BOSTON -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers admitted well before his team's just-concluded, diabolical stretch in April that he had no idea what was going to happen. Eleven games in 15 days. Four sets of back-to-backs -- all involving playoff-caliber teams -- and one back-to-back-to-back with all three games on the road.
Who would he rest? Who could he rest? Could he afford to rest anyone not named Ryan Hollins? There were so many questions and very few answers, in part because it was unchartered waters. All Rivers knew for sure was that it was going to be really, really, really hard. The Spurs. The Bulls. The Heat. The Hawks. The Magic. The Knicks. The Travel.
Wednesday night, the madness came to an end with a most fitting denouement -- another division title courtesy of a 102-98 victory over the Magic. What began as the possible Fortnight From Hell with even the playoffs a question mark turned out to be a, well, Fortnight from Heck. It was bad, but not calamitous. It was survival of the fittest on a nightly basis along with shoot-from-the-hip coaching.
Somehow, the Celtics went 7-4 in this stretch, including 7-2 in the past nine games. They won at Miami. They lost at Toronto. They roughed up the Pacers and Sixers on consecutive nights as well as the Nets and the Bobcats. They won one game without the Big Three and won another without Rajon Rondo.
And now, with the benefit of hindsight, not to mention the Atlantic Division title, Rivers can finally admit to what the past 15 days had been for him and his team: the ultimate meat-grinder.
"I thought it was going to be hard, but it was even harder than I thought," he said after Wednesday night's victory. "We just didn't know, from night to night, who was going to play."
Think about that for a minute. Rivers said he was not even sure Paul Pierce was going to play against the Magic, having seen Pierce get roughed up the night before in New York. Pierce then went incommunicado with trainer Eddie Lacerte on game day, normally a no-no.
In this case, however, silence was golden. Pierce not only played, he was exceptional, with 29 points to go along with a career-best 14 assists (or, as Rondo might say, an average night.)
Rondo didn't play. He, too, had been roughed up in New York. It was the only game of the 11 Rondo missed, although he did show up at TD Garden, ducking from the ESPN camera in the Boston locker room. It was the first game Rondo had missed since he served his two-game suspension Feb. 20-22 for throwing a ball at an official.
Ray Allen didn't play for the sixth straight game -- and it may be awhile before we see him. He was walking around Wednesday night with a boot on his sore right foot, never a good sign. (Get those Shaq memories out of your mind!) You'd be wise to wait to pencil him in for Game 1 of the playoffs, 10 days hence.
Mickael Pietrus missed the first five games of this 11-game stretch recovering from his concussion, returned to average 28 minutes in the next four, then had to miss the past two games due to knee issues. Pierce, Allen and Kevin Garnett all missed the game against the Bobcats -- which, needless to say, the Celtics won handily over the D-Leaguers from Charlotte.
"That Charlotte game, that was still a risk for us," Rivers said. "But we had to do it. It was the first time I've seen Kevin tired. If we hadn't gone through this stretch, we wouldn't have had to shut guys down. But because of it, we had no choice. We had to. I just hated the fact that it basically forced my hand."
But with all the uncertainty surrounding player availability, there were unmistakable good signs. When the dust clears next week, Rivers might actually have a bench, assuming, of course, that Allen is out of the boot and Pietrus is out of the woods. He now has a player in Avery Bradley who is so different from the Avery Bradley of December and January as to be laughable. Rivers has a rejuvenated Garnett playing out of position and wreaking havoc.
And he has the redoubtable Pierce, who continues to do what's needed. He nearly pulled the New York game out with his scoring. He was Rondo-esque on Wednesday, with eight assists in the first quarter.
Rivers said he would probably sit Pierce and Garnett against the Hawks, even though it looms as a critical game in terms of home-court advantage in a potential first-round matchup. A better move might be to try to win on Friday and then let everyone into the Hot Tub for the final week of the season. The Miami game next Tuesday looks moot. The Milwaukee game two nights later looks a lot like a big night for JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore.
All of this is possible because of what these guys accomplished not only in the past 15 days, but since the All-Star break, when they were 15-17 and looking dead in the water. We know now that Allen nearly went to Memphis and Pierce, unfathomable as it seems, nearly went to New Jersey in a deal for a draft pick and expiring contract.
Instead, the status quo prevailed, Rivers tweaked his lineup, Bradley came out of nowhere and the Sixers cooperated. The Celtics and Sixers were essentially tied on April 1. Boston now leads by 4½ games.
"As hard as this stretch was, and it was hard, it also was a good team-building time as well," Rivers said. "It showed guys who we were as a team. So maybe there is a blessing in there somewhere. I don't know where just yet. But I'll keep looking."