It took the loss of their best player to save the Boston Celtics' season.
No, the Celtics are not better without Rajon Rondo, but a team left queasy by its roller-coaster play over the first half of the 2012-13 season desperately needed to be shaken from its rut. Boston went screaming to its lowest point of that relentless ride on Jan. 25 in Atlanta, fumbling away a 27-point lead as the Atlanta Hawks rallied for a double-overtime triumph that pushed the Celtics three games under .500.
Rondo, while unaware at the time, tore his right ACL that same night. The diagnosis would reach Celtics coach Doc Rivers two days later before a Sunday showdown with the East-leading Miami Heat.
As the old adage goes, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you can rise up.
The Celtics would be greeted with even more adversity over the next three weeks, losing rookie Jared Sullinger (back) and Leandro Barbosa (left ACL) as their roster was thinned to 10 available bodies. And yet the Celtics arrive at the All-Star break this weekend winners of eight of their last nine since Rondo went down and playing their most inspired ball of the season.
On the surface it makes no sense. For three weeks, pundits have tried in vain to identify why the Celtics have played their best basketball without their best player.
It's really quite simple: They had no choice.
There could be no more excuses. If they were to salvage the season -- and save their locker room from a monster overhaul -- the Celtics needed every remaining body to help pick the team up, and that's exactly what has happened.
As Kevin Garnett put it, "Any time something catches on fire, you don't think to put the fire out. Some people tend to think to jump the ship."
Most of the life vests had already been claimed by the time Rondo went down. The Celtics' bandwagon was practically vacant by the time Sullinger and Barbosa joined him on the shelf. But that put Boston in the sort of position it has thrived in over recent seasons. Those that kicked dirt on the Celtics -- even as coach Doc Rivers cautioned not to -- only fueled a locker room led by veterans too proud to let their house burn down around them (even if warmer climates and stronger championship opportunities likely awaited those willing to be shipped out of town).
Underperformers from the first half of the season -- role players like Jeff Green, Jason Terry and Courtney Lee -- elevated their play while Garnett and captain Paul Pierce turned back the clock and took on a greater burden.
Boston ripped off a seven-game winning streak that culminated with Garnett and Pierce carrying the team to a triple-overtime win over the Nuggets. It was a game Boston had no business winning (at least after regulation). Pierce, age 35, played 54 minutes and finished three seconds shy of his career high; Garnett, age 36, logged 47 minutes, the most during his Boston tenure.
Not surprisingly, the winning streak ended in Charlotte the next night with the Celtics completely out of gas. It really didn't matter. They bounced back with another gritty (read: super super ugly) win over the Bulls to close out the pre-All-Star portion of their schedule on Wednesday.
The Celtics stand at 28-24 -- a season-high four games over .500 -- and a manageable five games back of the Atlantic Division-leading New York Knicks for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Celtics still have some monster hills to climb because of a depleted roster and inconsistent play before the injury bug treated them like the salad bar at a York Steakhouse. But the only certainty at the NBA's February vacation: You simply cannot write this team off.
"We control our own destiny, it's just that we put ourselves here as far as this position where we are right now," said Garnett. "So if we are going to ... complain, it's going to be us, just look at ourselves in the mirror.
"These last two or three weeks, we've gotten better. I know everybody thought we were going to tank when Rondo and Sully went out, but we've been fighting for those guys and for ourselves. That's all you can ask, for your group of guys to go out and give everything they have. Play the right way, follow the game plan and see what happens. I'll take that and be pleased. I'm not pleased with where we are and where we could be. But with everything that's been involved with this year, I'll take it."
Rivers has quietly been a rock for this team. He shielded his players from the potentially crippling Rondo injury news before the Heat game, then was able to use that win without Rondo to show them this team can still be competitive.
He defiantly told reporters after that game to avoid writing this team's obituary. Even he probably didn't know how his team would respond to the newfound adversity, but he has learned a tremendous amount about the guys in his locker room over the last nine games.
"I think we've been forced to be [a resilient] group," Rivers said during his weekly appearance on Boston sports radio WEEI on Friday. "I don't know if we were that before the injuries, but we are now."
It's impossible to know how the season would have played out otherwise. A change was certainly needed and, had Boston's bodies remained upright, you can't help but wonder if that shakeup would have come in the form of a trade. Heck, Rivers had suggested he was willing to ship out players after a head-shaking loss in Detroit three games before Rondo was injured.
Now, Boston doesn't have enough healthy bodies to maneuver much at the approaching deadline. Rivers and Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge seem resigned to turn over every rock from here to the China League and back in search of the best available ball handler and big man to fill out the roster on minimum-contract deals (that's the most hard-capped Boston can afford as it teeters near the luxury-tax apron).
The Celtics need some bodies, but they are ready to soldier on with the guys they've got.
"We're very resilient," said Terry. "If you look at our core group of veteran guys, we've been through a lot of basketball here in this league and what it does is it filters down to your younger guys and I think everyone has bought in. It starts with the coach, though. Coach Doc has never given up on us. He says our goal is still the same and we believe him. And so every night we go out there we want to play as hard as we possibly can for each other."
Echoed Pierce: "This team is tough. Mentally, you've got every reason to just be out of it each and every night -- use the injuries for an excuse, use the emotions, the fatigue, so many excuses are available for us. But somehow, some way we continue to fight through it, mentally. Doc is doing a great job just of keeping us focused, pushing us through, and that's why we're grinding out these wins."
Is it sustainable over the final 30 games and into the postseason? The Celtics are about to find out. But nothing brings out the best in them like a challenge.
Boston is not better without its All-Star point guard, but maybe, just maybe, the Celtics are better off. It could have been any of their key players who went down -- and it ultimately ended up being three of them -- but it provided the kick in the rear this team so desperately needed.
Now they've got something to play for. The only thing that's changed since Rondo went down is the motivation.
"There's no big secret or none of that," said Garnett. "We're just out here fighting."