BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers is notorious for keeping his youngest players glued to the bench, save for in certain cruise-control situations. That's why it was somewhat jarring to see rookies Avery Bradley and Luke Harangody at the scorer's table in a one-possession game late in the first quarter Thursday night.
This is what it's come to for Rivers. With his team decimated by injuries, but hell-bent on limiting minutes for his most veteran players, Rivers sent the Bradley/Harangody combo onto the floor -- just 63 minutes of court time between them previously -- while fetching spot starters Semih Erden (another rookie) and Nate Robinson from Thursday's tilt with the Atlanta Hawks.
On a night when Rivers informed his squad that it would be without Rajon Rondo (ankle) for "one or two" weeks, the Celtics leaned on a 19-year-old (Bradley) to fill the void of an All-Star floor general. On a night when Shaquille O'Neal needed a third straight game off to rest a sore right calf, Boston asked a rookie who was 4 years old when O'Neal made his 1992 NBA debut (Harangody) to help fill his size 22 shoes.
"We were playing with Semih, two [rookies], and then Von [Wafer] went down [before] halftime," Kevin Garnett said when asked if this was Boston's gutsiest win of the season. Wafer's injury -- a sore back that has hobbled him in recent days -- left Boston with only nine available bodies since Rondo and Shaq were technically on the active roster with the team already deactivating Delonte West (wrist), Jermaine O'Neal (knee) and Kendrick Perkins (knee). "I mean, [captain Paul Pierce] said it before the game: 'This is going to be more mental than anything.' I think everybody is playing; everybody is giving everything they have. And in order for us to win these games, we're just going to have to grind it out until we get the guys back."
Added Garnett: "We just got the news about Rondo, and Shaq wasn't available today. So what are you going to do? You can quit but that is not the way we do things around here. We work. So 'gutsy' is an understatement."
One night after the glitz and glamour of a thrilling victory over a division foe desperate to rekindle a rivalry in front of a celebrity-filled Madison Square Garden, the aging Celtics returned home for the always grueling tail end of a back-to-back. Fatigued -- mentally and physically -- they had every right to slog their way through Thursday's visit from Atlanta. Few would have been outraged if Boston had fumbled away its streak on a night when the lineup to start the second quarter featured Bradley, Harangody, Marquis Daniels, Glen Davis and Ray Allen.
Instead, Boston dug in, stuck close when its starters needed rest and emerged with a 102-90 triumph over Atlanta that pushed the Celtics' winning streak to 12 games.
"I don't know if I'm surprised or not," Rivers said. "I trust our guys. You know, they just play well. They're executing well. I thought the second half was terrific for us. I thought the first half, it was a grind -- you could just feel it, emotionally, too, probably, coming off of [Wednesday] night's game.
"Then in the second half, it was terrific -- we couldn't get Ray going in the first half, and so we just changed the passer and made it Paul. Because they were stunting so hard off of Nate, and Nate's passes were off the mark early, Paul basically became the point forward in the second half. It really worked out for us. I don't know if we stumbled on it, or if we were kind of forced to do it. But it was terrific. Paul enjoyed it, which is even better. Then our defense kicked in, too."
It's one thing to win games based on pure talent, which the Celtics -- injuries or not -- admittedly have plenty of. But it's another to be forced to alter the way you play and still come away with victories.
Pierce, the hero one night earlier just off Broadway, struggled from the field, connecting on five of 15 shots for 15 points. But late in the game, he took over Rondo's role of facilitator and dished out six of his game-high 10 assists in a third quarter in which Boston pulled away.
Garnett, looking more spry with each game this season, saw his team getting dominated on the glass and combined with Davis to haul in 24 of Boston's 33 rebounds. Garnett finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds over a reasonable 31:54.
And then there was Allen. The 35-year-old safety blanket whom Rivers isn't afraid to lean on to keep a steadying presence when the rest of the second unit is on the floor. For the team-high eighth time this season, Allen led the Celtics in scoring, connecting on seven of 13 shots for 18 points (Davis added 18 of his own as Boston put six players, including its entire starting five, in double digits for scoring).
Looking over the stat sheet, Rivers couldn't help but smile.
"What's amazing about our team, is that [Allen, Garnett and Pierce] are the three guys that are healthy," Rivers said with a smile. "It's the young guys that are falling apart on our team. They don't make 'em like they used to."
Boston's Big Three takes a great deal of pride in putting this team on their shoulders, particularly Garnett and Pierce after injury-plagued campaigns last season. They've got a little something extra to prove and, even without the reinforcements Boston brought in to solidify this season's championship charge, they believe the Celtics should win these types of games every night.
"I just know, behind the scenes, the work that we put in," Pierce said when asked if he was surprised by Boston's ability to win games despite the injuries. "As long as you continue to put in the work and understand what your coach is trying to do we feel like we should win every game.
"Most nights we're putting three or four All-Stars on the court. I think people forget we have me, Ray and Kevin. So the other guys might be injured, but we still feel like we have an advantage."
An advantage that typically keeps the younger players on the sideline. But if Boston can lean on those fresh-faced rookies now and win 12 in a row, imagine the potential when those youngest players can't crack the rotation again.
Chris Forsberg is the Celtics reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.