|ESPN.com: BlogsColumns||[Print without images]|
WALTHAM, Mass. -- The trainer's room at the Celtics' practice facility was so hopping Sunday morning, you practically needed a ticket to get in. Dinged and dented from Boston's last two playoff games, roughly half the team's roster was nursing at least a minor malady in advance of Monday's Game 4 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Miami Heat.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers strolled through the medical area on his way to the practice court Sunday afternoon at the Sports Authority Training Center at HealthPoint, got a quick update from primary patient Rajon Rondo, then quipped to reporters, "It's a pretty busy room right now."
The trainer's area is a fairly common hangout for these Celtics, at least at TD Garden on game nights, when players often mingle before and after tilts, a medical no-fly zone warding off reporters and other uninvited guests.
|Whether Rajon Rondo can push the ball in transition despite his elbow injury figures to have a huge bearing on the Celtics' chances against the Heat.|
Alas, Boston's medical staff isn't just loaning its furniture for socializing this week; the Celtics are truly ailing. So the question heading into Game 4 is how much can Boston's injured bodies provide with another must-win situation looming on Monday.
Boston received encouraging news Sunday afternoon when an MRI revealed no further damage to Rondo's dislocated left elbow. The Celtics' spark plug drew national headlines for his ability to re-enter Saturday's Game 3 just minutes after the cringe-worthy landing that left him writhing in pain; many assumed his season was over.
Even so, the Celtics need to see how Rondo feels at tipoff on Monday before they can gauge how effective he can be on the floor. But even before the MRI results came back, Rivers stressed that Rondo was likely going to play, even if he was still dragging that left arm.
"If he can play, he's playing," Rivers said.
Truth be told, the Celtics need Rondo -- even, say, a 75 percent Rondo -- if they're going to challenge for a title, particularly with Miami still holding a 2-1 series lead.
The No. 1 thing the Celtics stand to lose if Rondo is slowed by injury is his ability to push the ball in transition and create easy offense. According to Synergy Sports Technology, Boston scored on nine of 12 transition opportunities during Game 3, generating 21 points out of those situations. The Celtics desperately need Rondo at full-throttle to thrive in that category.
What's more, Boston has failed to reach 100 points in each of its last 13 postseason home games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, which is the longest such streak in franchise history (Boston hadn't gone more than seven games previously). That streak stands to grow without a healthy Rondo.
Rivers will be giving Rondo the eyeball test throughout Game 4 if he plays.
"If [Rondo] can play, how well can he play and does it help or hurt our team?" Rivers said when asked how he'll monitor Rondo's play. "We're not going to do anything, No. 1, that hurts the player. And we're not going to do anything to hurt the team. It might not be until game time, or even during the game, that we find that out."
Rivers kept it light when pressed on whether Rondo was still an upgrade from most of his point guard brethren, even if forced to play with one arm.
"I played with one hand my entire career," Rivers joked. "You can do it, let me tell you."
If Rondo is limited, that could mean a larger role for reserve guard Delonte West, who has picked up his play in this series, reaching double digits in points in all three games while shooting 55 percent (11-of-20) from the field, including 54.5 percent beyond the arc (6-of-11).
West suffered a left shoulder bruise early in the second quarter of Game 3 when he fouled Miami center Joel Anthony, who was trying to drive to the basket. Anthony crashed on top of West, and Boston's backup guard was clutching his shoulder at both ends of the court soon afterward.
Rivers expressed great concern about West after Saturday's game, but he woke up feeling so much better that the team scrapped plans to send him with Rondo for tests. West said after Game 3 that the injury was nothing that would keep him out, and he appears to be backing up his statement.
Even when Rondo was battling lower back pain during Game 2, the Celtics haven't missed a beat with West on the floor thanks to his solid defensive play and the second-unit scoring punch he's provided.
"When [Rondo] came back [in the fourth quarter of Game 3], I said, 'Well, I definitely have no excuse now,'" West said Saturday night.
And that may be the greatest asset gained by Boston out of Rondo's improbable Game 3 return. Suddenly, those little bumps and bruises don't seem so bad. It's hard to complain about a minor boo-boo when Rondo is getting bones rearranged in the locker room.
The Celtics obviously are not out of the woods yet. It's still a virtual must-win Monday, and the Celtics need more than a healthy Rondo and West. They need Shaquille O'Neal (right calf/Achilles) to bounce back after logging eight-plus minutes in his first game since April 3 (and only his second appearance on the court since Feb. 1). Rivers said O'Neal had expected soreness, but was optimistic he'd be back on the floor Monday, policing the paint and utilizing his size to detour Miami's shooters from getting too close to the rim.
Paul Pierce (left Achilles strain) and Ray Allen (chest bruise) got nicked up in Game 2, but were among the handful of Celtics players on the court for some light shooting before a film session Sunday, suggesting they're feeling fine.
Rivers appreciates that he doesn't have to worry about the effort of his players, even when injuries crop up.
"Players play," Rivers said. "We can all tell our war stories. Very few are able to do that in [Rondo's situation Saturday]. But they would try. I think a bigger group than you think would have tried. That's the part I always think a lot of people miss. They see the other stuff, but these guys love playing.
"They have more love and passion than people give them credit for. [Rondo's return] to me was another example of an NBA player not caring about his health and trying to help his team win."
Rivers thinks he's got a lot of guys like that in his locker room. He says he doesn't allow his players to use injuries as a crutch and won't if this series ultimately slips away.
The Celtics have guys who just want to play basketball. The line at the trainer's door on a quiet off day proved that Sunday.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.