Rondo, Williams ready to face off in guard-driven league

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Rondo, Williams ready to face off in guard-driven league

WALTHAM, Mass. Elite point guard in Boston versus Elite point guard in Brooklyn, take two.

And ... action!

A sprained ankle injury kept Rajon Rondo off the floor when the Celtics played the Deron Williams-led Brooklyn Nets earlier this month.

Now this made-for-the-hardwood matchup shifts to the TD Garden on Wednesday when the C's - that includes a healthy Rondo - host the Nets.

And while both teams will do their part to keep the focus on their respective teams and not the individual point guard matchup, players of their stature can't run or hide from the hype.

That's especially true when you see more and more teams build their rosters around point guards - something that was unheard of during Doc Rivers' days as a player.

Rivers believes the shift has more to do with rule changes than anything else.

"I don't know if I could have played in the league with these rules, or I could have been great," Rivers said.

Rules regarding what's allowed defensively have made the NBA game one in which players who have the ball in their hands the most - usually point guards - will have a significant impact on games.

"It's brought the quick guard back in the league, the small guard back in the league," Rivers said.

The emphasis placed on guard play now is especially apparent in watching teams almost exclusively call pick-and-roll plays.

"I watched a game last night where they ran the pick-and-roll every single possession from the first quarter on and they won," Rivers said. "It was unbelievable. And they won because the other team couldn't stop it."

The C's to a large degree are no different than others along those lines.

Rookie Jared Sullinger possesses the kind of skills that mesh well with Rajon Rondo. Sullinger's soft hands provide Rondo a prime target to pass to in half court sets.

Boston also re-signed Chris Wilcox and Jeff Green, two players known for their ability to run the floor well which provides Rondo two prime targets in transition.

The Nets have clearly built their roster around Williams with additions such as Joe Johnson along with re-signing Kris Humphries.

"It's funny now, when you are drafting, if you have a first-round pick, a first pick and you have a choice between a big and a guard it was a no-brainer," Rivers said. "It's still a no-brainer if the big's going to be dominant. But if not, you have to give serious thought, if you think that point guard is going to be special, you have to think point guard."

Players like Courtney Lee recognize how the game has evolved to one in which perimeter guards rule the day.

"The game became a lot quicker," Lee said. "Back in the day, you see guys with a lot of height, a lot of guards posting up, like (Golden State Warriors head coach and former New York Knicks guard) Mark Jackson; big guard bringing the ball down with his back to the basket. You got guys like Rondo, Deron Williams and Chris Paul playing with speed. The game has changed a lot."

Blakely: Game 4 loss shows just how much Celtics miss Isaiah

Blakely: Game 4 loss shows just how much Celtics miss Isaiah

CLEVELAND --  Down the stretch in Game 4, the Celtics were desperate for someone, anyone, who could slow down Kyrie Irving.
 
But short of that, Boston could have used an offensive closer, too. You know, someone like Isaiah Thomas.

GAME 4: CAVS 112, CELTICS 99

 

The Celtics have relied on the two-time All-Star to carry much of the offensive burden this season, but he was almost always at his best in the fourth quarter.
 
A right hip injury knocked him out of this series after 1 1/2 games. Still, Boston managed to win Game 3 without him and, for large chunks of Tuesday night, seemed poised to beat the Cavs again on their home floor.
 
But as much as Game 4 was a reminder of just how special a talent Irving is (42 points, 21 in the third quarter when the game’s momentum swung in Cleveland's favor), it also provided a clue to the clueless who thought the Celtics were actually better without Isaiah Thomas.
 
Defensively?
 
Absolutely.
 
It’s no secret that teams go to great lengths to try and use his 5-foot-9 stature against him. And as we have seen, the deeper we get into the postseason the more trouble he and the Celtics seem to encounter from a defensive standpoint.
 
But just as we praise Irving for being such a special talent, Thomas has shown that he, too, has offensive gifts that, throughout this season, have left many fans, media and defenders befuddled as to how “the little fella” keeps coming up with one big play, one big shot after another.
 
But as we have learned, he has been dealing with a sore right hip injury for several weeks. The pain and discomfort eventually became too much to bear and so the Celtics did the right thing and shut him down.
 
Without him, the C's are still a good team that on any given night can knock off anyone, even the defending champs.
 
But as Game 4 reminded us, they need Thomas in order to be their best.
 
When Irving torched Boston’s entire defense with jumpers, ankle-breaking crossovers, Euro-step lay-ups and free throws, the Celtics had no one to turn to who could maybe, just maybe, go back at Irving at the other end of the floor.
 
That's what Thomas does that makes him such a special, unique talent in this league.
 
He can score in a variety of ways, with the best in the NBA.
 
We saw that this past season, when he led all players in the Eastern Conference in scoring with a 28.9 points-per-game average.
 
Boston’s excellent ball movement and high assist numbers are certainly important to the team’s success. But to make a deep and meaningful playoff run, you need one or two guys who can just go get buckets regardless of what the opponent does defensively.
 
That’s not Avery Bradley.
 
That’s not Al Horford.
 
That’s not Kelly Olynyk.
 
You can search, poke and prod this roster all you want, and you'll come up empty when it comes to finding a player like that . . . other than Isaiah Thomas.
 
The fact the Celtics were able to avoid getting swept is a victory of sorts in itself. Boston’s coaching staff, as well as the front office, has repeatedly said that as talented as their team is, they aren’t on the same level of the defending champion Cavaliers.
 
And yet here we are four games into this series and the Celtics are basically a bad half of basketball away from being tied, 2-2.
 
It says a lot about their mental toughness, their ability to handle and navigate past adversity to give themselves a chance to be competitive against any team -- including the Cavs.
 
But their success this season has always been about the collective group, regardless of how many late-game shots Isaiah Thomas knocks down.
 
And while he has his shortcomings defensively, not having him available is going to hurt them in those late-game moments when they need a closer. It’s not a coincidence the Celtics were just 2-4 when he didn’t play during the regular season.
 
So as cool as it was for them to win Game 3 without Thomas, he’s still the straw that stirs the Celtics emotionally, bringing them to levels few think they're capable of reaching.
 
They were able to get by for one night without him, but remember this: It took Marcus Smart having an Isaiah Thomas-like game of 27 points and seven made 3’s, for them to win.
 
No one did anything remotely close to that Tuesday night.
 
They looked like the Isaiah Thomas-less Celtics, which is a look they don’t need this time of year.
 
Because that look is so not about winning.