Heading toward Monday night, you know this is a statement game. Eighty-two games in a season (most seasons) and all are not created equal. Thirty-three games in and this is the first of four bumps with the suddenly mighty Knicks.
When you hear Rondo isn’t playing in tonight’s important match-up with the Knicks, you think….AGAIN? He bumped a ref AGAIN! In the waning moments of Saturday’s win against Atlanta, he bumped a ref? How does that happen? Doesn’t he get it? When will he understand how important he is to this team? When will he stop…and then you let the Celtics show you what they are made of. With or without their offensive centerpiece. With a growing sense of themselves and who they will become this season, the reset button Danny Ainge spoke of seems like it might actually exist. Bradley comes back and the tenor of the entire team changes. Maybe they just needed a unifying piece. Or maybe he’s that important in all the ways that don’t appear in a box score. You know he’s good, but is he that good?
One game down, three to go against the Knicks. How many times have we said it? The Celtics aren’t done. You want intestinal fortitude and selflessness, watch Avery Bradley get up in his defender’s grill, using his lower center of gravity, dug in like a lineman on the goal-line with his long arms swooping in every direction. You want will power, watch Jared Sullinger plant himself in the paint, and carve out space. You want unflinching determination, watch Kevin Garnett play defense. You want clutch, watch Paul Pierce isolate against last year’s Defensive player of the year, Tyson Chandler, watch Pierce take his sweet time with the shot clock ticking perilously close to its moment of expiration, yet he coolly dribbles, fakes, fakes a cross-over, knowing he has to step back and out of the reach of Chandler’s 7 foot-3-inch wingspan, before he finally takes that quick shuffle back and releases over Chandler’s outstretched fingers. The ball drops through.
The Celtics get the kind of beautifully gruesome, we’ll-be-here-for-the-long-haul road victory over the temporary leaders of the Atlantic Division, the swagger gone with every staggered step J.R. Smith takes to the sidelines, with every brick Carmelo tossed at the unkind iron. The one-man show was hounded and aggravated to the tune of a 6-for-26 shooting night (4 of 12 from distance, and a mere 2 of 14 from within the arc). First Paul George and David West found out. Then Josh Smith found out. Now, Carmelo has seen it again himself. This defense does not give in. Does not budge. You want the Atlantic Division, you’re going to have to pry this division out of some fierce Green hands.
Next up for the Celtics: five games at home (three weaker teams: Phoenix, New Orleans and Charlotte and two tougher match-ups: Chicago and Houston).
Next Celtics-Knicks game: Thursday, January 24th at the Garden on TNT.