The Celtics might have one of the deepest benches in the NBA this season, but a bench doesn’t do a whole lot of good when it’s got more guys in street clothes than uniforms.
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The Celtics reached a new low on Thursday night at the TD Garden. They entered the contest against the Atlanta Hawks with only 10 players healthy and available for work. By halftime, they were down to nine after Von Wafer left the game with a sore back. They were tired, demoralized and severely shorthanded — and yet, like the 11 games prior, they won, 102-90.
"It was a gutsy win," said Paul Pierce, who scored 15 points and handed out 10 assists a night after hitting the game winner in New York. "It was a good win, given the circumstances — having guys out, a back-to-back. A lot of teams, even good teams, would make excuses to lay down, but we’re not that type of team."
The Celtics trailed for most of the first half, as youngsters Jeff Teague and Damien Wilkins staked the Hawks to an early lead. A Wilkins jumper with 8:18 left in the second quarter gave the Hawks a 35-28 lead, forcing a timeout from an exasperated Doc Rivers.
Already without Rajon Rondo, Shaquille O’Neal and a sizable chunk of their bench, the Celtics were also without rhythm or focus to that point.
Then something clicked.
"We just started grinding," Kevin Garnett said. "There’s nothing else to say. We said before the game that it’d be more mental than anything. I think everybody that’s playing is giving everything they have. In order for us to win these games, we’re just going to have to grind it out until we get our guys back. We just got the news about Rondo, and Shaq wasn’t available today. So, what are you going to do? You can quit, put your clothes on and go home, but that’s not the way we do things around here. We work."
The Celtics have been dealing with injuries all season. One guy goes down here, another there, but the sheer accumulation of health issues was really starting to get to them. With multiple starters missing in action for the first time, it was a whole new ballgame.
They’d played with Nate Robinson instead of Rondo before. Likewise with Semih Erden instead of Shaq.
"Offensively, we didn’t really have a great rhythm early in the game," Ray Allen said. "Rightfully so, with Nate just getting out there. Even a week ago when Rondo was out, it was different, because Shaq was out there and it gave us better rhythm with Nate. So today, it was different — we had to figure it out all over again, now with Nate and Semih out there. It took a while, but I think by the third or fourth quarter, we established our rhythm."
Indeed, the Celtics’ rhythm has been established for some time, having not lost since Nov. 21. As the injuries have piled up, the excuses haven’t. The reward: two days of rest before trying for No. 13 against Indiana on Sunday.