BOSTON -- Much of the spotlight following Boston Celtics' 99-81 triumph over the Sacramento Kings will fall on how the Rajon Rondo-less Celtics shots 53.4 percent from the floor, put six players in double figures and used a lights-out second quarter to emerge with a quality triumph in the first honest-to-goodness game since their star point guard was diagnosed with a season-ending ACL tear.
But here's the catch: The Kings are a brutal defensive team and Boston shouldn't get overly excited about their offensive exploits (even if the second quarter, which featured Boston hitting its first 14 shots, was a thing of sheer beauty). It won't always be this easy to light up the scoreboard.
The more impressive aspect of Wednesday's win: The newly minted front-line guard combination of Avery Bradley and Courtney Lee was unrelenting, pestering Sacramento's guards and fueling Boston's offense by pushing the ball the other way. The duo helped the Celtics limit the Kings to 39.2 percent shooting overall and force 19 turnovers (that led to a whopping 27 points).
Zoom in closer and the impact of the Lee/Bradley combo becomes clearer.
Lee and Bradley shared the floor for 26 minutes on Wednesday -- the team's most-used two-man combo, according to NBA.com lineup data -- and the Kings shot just 36.6 percent from the field. Boston's defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) was a glossy 71.5 when the Lee/Bradley combo was on the floor (well below Boston's defensive rating of 87.6 for the game and 100.1 for the season).
Considering how the Kings hung 118 points on Boston in Sacramento last month and relentlessly attacked a backcourt that (1) was missing Bradley (shoulder rehab) and (2) featured a hobbled Rondo (hip), the potential displayed by Boston's newlook guard pairing is the most encouraging aspect of a win over a subpar opponent.
"Defense wins games," Bradley said. "Me and Courtney are going to bring it on the defensive end every single game. It's going to be hard on our opponents."
Rondo, for all his talents, including the potential to be a real pest while freelancing on defense, had struggled at times to be a consistent stopper this season at that end of the floor. While Lee has been less than perfect while acclimating to Boston's help system, he's a bigger body who pairs well with Bradley and can help hound the opposition.
Maybe that's why the two have taken to the moniker "The Pitbulls." Even before Wednesday's games, Lee was talking up their potential.
"Me and [Bradley] both out there, I mean, the [opposing] 1 and the 2 is not going to be safe bringing the ball up, because we're going to try to pressure them and turn them a lot and try to wear them down," Lee said. "So you can look at it that way. You've got two guys that like to play defense out there at the 1 and 2, so we can definitely upgrade the defensive pressure."
Bottle that with defensive-minded veterans such as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and that's a daunting unit for opponents, regardless of the other player on the floor. Paired with Brandon Bass, who was playing elevated minutes with Jared Sullinger battling back spasms, that five-man unit played a team-high 10 minutes together on Wednesday and posted a defensive rating of a measly 70.4. Sacramento turned the ball over a ridiculous 35.2 percent of possessions against that grouping.
We're dealing with small sample sizes against a team that's 17-30, but there's a lot to be encouraged by.
For the season, the Bradley/Lee combo has shared the floor for 65 total minutes. Their overall defensive rating is 96.2, still below the team average, but not quite to the level displayed on Wednesday.
While the offense surely didn't struggle against the Kings (though the overall numbers were surely aided by the second-quarter outburst), there's a belief that the loss of Rondo could cause Boston's output to dip even below the mediocre numbers it has posted this season.
When the Celtics look at the tape of Wednesday's win, they should hone in on the defensive intensity that generated multiple stops and allowed the team to get easier baskets pushing the ball in transition. For a team without a pure ball-handler to lean on in Rondo's absence, it's the defense that will dictate their overall success.
"[Wednesday's win was] definitely a blueprint," Bradley said. "Even our defense, I feel like there's a different level we can take it to. We can even play better than what we played tonight."
Don't tell that to the Kings. Sacramento committed seven turnovers in the second quarter alone, allowing Boston to generate 13 of its 37 points off giveaways.
And it might have been Bradley's chase-down block of childhood friend Isaiah Thomas that highlighted Boston's defensive effort. Whatever Boston lost in razzle dazzle on offense with Rondo, they are trying to make up with grit and hustle on the defensive end.
Noted Garnett: "The pressure that Courtney and Avery put on the guards, it really set the tone."
For the game. Maybe for the rest of the season.