Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Updated: January 22, 8:20 PM ET
Celtics roll with role reversal
By Chris Forsberg
BOSTON -- You can sorta envision the Celtics lounging around in their locker room before Wednesday's game against the Toronto Raptors, everyone starting at the scouting reports in silence and racking their brains for ideas on how to get the team back on track amid the worst losing streak of the Big Three era.
Suddenly, the captain's voice rings out.
"Hey, Rajon, you want to switch roles tonight?" says Paul Pierce.
"Word," replies Rajon Rondo.
OK, so it was probably a little more complicated than that, but Rondo admitted that something to that effect went down as Pierce, struggling to generate consistent offense as he works his way back into game shape after missing training camp with a heel injury, morphed into a Rondo-like facilitator and Rondo increased his scoring output.
Rondo converted 7-of-8 shots, all but one at the rim, and got to the charity stripe for a Pierce-like 11 attempts (connecting on seven) as part of a 21-point effort to spark the Celtics to a 96-73 triumph over the Raptors at TD Garden, snapping the team's five-game losing streak.
Pierce handed out seven assists, including four in the opening quarter, when the Celtics exploded out of the gates (a rarity this season), while pouring in 29 points and establishing a 15-point cushion.
"Paul kind of joked and told me, 'Let's switch roles tonight' -- he would make the plays and I'd just put it in the basket," said Rondo. "I got some wide-open looks at the rim, made some easy ones, made some tough ones. I was just trying to stay aggressive the entire night. I wanted to pick and choose my spots, and I think I did a good job with the pace."
About the only thing Rondo did a poor job of on this night was bracing himself for a nasty fall after being hammered by Toronto's Linas Kleiza on a baseline drive in the third quarter. Rondo stuck his right hand under his backside as he crashed to the court, enduring a right wrist injury that leaves him day-to-day moving forward.
Rondo actually lobbied to return, but the team sent him for X-rays (they were negative). He emerged to meet the media after the game rocking a stylish black fedora (one that would make Ben Roethlisberger blush) and coolly dismissed all concerns about the injury.
"I took a couple Advil and I'm sure I'll be OK," he said.
And, because of his efforts, maybe the Celtics will be, too.
Winless for two weeks, panic meters were off the charts. So much so that speculation ran wild Wednesday about whether Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge would eventually entertain trade proposals for Pierce.
Rondo chuckled a bit when asked about having Pierce's name come up in trade rumors. You want to talk about swapping roles? Rondo politely pointed out how just last month his own name was the center of all sorts of potential trade chatter.
Pierce declined media requests after Wednesday's game, delivering one final assist for Rondo to finish as he disappeared into the trainer's room, where Ainge was making a postgame visit to check on Rondo.
Pierce is still struggling with his offensive rhythm, missing seven of the 10 shots he hoisted Wednesday and finishing with eight points. Sensing his own struggles, Pierce adjusted his game to better aid his team until his conditioning catches up.
"It was funny, you look at the stats at halftime, Rondo had  points, and then Paul had six assists and Rondo had none," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "And so it was really interesting. But the ball movement was terrific."
Given their recent struggles and an acknowledgment that they are not where they want to be physically, the Celtics are reinventing themselves a bit in order to turn things around. Pierce has always been a master at picking up certain areas of his game to aid where the team might be lacking, but working in tandem with Rondo, he helped Boston put together exactly the offensive start this team has so desperately craved.
It was enough to end the night with Gino gyrating on the JumboTron -- the clearest sign of all that all went well.
For sure, there's still work to do, but the Celtics will settle for baby steps. As Rondo cracked, "This is our second-longest winning streak of the year. It's a positive vibe right here in our locker room, and we want to build on this one win."
Rondo didn't actually pick up his first assist until 6:01 of the third quarter Wednesday night, feeding Brandon Bass for a jumper. He got a second dime a few minutes later, feeding Ray Allen for a 3-pointer and a 22-point cushion.
He was out of the game soon after, the result of Linas Kleiza' flagrant foul, but Rondo's effort is exactly what the Celtics need to carry them through.
"You want him to be aggressive most nights," said Rivers. "I said that about a week ago -- his assists are going to happen because he's a great passer. And tonight it was just one of those nights: He was basically just scoring; wasn't getting assists. But it was good for the team."
And a good reminder of Rivers' familiar motto that, as Rondo goes, so go the Celtics. That's part of the reason that everyone, Rivers included, was holding their breath when Rondo crashed to the floor in the third quarter.
But he's fine. And, for at least one night, so are the Celtics. Maybe Rondo summed it up best when he noted, "We needed a night like this."
|Rajon Rondo got off to a strong start, scoring 13 1st-quarter points on 5-of-5 shooting.|
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.