Celtics at their best in bad times
Doc Rivers' team gets another chance to show it thrives when facing adversity
ATLANTA -- The Boston Celtics have had a rather uncanny way of making things as difficult as possible on themselves this season. Maybe that's why the idea of playing without Rajon Rondo in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Atlanta Hawks drew little more than shoulder shrugs from members of the team.
"Adversity has been the theme of the season," veteran guard Keyon Dooling said.
To be sure, not all of Boston's woes have been self-inflicted. No one could have imagined losing two players -- Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox -- to heart ailments, although just about everyone could have seen Jermaine O'Neal's season-ending injury coming.
The Celtics did show up to camp woefully out of shape and stumbled through the first half of the season. It wasn't until they found themselves two games under .500 at the All-Star break that they came out swinging.
Even then, they were too far back to make much of a surge, although they did win the Atlantic Division (the Sixers and Knicks aided that cause with their own problems) and earned the No. 4 seed. But the Hawks earned home-court advantage in the first round, adding another layer of difficulty to Boston's postseason foray.
Now, after forgetting to set their alarm clocks for the start of the playoffs, the Celtics find themselves in a 1-0 series hole and having to play Game 2 without Rondo, their best player in Game 1, who lost his cool with 41 seconds remaining in an 83-74 defeat at Philips Arena on Sunday.
Not only did Rondo's ill-timed bumping of referee Marc Davis cost Boston a chance to finish a rally from a 19-point hole, but it cost the point guard the opportunity to suit up for Game 2.
So now the Celtics and their inconsistent offense, already playing without Ray Allen, whose bum right ankle hasn't allowed him to get back on the floor, will have to navigate a critical game without the spark plug that makes them 11 points better per 48 minutes.
What's more, a bench that combined for a mere four points in 51 minutes of floor time in Game 1 will be called upon to play a much more significant role.
And yet you can't shake the notion that the Celtics will find a way to put together some of their most inspired basketball -- or at least more inspired than what they showed in Game 1, which shouldn't be much of a chore even without Rondo.
Heck, the Celtics really don't have a choice. Going down 2-0 is a virtual death sentence. Entering the 2011-12 playoffs, there had been 423 best-of-seven postseason series in NBA history. Teams that started a series 2-0 owned a .942 winning percentage (226-14), according to ESPN Stats & Info. The only time Boston has ever rallied from a 2-0 series hole is the 1969 Finals.
So the Celtics know what they have to do in Game 2. Even if there are obstacles in their path.
"I think if any team is equipped to deal with a [tough] situation it's us," Dooling said. "We're battle tested, we're deep, we've got a veteran bunch. It'll just be another challenge for us, but we've overcome a lot of challenges this year."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers often has boasted about his team's resiliency and its ability to grind through tough situations. It's part of the reason he loves this team as dearly as he does. The mental toughness of this squad is off the charts.
But Rivers probably has been buying antacids in bulk in order to stomach this season.
"We've gone down this road before with injuries, and we played well [without Rondo] in that stretch," Rivers said of the 13 games his team has played without Rondo this season. "This is a resilient basketball team; that's what we are. That's what we've been all year.
"Sometimes it takes this stuff -- for whatever reason -- to snap us into the right place. So I don't know if we're going to win or lose [Tuesday], but I can guarantee you we'll be ready to play."
The Celtics figure to be without not only Rondo but also Allen, who would be a nice addition to the starting lineup if his troublesome ankle would allow. But Rivers insisted he won't rush Allen back just to help fill Rondo's void.
That means Avery Bradley likely will shuffle to the starting point guard spot, where he played in place of Rondo earlier this season, with either Mickael Pietrus or Sasha Pavlovic moving into the starting lineup.
Either way, Bradley is likely to bring the ball up the court, but Rivers stressed that will be the extent of his ballhandling duties. The Celtics almost certainly will run their offense through point forward Paul Pierce (as well as Kevin Garnett in the post).
Pierce said he wasn't overly focused on morphing into distributor mode.
"I really don't go into a game saying, 'This is what I've got to do more.' I've told y'all many times, I just play within the flow of the game, try to give it what it needs, regardless of who's out there," Pierce said. "It needed more scoring from me [Sunday] night, but my shot was off. If Rondo is not there, then not only am I going to have to step up, but a number of guys will have to step up."
Rivers isn't afraid to go deep down his bench, even if it's not normally his preference. He said late in the regular season that someone such as E'Twaun Moore might help the team win a game in the playoffs.
He might just get an opportunity Tuesday.
"We don't pay like five or six guys; we pay the entire team," Rivers said. "We pay them to be ready. I told the guys [Sunday] night before the game, I told them our rotation, but somebody else had to be ready. Keyon Dooling [on Sunday] night, Avery got in foul trouble and was struggling early, we went with Keyon and he came in and played great. Because he's a pro. He was ready to play.
"And we're going to need someone else to do that. We're going to need an extra starter, we're going to need an extra guy off the bench, and someone is going to have to step up."
The Celtics have found guys to step up all season. But this is the postseason. Lesser-used players (or those unfamiliar with the big stage) often tighten up a bit. Can the Celtics find a way to rally in the face of adversity yet again?
Maybe they'd prefer to make it easier on themselves for a change.
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