Rajon Rondo's absence is killing the Celtics

The run the Celtics went on following Rajon Rondo's season ending knee injury was phenomenal. Without Rondo there to handle 90% of the ball handling duties, the C's began turning the ball up court instantly following misses, instead of simply finding their safety valve and getting the ball into his hands no matter what. For a while it seemed as though the shackles were off of some of the Celtics role players as guys like Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley and Jason Terry all saw short term boosts to their productivity.

Fans and media who never bought into Rondo's game, or simply found him unlikeable, pointed out the change in style and increased effort level of the new look Celtics. And in the short term..they were right.

After a 20-23 start to the season (18-20 in games Rondo played) the Celtics took off immediately following Rondo's injury, winning 16 of their next 22 games. During this stretch Boston was fueled by ridiculous play from Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Without Rondo, Pierce became the team's lead distributor, averaging 18 points 7.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists over the 22 games, higher rebound and assist totals than he ever reached in his prime. Garnett on the other hand began taking more of the scoring load, averaging 15.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per game over this same time period, increasing his shot totals and usage percentage as the C's began to lean on him more.

With Pierce and KG throwing back the clock, and role players stepping up, the Celtics found incredible success. And then just as suddenly as it started..it stopped. Over the past 18 games, the Celtics have won just five times, being outscored 99.6-95.7 per game.

So why has the carriage turned back into the pumpkin as the season has gone along? Well there are two reasons really.

1. Pierce and KG are just too old for this

You probably don't need me to tell you that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are awesome, but just to refresh you—they are. In the absence of Rondo both players helped carry the C's for over a month, upping their averages across the board as the team went on their run. Unfortunately though, with Garnett closing in on his 37th birthday, and Pierce a few months away from turning 36, that was never a long term solution. Pierce and KG have all the heart in the world, but father time was never going to allow the two to carry a team for the duration of a season/playoff run. As we saw last post-season, the duo are plenty good enough to be the 2nd and 3rd best players on a championship caliber team.
Pierce and KG have given this team everything they have—but is it enough?
Unfortunately though, the guy who was the best player on the team that pushed Miami to Game 7 last season is watching games from the sideline in very nice suits, and not on the floor to help his team.

In his weekly appearance on WEEI (transcribed by ESPN Boston), Danny Ainge spoke about Rondo's play last season, and just how few players can take their games to that level.

"Well we've had an opportunity to play a lot of games without Rondo. But, listen, if you just look around, this has been going on for 30 years. It's no secret. Great players at this time really step it up and our guy that was our best player last year in the playoffs, a guy that had 44 at Miami, that got us to the position that we were, that has been the MVP of multiple playoff series over the last handful of years -- not just playoff games, but playoff series -- he's a guy that's certainly capable of being the best guy on the court on any given night. He's a terrific player and we certainly miss him. We've been saying that all year long."

All of the fans frustrated with Rondo's on-off switch during the regular season seem to forget just how fantastic he has been over the past few post-seasons, something that was quite clear in New York City earlier this week as the Celtics became the first team in the shot clock era to score 25 or fewer points in consecutive second halves. Effort is important, but skill is more important, which brings me to my next point.

2. You can't count on role players

When Rondo went down and the C's were winning, it was a very popular opinion that Bradley, Lee, Jeff Green and Terry's renaissance was something that the Celtics could bank on. With Rondo out, the group would see their usage rates sore, and their skill-sets would be fully maximized. However with the exception of Green (who appears to have taken the leap from role player to legitimate starting quality player) the rest of the group has seen their production fluctuate just as much without Rondo as they did with him. The bottom line is that as hard as guys like Bradley (on offense), Terry (at his age) and Lee play—they're just not as good as Rondo. The NBA season is long and grueling, and therefore there are plenty of nights when "out-efforting" opponents can help you scratch out wins, something we saw the Celtics do quite frequently during their 16-6 run. However when the playoffs start, everyone is trying all the time. Guys like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith start digging in on defense, something you don't see very often during the regular season, and when this happens the cream rises to the top. Effort players become nearly obsolete and talent players take over games. Rondo was a talent player, and now he's not there to make plays for his team.

With all of this said, I expect the Celtics to win tonight. After all the Garden will be buzzing and role players play much better at home. A perfect combination for the C's to get a win.

However as this series continues to evolve the Celtics will continue to feel the absence of Rondo hurt more and more. And unless Pierce, Garnett and Green throw this team on their collective backs..it's hard to see the C's winning 4 of the next 5 games.

P.S I said something similar when the Celtics were 9-4 post-Rondo, so this isn't me just kicking them while they're down

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