BOSTON -- The Celtics admit they're still very much a work in progress, as they continue to hunt for the on-court chemistry that was noticeably absent at times in each of their first three games of the season, two of which resulted in losses.
But beyond that, they're seeking a sense of balance between their three biggest stars in Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and the supporting cast, particularly the likes of Jason Terry, Jeff Green, Brandon Bass and Courtney Lee. Boston's bench has been outscored in each of the team's first three games, one of the more telling signs that things haven't yet come together for the reserves the way the Celtics were envisioning.
One would think the play of Rondo, Pierce and Garnett will determine how far this team makes it this season, but Boston is hoping the other guys will have a consistent say in that as well. Right now, with the reserves struggling to assimilate into a new system, the Celtics can't survive a poor game from one of the new Big Three, and those inside the locker room know that needs to change moving forward.
"If we can't win with [Garnett, Pierce and Rondo] off the floor, we just won't win, and I told our bench that," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "We're going to play the minutes that I'm giving them, and the bench are going to play the minutes that they should get, and they've got to do something or we won't win. It'll be that simple."
For now, though, as the team fights through this early-season turbulence, Rondo, Garnett and Pierce will have to shoulder a greater load, standing as three pillars keeping the frame intact while the adjoining pieces are assembled correctly. Though it won't mean fluctuations in playing time, it might mean a greater effort on the floor, as occurred in the Celtics' victory over the Washington Wizards last weekend, when the trio combined for more than half the team's points and rebounds.
Pierce hit what amounted to the winning shot with a little more than two minutes to play, Garnett was at the center of a host of defensive stops down the stretch, and Rondo contributed his usual double-double, with his penchant for getting others involved more critical than ever these days.
The presence of Pierce, Garnett and Rondo is just as important off the court, within the locker room and on the practice floor. In those areas, their roles are about exemplifying the positives of Rivers' system, keeping the team together, remaining patient during moments of adversity and establishing a team-first, defensive-minded culture that has to be molded to fit a roster chockful of new faces.
"Since I've been here, the culture has been to come in, bust your [butt], come in here, do your job, know your role, do your role to the fullest, accept your role and practice hard for two hours," Garnett said after Tuesday's practice. "We're not going to change that culture. Well, while I'm here, we're not going to change that culture. And when I'm gone, that's another story. But for right now, this is the way we are.
"I've always worried about the consistency of this team and where we are with some of our habits, and when we stay with those consistencies, we're hard as [expletive] to beat. When we get away from them, we're trash. It's as simple as that."
Garnett, Pierce and Rondo are all Celtics elder statesmen, not necessarily in age but in terms of their years with the franchise. They're the only three players left from the 2008 championship team and their collective understanding of the way things have to be done will help guide the current group through this transitional phase.
"They obviously have to, for a while, kind of carry the load. But minutes-wise, no. I think they understand that, really they do," Rivers said. "Off the court, they've just got to be the champions of what we're doing."
"We're leaning on those guys because they won a championship here," Jared Sullinger said. "So we're just trying to lean on them, try to understand our roles, and I think that slowly but surely, we're starting to develop."
The Celtics hope this is a temporary arrangement. This group of new players was brought in with the new Big Three in mind. Added depth at each of their positions was a bonus, particularly for Pierce and Garnett, while Rondo would benefit from the wealth of athleticism now surrounding him.
But for now, rather than the bench bolstering the Big Three, the Big Three has had to carry the bench. Though capable of carrying the greater weight now, a long season following this course could prove much more taxing for Pierce, Garnett and Rondo without the support of the reserves.
Terry led the charge of those believing things will turn around. Assuming things do change for the better, Rondo, Garnett and Pierce of course will still be counted on, but they'll simply be the drivers of a very balanced machine.
"We're leaning on them, but they're leaning on us too," Terry said. "The quicker we can get together, the better rhythm we're going to be in as a team. As much as we're leaning on them, they're leaning on us to pick up this system and kind of learn. We've been coming early, 15 minutes, the guys that are new, and running through our plays and getting down the terminology, and we've also been staying late, so hopefully that'll pay off."
"We know how to play and at this point it's about rhythm and understanding the lineups and the guys who are out there," Garnett said. "Doc's throwing a lot of different lineups out there, continuity and chemistry is something you have to get with those lineups, and we'll get that."