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How the Celtics played without Rajon Rondo

04.30.12 at 5:16 pm ET
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ATLANTA — On Jan. 18, Rajon Rondo fell hard on his wrist in a game against the Raptors and missed the next eight games. His injury couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Celtics, who were trying to dig themselves out of a 4-8 hole to start the season. Those fears appeared justified two days later when they struggled to score 71 points in a dreadful home loss to the Suns.

But over the next seven games, the Celtics found a winning formula. While Avery Bradley shifted into Rondo’s spot at the point, they actually ran their offense through Paul Pierce as a point forward.

Bradley would often bring the ball up the floor, hand off to Pierce and disappear to the corner, allowing Pierce and Brandon Bass to run pick and pops to their hearts content. Even with Rondo, the Celtics get most of their offense from the perimeter, and without their slashing guard they moved further out and attempted more shots from outside the paint.

The C’s won six of their next seven — the lone loss came in a fourth quarter collapse against the Cavs (the Kyrie Irving game) — and their offense actually functioned better than their average in four of those games in terms of points per possession. Pierce scored almost 23 points per game in those seven contests and handed out 54 assists. Bradley had a handful of standout games in that stretch, but mainly he kept his turnovers low and tried to minimize mistakes.

It was on defense where Bradley made his mark, decimating Orlando’s Jameer Nelson in one memorable outing and establishing himself as the best on-the-ball defensive guard in the league. Most importantly, he proved that he could handle the increased responsibility and playing time.

“We had a few games that Rondo wasn’€™t able to play that prepared me for situations like this,” Bradley said at the team’s practice at Georgia Tech on Monday.

Rondo was suspended for Tuesday’s Game 2 by the NBA after he bumped referee Marc Davis late in Game 1. That January stretch stands out as one of the few highlights of the first half of the Celtics’ season and offers a glimpse at what life without Rondo will entail for Game 2 of their playoff series with the Hawks.

Rondo missed two games in February after he was suspended for throwing the ball at referee Sean Wright during a game in Detroit. The Celtics were at arguably their low point with Kevin Garnett and Bass out of the lineup. Without Rondo, they were blown out by the Mavericks and Thunder just before the All-Star break.

In April, Rondo missed three games while recovering from back spasms and the Celtics beat the Magic (oddly, they beat Orlando all three times without Rondo) and the star-less Heat, while losing to the Hawks as Rondo, Pierce, Garnett, Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus rested.

In all, the Celtics went 8-5 without Rondo, an admirable record, to be sure. But the playoffs are a different beast and the Hawks have the personnel to exploit a Rondo-less backcourt.

In a late April game at the Garden, Rondo played 47 minutes — including all of the second half and overtime — because the Hawks were able to pressure Bradley in the backcourt with Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Teague. Afterward, Doc Rivers allowed that it was a problem and that he’d have to come up with a way to fix it. Rivers had Allen bring the ball up the court, but it’s looking doubtful that he’ll be ready to play in Game 2 and Rivers said he wouldn’t force the issue because of outside circumstances.

“If Ray’€™s not ready, he’€™s not ready,” Rivers said. “It’€™s one thing I won’€™t do. I will never do it. I don’€™t ever put a guy out if he ain’€™t ready. I just won’€™t put him on the floor. If Ray told me he could play tomorrow and [trainer] Eddie [Lacerte] said he didn’€™t think he could play, Ray would not play. That’€™s just the way it is. He said he felt a little better, but I don’€™t see it right now.”

If the Celtics are without Rondo and Allen, Rivers will have to get creative. Bradley will slide over to the point guard spot and it’s likely that Pietrus will join the starting lineup. That leaves a thin bench without one of its stalwarts and someone like Keyon Dooling or E’Twaun Moore will have to step up.

“We don’€™t pay just like five or six guys,” Rivers said. “We pay them to be ready. Keyon Dooling, [Sunday] night. Avery got in foul trouble, he was struggling. We went to Keyon, he came in and played great. Because he’€™s a pro. He was ready to play. If Rondo can’€™t play we’€™re going to need an extra starter. We’€™re going to need an extra guy off the bench.”

Bradley will also have to play better. He missed eight of his 12 shots in Game 1 and all five of his jump shots.

“He pressed,” Rivers said. “I thought he was looking for things. He was looking to shoot instead of cut. When your mind gets too active it usually hurts you. We joke, thinking hurts the team. In that case, it probably hurt Avery. He was thinking about what he wanted to do instead of just allowing the game to dictate what he should do.”

Still, the Celtics have confidence in Bradley. He may be young, but he carries himself with the calm resolve of a veteran.

“To expect him to walk on the floor and go for 30 … I was ready for whatever happened,” Rivers said. “He’€™s good, though. Avery’€™s a confident kid.”

Bradley may line up as the point guard, but expect a healthy dose of Pierce as the primary playmaker. He averaged more assists per 36 minutes than he has since the 2003-04 season and assisted on almost a quarter of his teammates’ made shots while he was on the floor. Pierce wouldn’t tip his hand, but that seems like the logical play for the Celtics.

“I really don’€™t go into a game saying this is what I got to do more,” Pierce said. “I told you all many times. I play within the flow of the game, try to give it what it needs, regardless of who’€™s out there. They needed more scoring from me last night. If Rondo’€™s not there then not only am I going to have to step up, but a number of guys are going to have to step up.”

Read More: 2012 Playoffs, Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo
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