For Celtics, timing is everything

The Boston Celtics elected to err on the side of caution Thursday night, keeping point guard Rajon Rondo and his sprained right ankle on the bench during a 102-97 loss to the Brooklyn Nets.

The natural inclination, on the heels of a tough loss, is to wonder if Rondo could have made the difference in the end result. But by not taking any chance with Rondo's health, the Celtics are sticking with a philosophy that coach Doc Rivers has been more disciplined in maintaining in recent seasons -- not losing sight of the long-term goal for a short-term gain.

Not only have the Celtics treaded carefully with injuries in recent seasons, but Rivers seems as hell-bent as ever this season to limit the minutes for veterans Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce. His statement was pretty clear on Thursday: You can't win a championship in November.

Garnett is averaging 30.1 minutes per game through nine contests, his lowest average since coming back from knee surgery during the 2009-10 campaign (29.9 minutes per game).

Oh sure, Rivers cheats every now and then. He splurged when he utilized Garnett for the entire fourth quarter in Wednesday's win over the Utah Jazz, blowing up a plan to limit him to 25 minutes of the first night of a back-to-back.

But Rivers turned around Thursday and kept Garnett to 29:53 of floor time (limiting him early to lean on him hard late), even against an opponent that obliterated Boston on the glass in the first half. Rivers could have easily run Garnett into the ground, but winning game No. 9 isn't nearly as important as game No. 90.

"I think he realizes he has to [be careful]," Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge said Thursday during his weekly appearance on Boston sports radio WEEI (93.7 FM). "Our motto over the last handful of years -- and Doc has done a good job of it -- is to win playoff games. Yeah, we want to win every game that we go out and play, but you can't make sacrifices because there's a game the next night and a game the next night, and they do add up.

"Doc has been excellent with KG over the last few years and has been very disciplined in how he uses his substitutions. And now we're starting to see that with Paul a little bit, too. Those guys, we can't win without them, and them being healthy, and our ultimate goal is to win a championship. So [Rivers] has to do it that way, and he's been great at it."

Pierce is actually up a little more than a half-minute from last season, playing 34.6 minutes per game this season, but remember that he was coming off an Achilles injury at the start of last season and minutes were driven down by the hectic game-heavy lockout schedule.

Rondo led the league in minutes early this season, logging 40-plus over Boston's first five games of the year, but has been reeled back in. Rivers determined quickly that, even at age 26, Rondo needed to play in the high 30s in order to maximize his on-court efficiency, allowing him to go full throttle and not attempt to conserve energy.

Maybe not surprisingly, the Celtics won three straight games when Rondo dipped below 40 minutes. When the likes of San Antonio and Oklahoma City -- two Western Conference powers -- roll through Boston next week, Rivers will be tempted to push Rondo's minutes higher, assuming he's healthy enough to do so. But Rivers understands that over the course of an 82-game season, shaving a few minutes can go a long way.

When Boston ran out of gas during the 2010 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, that point was only hammered home.

In order to defray the workload this season, Boston revamped its supporting cast. There have been early-season growing pains as those new faces (and even familiar ones like Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox) get acclimated and identify their roles.

The Celtics are hopeful that when those players get comfortable and their natural talents take over, it will only help Rivers drive minutes down across the board. Jeff Green, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry have all battled inconsistent play over the first nine games, but we've seen glimpses of potential from each.

It's on Rivers to get that consistently, particularly if he wants to save the legs of KG, Pierce and Rondo. Even before Thursday's loss in Brooklyn, Ainge admitted the Celtics had considerable strides to make to reach that potential.

"I don't think we're there yet -- as a matter of fact, I don't think we're really even close yet," he said. Later Ainge added, "I think they know [players are not performing to potential], they feel that this team has a chance to really improve from where we are. We're scrapping out wins, but we're not playing our best basketball. I feel like we will get there. We need to get everybody on the same page, and figure out who plays best with whom, and I think we're getting there."

If the Celtics have learned anything over the past couple seasons, it's that prime playoff positioning is helpful but it's not the be-all and end-all. During the 2010-11 season, the Celtics were beset with injuries and endured a second-round playoff exit. Last season, they clawed their way to the fourth seed (opening the playoffs on the road, no less), but a healthy roster and a team playing its most inspired ball of the season allowed Boston to march within a game of the NBA Finals.

Losses like Thursday's in Brooklyn are aggravating for players and fans alike. The Celtics want to win those games, but Rivers isn't going to sacrifice the long-term goal to do so.

The Celtics believe that winter frustrations give them a better chance at summer celebrations.