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C's have uphill climb

Celtics' Success Without Rondo Could Be Fool's Gold

Everyone buried the Boston Celtics for the season when the stunning news was revealed during a January 27 game against the Miami Heat that Celtics All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo would miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.

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Yes, the Celtics managed to upset the Heat that day, but it was largely chalked up to the adrenaline of playing the champs. However, continuing to win without Rondo seemed unlikely as he essentially was the offense. Boston's Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are future Hall of Famers, but at their advanced age they struggle to get their shots without a point guard the quality of Rondo. He was averaging 13.7 points, an NBA-high 11.1 assists and 5.6 rebounds, and was voted a starter for the Eastern Conference All-Star team.

Coach Doc Rivers warned fans not to write the "obituary" of the Celtics when learning of Rondo's injury. It's a head coach's job to stay positive. Yet even the most ardent Celtics backers had to be pessimistic after Boston lost another player to a season-ending injury last week. Rookie Jared Sullinger underwent back surgery on Friday; back problems were a red flag on Sullinger out of Ohio State and why he slipped to No. 21 in the draft. The team says it knew the former All-American would need surgery on the back eventually.

Sullinger was terrific off the bench, averaging 6.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in just 19.8 minutes per game. His numbers went up when he was inserted into the starting lineup in January. Boston had outscored opponents by 42 points when Sullinger was on the court this season, the highest plus/minus on the team. Yes, even higher than Rondo.

Despite the double gut-punch, Boston (24-23) enters Wednesday's game at Toronto having won and covered four-straight games. It holds a comfortable three-game lead over No. 9 Philadelphia for the final playoff spot in the East. Boston remains 16/1 at the book to win the Eastern Conference and 30/1 to win the NBA title.

Should Celtics fans actually believe this is still a title contender because of a four-game winning streak? There are some warning signs. All four have come at home. The victory over the Heat was impressive, no doubt. Boston then routed Sacramento, but the Kings are one of the worst teams in the NBA. That was followed by a 13-point victory over the Orlando Magic, who probably are the worst team in the NBA and enter Wednesday on a 10-game losing streak. On Sunday, Boston beat the Los Angeles Clippers, but they have gone into a funk without their injured All-Star point guard, Chris Paul.

Boston has been playing more unselfishly without Rondo, with the team's offensive and defensive efficiency both much improved. The key bench players, Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, Jason Terry and Leandro Barbosa, all have significantly improved their scoring in the past four games. The Celtics also are forcing more turnovers (17.8 to 15.3) and scoring more points off them (21.9 ppg to 15.9) in the winning streak. Boston forced 21 L.A. turnovers Sunday and converted them into 33 points.

The Celtics have 10 games remaining this month and only three in Beantown. Boston is 7-14 on the road and 6-14-1 ATS. Five of the next seven games are against likely playoff teams. President of basketball operations Danny Ainge has two weeks before the NBA's trade deadline amid reports the Clippers have inquired about Garnett, who has a no-trade clause but a house outside L.A.

Does Ainge have too much loyalty to Garnett and Pierce to ship them away or will Ainge start the rebuilding now and add young players (Eric Bledsoe?) to surround Rondo and Sullinger when they return this fall? The next seven games likely will determine Ainge's direction.

Weekend Live Betting Schedule

Those Celtics will be offered on live play-by-play betting in Thursday night's TNT doubleheader opener at the Los Angeles Lakers in the first meeting of the season between the NBA's two most storied franchises. Boston then visits the Lakers on February 20, the night before the trade deadline. Kobe Bryant led the Lakers to a 2-0 mark against the Celtics last year with each game going down to the final minute.

Bulls-Nuggets is the nightcap game Thursday and also will have Live Betting. Chicago had a big-time rarity in Monday's game in that the Bulls scored triple-digit points at Indiana and lost. That snapped Chicago's 41-game win streak when scoring at least 100 points, which was tied for the longest streak in NBA history. The Bulls, who hope to have injured Joakim Noah back Thursday, have the NBA's fewest road losses, while the Nuggets are tied for the fewest defeats at home.
On Friday, the book offers Clippers at Heat and Bulls at Jazz. The Clips' lead over Golden State in the Pacific is dwindling without Paul. He had 16 points and 10 assists in L.A.'s 107-100 home win over Miami on November 14.

Saturday night, the live games are Nuggets at Cavaliers and Jazz at Kings. The weekend closes with Clippers-Knicks, Lakers-Heat and Spurs-Nets on Sunday. That's the end of the Lakers' season-high seven-game road trip. LeBron James is 12-6 in head-to-head matchups with Kobe.

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