The Celtics missed Rajon Rondo last night, and will continue to miss him as the playoffs approach

As the 4th quarter began last night, I just had that feeling. After six seasons of watching this Celtics team, I just knew that there was a classic 'gut-check road win' brewing. That Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were going to make all the right plays, Doc would draw up a big play or two in crunch time, and the Celtics would walk out of Portland with their first good road win of the Post-Rondo era. Part of it was the way Pierce and KG looked all night, you could see the determination from the very outset. The C's hadn't won a road game against a good team (despite Portland's sub .500 record, they are a legitimately talented NBA team) since the January 7th "Honey Nut Cheerios" win in New York City. It had been nearly two months since they had gone into a talented opponents house and knocked them off in front of their fans, and boy could you see that desperation in the play of Pierce and Garnett. Pierce went for 23 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds on 9-16 shooting, taking pride in winning his one-on-one battle with the talented Nicolas Batum. KG started slowly (2 for his first 7 shooting), but came on late, pouring in 20 points and 9 boards of his own. However their efforts were not enough, as Portland took the duo's best shot, and came out ahead, scoring the last six points on their way to a 92-86 victory.

This was one of the first times that we've seen the loss of Rajon Rondo come back to hurt the Celtics. In the NBA, role players can win you home games, and they can win you road games against inferior competition. However, against good teams on the road, and especially in the playoffs - the game changes. It slows down as crunch time begins, every possession becoming a life and death struggle between the teams. That's when stars shine. We saw it last night with Pierce and Garnett, they raised their level of play when the game mattered most, trying to pull their team to victory, because hell, that's what stars do. But they were one star short.

This Celtics team has gone an incredibly impressive 9-4 since Rondo went down with a torn ACL last month, winning games by out-efforting opponents on defense, getting the ball to one another in good positions on offense, and running hard in transition. Many fans have pointed out that the team is working harder, putting in a more consistent effort, night in, and night out, without Rondo in the line-up. And it's true. In many cases Rondo's effort and impact on the game was dictated by who the Celtics were playing, and how many people were watching on TV. Road game in Detroit: little energy, no tempo set, C's lose a game against inferior competition. Nationally televised game against the Heat: triple-double, fighting through screens on defense, Celtics win despite a talent disadvantage. This has made Rondo a pariah to many Celtics fans, and many members of the media; because after all - effort is the one thing you can control, and Rondo at times was seemingly not giving it.

What the Celtics found out last night (and in Denver for that matter), was that effort is not always good enough. To win these tight road games come playoff time, a team needs it's stars to shine bright, as role players revert to the mean. That's where Rondo came in. Since the 2009 playoffs (Rondo's coming out party), he has been one of the greatest players on Earth during the NBA's second season. The numbers:

66 games: 16.2 points, 10.2 assists, 6.8 rebounds, 2.1 steals

Those are Jason Kidd in his prime type numbers from Rondo, helping the Celtics win 7 playoff series over the 4 seasons.

Last year the Celtics pushed Miami to the limit in the Conference Finals largely because of Rondo's sheer brilliance, as he averaged an incredible 21 points, 11 assists, 7 boards and 2 steals per contest against the Heat. Numbers that compare to some of Magic Johnson's best playoff seasons.

While Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley and the rest of the Celtics reserves have played admirably in Rondo's absence, the bottom line is that they cannot replace the numbers, or the impact, that Rondo has when he is on. While fans may be frustrated by the fact that #9 doesn't turn it on every single night (again, a valid criticism), Rondo always raised his level of play in time for the playoffs, something that guys who are already giving 100% each and every night (Bradley, Lee, ect.), will be hard pressed to do.

Don't believe me, take a look at what Celtics boss Danny Ainge had to say about Rondo's playoff play during a recent interview.

I think Rondo was having a very good basketball year. I think he has been maturing on and off the court, I think his role as a leader is improving and I think he is a fantastic player. I mean the guy, he single-handedly carries us many nights and I don't see how people don't see that. The game against Chicago when we lost by one, he was unbelievable, I mean he was clearly the best player in the gym. When people say we're going to be better without Rondo or the team is going to be better without him, it's silly. He's a great, great player. He's proven that time and time again. The guy has been MVP of four or five series' over the last five years. Not just individual games here and there, triple doubles on national TV but he has been the best player in a series against LeBron James, he has been the best player in a series against Derrick Rose and he's been the best player in a three games of a Finals series. The guy has done too many good things.

I think we're going to have some ups and downs, guys are going to get an opportunity to play quickly but I think overall we are going to greatly miss Rondo.

Ainge is spot on here. What made the Celtics such a tough playoff team over the past few seasons (no they haven't won a title since 2008, but they are the only NBA team to win three playoff series as the 'road team' since 2010), is that they had three players who had the ability to raise their level of play in the post-season. Now they only have two. And last night we got a preview of how that might not be enough.

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