced Celtics team will come to fruition. It'll still start with Pierce, Garnett and Rondo -- it always will -- but their shoulders won't be the only ones bearing the brunt of propelling this team to wins.