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Monday, February 4, 2013
Can't ignore C's resurgence

By Peter May
ESPNBoston.com

The streak will end, maybe as soon as Wednesday night in Toronto. That will mark the first time the New Normal Celtics have to play on the road. Then again ... who would have them where they are now -- four straight victories bookended by certifiable big W's -- after learning eight days ago that Rajon Rondo will miss the rest of the season?

Then again, go back to a week ago Sunday. The Heat were in town, with old friend Ray Allen making his first Boston appearance since his defection to the Voldemorts of the NBA. The Celtics had lost six straight. Jeff Green was living up to his nickname (Mr. October). Jason Terry looked more like a barnstorming biplane than a jet. Courtney Lee looked utterly lost.

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Are the Celtics actually better without Rajon Rondo?

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And, oh yes, the Celtics' record was 20-23, including an 18-20 mark in the games Rondo played. That did not include, naturally, the three games he missed due to league-imposed suspensions, two for his dustup with Kris Humphries and one for his baby-bumping of referee Rodney Mott in Atlanta.

This was supposed to be Rondo's breakout season, not only in terms of stats and achievements, but also in terms of leadership and overall command. He was anointed the team leader in October. He was given an extra-long leash by coach Doc Rivers. His ultra-strong personality would now be even more of a factor on and off the court.

The Celtics were quite willing to live with that. Rondo was an All-Star, a difference-maker, a unique talent. But in the 38 games that Rondo played, what did the Celtics get? They got Rondo chasing a silly assists mark over the first 15 games, a chase that ended with his Humphries altercation. They got a Rondo who, according to one scout interviewed by the estimable Marc Stein, was "playing for steals and assists sometimes instead of making the winning play or the easier play or defending his guy like he should."

They got 20 losses in those 38 games. That's the statistic to focus on. The Celtics were a sub-.500 team. Now they're above water again at 24-23, winners of four straight, and it is impossible not to notice what is going on. The Celtics have become the team they were supposed to be.

So, do we even dare suggest that the Celtics might be, ahem, better without Rondo? At least this current group in this particular place and time? Four games, all at home, two against bad teams, may not be a representative sample. But on the other hand, it's hard to ignore what is going on. You can see it.

The New Normals are playing unselfishly; their first-half box score from Sunday's game against the Clippers was a keeper: 10 scorers, none in double figures, along with 14 assists for 20 baskets, 53 percent shooting and the forcing of 15 turnovers.

They are getting contributions across the board, especially from the heretofore underwhelming bench. Green, in particular, looks totally liberated. Terry seems to be trending more toward the player we all thought he was. Leandro Barbosa has resurfaced; some might say he has been exhumed.

"Those guys, you have to tip your hat to them,'' said Clippers guard Jamal Crawford. "They're missing their MVP, but they're stepping up and making plays and that's what you have to do."

Take a look at the chart showing the numbers of these four players before and after Rondo's injury.

True, the scoring numbers also reflect an increase in minutes played. But it's hard to ignore that with one exception (Lee's shooting percentage), the Fab Four have flourished in the post-Rondo world.

"They're a different team,'' observed Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro. "Other guys are stepping up and that's what it's about."

Maybe that's the operative word: different. They tried to play one way, with Rondo dominating the ball on offense, and it led to uneven results. No one has taken over the dominating role since Rondo left; three different players have led the team in assists over the last four games. Three different players have led the team in scoring over the last four games.

Asked about what he has seen over the last four games, Rivers wouldn't bite on the observation that the previously underachieving group looked like different players.

"Look, when a guy gets injured, you gotta move on,'' Rivers said. "Our guys knew before Rondo went down that we were not playing to our ability. But I thought we were starting to get it just before he went down. I don't pay attention to all that other stuff. I'll let the others deal with that."

So here we are. Eight days ago, the sky was falling. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge said he was worried. Trade machines all across the land went into circuit overload. Since then, the Celtics have beaten the defending champs and gotten payback for two brutal losses on their post-Christmas California trip.

This indeed is the new normal. So far, so good.