MILWAUKEE – The pride palpable within the locker room, these confident Boston Celtics will never concede anything. Not the Atlantic Division or the Eastern Conference, and especially not the everlasting impact of Ray Allen’s departure to the Miami Heat. Doc Rivers knows this is a make or miss NBA, and never has that been clearer for the Celtics than life after losing the best long-range shooter of his generation.
For five seasons, Allen gave the Celtics his outside presence, floor spacing, and mostly his ability to relieve so much of the pressure off Paul Pierce in closing moments. However much Allen’s role and input deteriorated over the past few seasons, he was one gem of a decoy – that pure stroke now transforming the Heat and elevating them to the best three-point shooting team, from 35.9 percent a season ago to 43 percent this year.
The Celtics swore they got exactly what they wanted throughout a 91-88 loss to the Bucks on Saturday night, the big board in their locker room at the Bradley Center reading that they’d just won all these hustle categories such as deflections and rebounding. And they did get a lot: A 17-0 lead to start the game, 11-for-32 shooting out of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings and quality look after quality look in the second half. But still, Larry Sanders – whom Rivers gushed over again – was relentless all night long and arguably had a better game than his last, a triple-double, dropping 18 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks.
With Rajon Rondo missing the second game of his two-game suspension, Jason Terry again started at point guard, and he went for 15 points and 11 assists but had a rough shooting effort that was headlined by missing seven of nine three-point shots. All along, the Celtics have made sure not to burden Terry to be Allen’s replacement. In truth, Terry can do much more with the ball in his hands, far more penetration and playmaking off the dribble. But for the most part, either Pierce or Rondo will have the ball to create late in games, leaving Terry as the spot-up shooter he hasn’t thrived as – nor has Courtney Lee – and the spot-up sniper Boston so desperately misses in Allen.
As one longtime advance scout and former assistant coach said, “It’s obvious they miss Allen. His shooting, his scoring. Terry is not the consistent shooter Ray was.”
Terry missed two clutch shots from beyond the arc within the last 12 seconds Saturday, one three-pointer as the Celtics trailed by two points and another down three that would have tied the game at the buzzer. Both attempts looked smooth leaving his hand, but they caromed off the rim and out. He continues to play out of position and out of his comfort role – starting rather than coming off the bench – and still Rivers has showed trust in him in critical times.
Those signature clutch moments for Terry haven’t come as frequently yet as they did in Dallas. But remember, Terry was used to handling the ball – especially while running pick-and-rolls – to search for the Mavericks’ offense. He had freedom to dance and dribble around with it. That isn’t how Rivers envisioned Terry functioning in the Celtics’ offense, where he’s often a standstill, one-to-two-dribble shooter. In this aspect, Allen probably didn’t get enough credit for cozying into his role on the Celtics.
Everyone saw Terry come off screens at the top of the key and beautifully drain jumpers over Heat players – namely LeBron James – in the 2011 Finals. He’s proved he has such a terrific rhythm with the ball in hand, a great calmness to him.
But how about the catch-and-shoot shots? How about when he needs to shoot long flat-footed jumpers like he had to twice late in Saturday’s game and like Allen had done for years with this Boston team? Yes, it will take some time to adjust, and give Terry this much: He knows it, and he’s accountable.
“I’ll take this one on me, no problem,” Terry said. “But I’ll bet y’all I’ll battle back and fight back next [game].”
Now, the Celtics will get Rondo back, a return that players within the locker room can’t wait for. They’ve grown reliant on Rondo not only to generate offense through points and passes, but also to direct players where they need to be each time down the floor.
“He’s a leader and would’ve gotten us into the positions that we needed to be in [Saturday],” Jeff Green admitted.
Rondo will come back on Wednesday, and his return coincides with Green’s best two-game stretch of the season: 19 points and four steals Friday and 18 points and six rebounds Saturday.
The Celtics (9-8) are behind Brooklyn, New York and Philadelphia for now, but in the end they’ll fight for the Atlantic Division crown and homecourt advantage. They’re a proud team, never conceding any sign of weakness. It’s always going to be a make-or-miss league, Rivers repeated late Saturday, and the void left in these Celtics by losing the greatest shooter of his era in Allen is becoming more and more revealing.