Commentary

Drawing on Doc's experience

With Rajon Rondo lost for season, Rivers will be Celtics' de facto floor general

Updated: January 28, 2013, 11:17 PM ET
By Chris Forsberg | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- Celtics coach Doc Rivers defiantly suggested that reporters should not write the obituary for his 2012-13 team on the heels of losing Rajon Rondo for the season due to an ACL tear in his right knee.

If Rivers is truly adamant about his team maintaining its championship aspirations in the face of losing its most talented player, it might be on him to keep the team afloat.

And we're not just talking about upcoming personnel decisions, including how the rotation will change without Rondo and his 37.4 minutes, 13.7 points and league-best 11.1 assists per game.

With no true backup point guard on the roster, Rivers essentially becomes Boston's new signal-caller. The former NBA floor general will take on a great responsibility in setting the offense into motion without the luxury of having coach-on-the-floor Rondo to do that.

Rivers undoubtedly has his work cut out for him, particularly considering the Celtics' offense has rarely been much north of mediocre over the past half-decade, even with Rondo at the helm.

But Rivers can most certainly take some of the strain off his point guard-less roster, particularly with the marker and dry-erase board in his clutch. Lament Boston's end-of-game offensive selection all you want -- and it has been particularly dreadful this season -- but Rivers remains one of the best in the sport at drawing up plays.

He proved it again in Sunday's win over the East-leading Heat at TD Garden. Just dig deep into the numbers.

The Celtics ran 23.5 percent of their total plays Sunday in after-timeout situations. In those 23 possessions, Boston generated 24 points on 8-of-16 shooting, according to Synergy Sports data. That's 1.043 points per play, which is well above both Boston's typical season output (0.837 points per play, 20th overall) and the Heat's NBA-leading 0.954 points per play this season.

The question is whether Sunday was a fluke given the top-caliber opponent or a potential trend in the right direction. Look at Boston's five other games without Rondo this season, and you find a team that has averaged a cringe-worthy 0.658 points per play on ATO situations, shooting a mere 30.6 percent from the floor.

[+] EnlargeCourtney Lee
Brian Babineau/Getty ImagesCourtney Lee, who is shooting a career-best 46.5 percent from the floor, figures to move into the starting five.

Rivers has a chance to bust out the dry-erase board for roughly a fifth of his team's total plays to help his team maximize those possessions. Yes, it comes down to the guys on the court performing, but Rivers has the opportunity to put his team in quality positions -- and that can't be understated with the loss of the team's floor general.

"I've been on them all year because our out-of-timeout stuff has been not very good this year, and we kind of hung our hat on that [in past seasons]," Rivers said. "[Sunday] we were phenomenal. And without a point guard running that stuff. It was a lot of passing and dribble handoffs."

The Celtics have been a mainstay of the top 10 in ATO production during the Kevin Garnett era. Boston ranked seventh (0.868 ppp) in 2011-12, 10th (0.901) in 2010-11, fifth (0.926) in 2009-10, second (0.951) in 2008-09 and fourth (0.941) in the 2007-08 title season.

In order for Boston to maintain a serviceable offense, it needs to produce out of timeouts.

Rivers used to arrive for postgame news conferences with his hands noticeably camouflaged in green marker. Maybe the Celtics (finally) invested in a better courtside eraser or maybe Rivers scrubs his hands before arriving at the podium, but there simply hasn't been as much ink visible lately.

That ought to change in the coming weeks.

Make no mistake, no amount of brilliant play calling can mask the loss of an All-Star point guard. The Celtics undoubtedly will miss Rondo's ingenuity and ability to audible on the floor. But Boston's offense essentially has been right at the league average this season (14th overall, 0.918 points per play). Use other advanced metrics, and the Celtics slip all the way to 26th in offensive rating (99.6 points per 100 possessions).

There's a line of thinking that says, "How much worse can it get without Rondo?" If Boston can squeeze more out of the likes of Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa, maybe there's hope to stay afloat after all.

Rivers can help those replacements by putting them in the best positions to succeed.

After that, it's on Boston's players to step up. Rivers stressed after Sunday's win that he's certain someone inside the Celtics' locker room will elevate his play. But even he's not sure who it will be.

"[Losing Rondo is] a huge blow for us," Rivers said. "When something like this happens, we'll find someone that's already in our locker room that's going to play terrific. And I have no idea who it is."

The early money is on Lee, who drew the spot start Sunday and could be in line for more first-unit minutes moving forward if paired with Avery Bradley in the starting backcourt.

While that could diminish a second unit that's playing some exceptional ball at the moment, it might be a necessity. Lee solidifies the first-unit defense (which will help mask an offensive downturn), and an uptick in minutes could lead to more consistent offense from the fifth-year guard. Lee, 27, is quietly shooting a career-best 46.5 percent from the floor and simply needs some of his 3-point shots (career-worst 32.9 percent) to start dropping to take flight.

Barbosa also should see increased -- or at least more consistent -- minutes and figures to have a chance to expand his role if he can continue to be an immediate scoring jolt when he's on the floor.

Bradley can expect to handle the ball more, particularly with Lee, Barbosa and Terry preferring to play off the ball, and it wouldn't be a surprise to find Rondo in Bradley's ear at practices trying to aid that transition to more of a point role.

The Celtics won't be quick to add a ball handler just for the sake of adding one. Roster space is a premium for Boston, especially with its luxury tax apron constraints, and the team would seemingly shy away from anything more than a 10-day contract until it finds a long-term solution, which might not be known until closer to the trade deadline.

The next eight games leading up to All-Star weekend ought to be fascinating. Boston decision-makers will give the team a chance to make its case before determining how to proceed around the trade deadline.

Rivers made his preference clear, and if he's truly on board with making a run with this group instead of turning to the future, it's on him to make the most of what he's got.

He's going to have to get his hands dirty again.

Chris Forsberg

Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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