Paul Pierce has been around long enough to know what Rajon Rondo’s performance can mean for the aging Boston Celtics.
”The way he played tonight, we’re a pretty tough team to stop,” the Celtics’ captain said Sunday after Rondo recorded a triple-double with 32 points, 15 assists and 10 rebounds in a 95-91 victory over the Chicago Bulls, who were without star guard Derrick Rose.
Running the Celtics’ offense smoothly without having to worry about covering the reigning MVP Rose, Rondo helped Boston rebound from a miserable loss in Toronto on Friday.
”I just think he wanted to win,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said when asked if Rondo may have been extra motivated. ”I thought we played at a better pace today.”
Kevin Garnett added 13 points and 12 rebounds, reserve JaJuan Johnson had 12 points and Ray Allen 11 for the Celtics, who snapped a two-game skid. Rondo had season highs in both points and assists.
The win came after what Rivers called an ”awful” showing in an 86-74 loss at Toronto. Rivers was very frustrated after that game and spoke about how it was ”un-Celtic.”
”I knew they’d come out like that, coming off their last two games,” Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said. ”They were very aggressive. I thought they got some very easy baskets early, which gave them confidence.”
C.J. Watson, who started in Rose’s spot, scored 22 points for the Bulls, whose win streak ended at five in the finale of a 6-3 road trip. Carlos Boozer also scored 22 and pulled down seven rebounds, while Joakim Noah had 16 points and nine boards.
”We got out-competed,” Noah said.
Rose missed his second straight game with what Thibodeau called ”stiffness” in his back and is expected to see a specialist Monday after the team returns to Chicago. He originally suffered the injury earlier in the week and was limited in Wednesday’s win at New Orleans before missing Friday’s victory over Charlotte.
”I don’t know where it came from,” Rose said of the injury after the game.
Rondo seemed to roam free on offense for most of the game, driving the lane for easy baskets, taking open jumpers and setting up teammates. He had 28 points, nine assists and six rebounds entering the final quarter.
”Our energy wasn’t there,” Rose said. ”We didn’t pick up our energy to the full court.”
But that may not have stopped Rondo on Sunday.
”Oh man, he played great,” Johnson said. ”I don’t think anyone expects anything less from him. The way he played today, he’s a great player – obviously. Best point guard in the league, and he played great.”
Rondo declined to speak to the media after his stellar effort.
The Bulls trailed by 14 with just over 5 minutes to play, but they turned up the pressure defensively and made a late run, pulling to 91-88 on Luol Deng’s two free throws with 1:23 to go.
After a turnover by Pierce, Watson was short on a 3-point attempt and Rondo grabbed the rebound with 21.5 seconds to go. He was fouled and hit both free throws.
Watson missed the second of two free throws and Rondo grabbed his 10th rebound with 9.8 seconds on the clock.
”We just looked a little sluggish, came out a little slow,” Watson said.
The Bulls had closed the score to 72-68 early in the final quarter before Allen and Pierce nailed 3s during a 10-3 run that helped Boston take charge. Rondo had assists on both 3-pointers, driving the lane to collapse the defense before kicking the ball outside.
Rondo had fast-break alley-oop lobs for dunks on consecutive possessions to Johnson and Chris Wilcox that made it 86-72 midway through the fourth.
The Celtics had opened a 59-50 third-quarter edge on Rondo’s free throw before the Bulls scored eight of the next 10 points, closing the gap to three. But Boston improved its advantage to 72-66 after three on Rondo’s two free throws with 3.3 seconds left.
Boston held Chicago to 34 percent shooting in the first half and led 48-43 at intermission. The Bulls stayed close behind 11 offensive rebounds.
Part of the reason for Boston’s quick start may have been the poor showing in Toronto. It was just the third time in club history that the Celtics scored below 75 points and the first in 11 years.
NOTES: Boston was without F Brandon Bass and F/C Jermaine O’Neal. Rivers said Bass’ knee ”swelled up” after Friday’s game and that ”he’ll be out probably 10 days to two weeks.” Rivers said O’Neal had knee and shoulder injuries. … During his pregame press briefing, Rivers said his former assistant Thibodeau is somewhat like Patriots coach Bill Belichick because ”he works so hard and he expects everybody to work as hard as him, which is impossible.” Rivers recalled a story about how Thibodeau had two teams chasing him before helping persuade him to take the Chicago job. ”He actually had two jobs and I grabbed him by the shoulder and said, `Are you kidding me? You have a chance to coach Derrick Rose and you’re thinking about another job?’ Are you nuts? I actually said, `If it’s a penny to go there or $10 million to go to the other place, take the penny. In the long run you’ll be able to coach.”’