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April 30, 2012
Rondo Suspension
For One Game, the Celtics can Survive

by Bradford Doolittle

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Eastern Conference guards were going down all over the place this weekend. Derrick Rose's season ended because of a heart-wrenching knee injury. The same happened to New York's Iman Shumpert. Now a Celtics team already dealing the absence of Ray Allen faces the specter of a Game Two without Rajon Rondo. Unlike the injuries, Rondo's absence is entirely self-induced. And if the suspension had been for more than one game, it could have had more of an impact on who gets out of the first round than even Chicago's loss of Rose. In that respect, the Celtics dodged a bullet.

Rondo had 20 points and 11 assists in Sunday's game. That's a nice outing, even before we provide any context to those numbers whatsoever. In raw points and assists, Rondo accounted for more than half of Boston's meager total of 74 points. When he was off the floor, the Celtics scored five points in five minutes and hit just 2 of 9 shots from the floor.

The Celtics were an unbalanced team entering the playoffs as it was, pairing the league's second-best defense with the 24th-ranked offense. That disparity was also true during the latter part of the season, when Boston rode its lockdown defense to a 24-10 finish. After the All-Star break, the Celtics ranked first in the league in defensive points per possession. The offense lagged in at 26th.

The Celtics lean heavily on Rondo for whatever offense they can muster. With Rondo on the floor, Boston averaged 101.5 points per 100 possessions during the regular season. That figure -- if it were the team total -- would have ranked 19th in the league. But with Rondo on the bench, the Celtics managed just 94.4 points per 100 possessions, a figure better only than the Bobcats who, you may have heard, were the NBA's worst team ever.

Those numbers reflect what happens when Rondo is replaced during a game, but what about when he doesn't play at all? That's when it gets interesting, but it certainly seems like Boston adapts well when Doc Rivers has a chance to prepare a Rondo-less game plan.

Rondo missed 13 games during the regular season, so there is a pretty good sample from which to measure how the Celtics adjusted to his absence. The Celtics went 8-5 in those games, with an offensive efficiency that was 1.7 points lower than the games in which Rondo appeared. However, they were five points better on defense. The winning percentage (.615) was actually better than when Rondo played (.585). The teams Boston beat weren't all pushovers, either: Washington, Orlando (three times), Indiana, Cleveland, Toronto and Miami

The surprising numbers continue: The assist rate for the Celtics was almost exactly the same in Rondo-less games, which is kind of surprising considering the guy led the league in dimes per game. It's true, though. Boston assisted on 53 percent of its field goals, with or without Rondo. The effective field-goal percentage was 50.1 percent when Rondo played, and 54.8 percent when he didn't. The only reason the Boston offense was better when Rondo played was because of turnovers and his offensive rebounding.

So the Celtics have proven that they can function without Rondo, but they are certainly better when he's on the floor. You'd like their chances to survive one game without him, but the problem is that Allen's ankle injury threatens to linger into Game Two as well. No Rondo, no Allen. There has to be a point when the Celtics just don't have enough firepower to get it done, right?

Well, the Celtics are a pretty resilient bunch. Boston played a total of 767 minutes this season without Allen or Rondo on the court. They outscored opponents by 35 points in those minutes. It's not overwhelming, but it's not the disaster scenario you'd imagine. Chances are, we'll see Mickael Pietrus move into the starting lineup, assuming Allen is unavailable.

In 58 regular-season minutes, the quintet of Pietrus, Avery Bradley, Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and Paul Pierce outscored opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions, with a sparkling defensive efficiency of 89.9 points per 100 possessions. Opponents shot just 37 percent against that group. The sample buckets are small, but the results are encouraging.

Depth could be an issue, but that was an Achilles' heel for Boston coming into the series anyway. Doc Rivers will still be able to go big at times, with Greg Stiemsma coming in to play the pivot, which he did effectively in the first game. Keyon Dooling and Sasha Pavlovic will be called upon to play bigger roles, which is when the Celtics could get into trouble. Expect Rivers to lean on 6-7 players heavily and hope that they can build up enough of a buffer to withstand a late-game run on tired legs.

There is a paper-thin margin between the Hawks and Celtics, and losing Rondo doesn't help Boston's cause. But by maintaining the snail's pace at which the first game was played and riding the available players for heavy minutes, the Celtics can survive the absence of their longtime backcourt duo, for one game anyway. The playoffs are a marathon and Rivers is going to need his full contingent at some point. But in the short term, the Hawks must come out as aggressive as they did on Sunday. Boston has shown they are going compete, no matter who is on the floor.

(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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