As it turned out, the absence of Rajon Rondo wasn't the reason the Celtics lost to the Nets Thursday night. But with Rondo sidelined because of a sprained right ankle, there certainly was something missing as Boston never quite recovered from a lackluster first half.
"We can't wait until we get down to turn it on," the Celtics' Paul Pierce said after his team lost to the Nets, 102-97, at the Barclays Center. "Especially when we're down our All-Star, our point guard, our team leader."
Rondo landed awkwardly after a drive late in the third quarter of Wednesday's 98-83 win over the Jazz and didn't return to that game, but he still narrowly kept his streak of games with at least 10 assists alive.
After Celtics coach Doc Rivers saw Rondo walking gingerly Thursday morning at the team hotel, it was decided that Rondo wouldn't play in Thursday night's game.
"I was half-joking with our team, we're just going to go play basketball tonight," Rivers said. "We'll run a lot of motion stuff, try to keep LB as comfortable as possible. I think Jeff Green will run some point from the small forward spot. We'll just try to create the game as it goes, see what we can see and try to win a game."
After spotting the Nets a nine-point lead at the half, as well as allowing 15 offensive rebounds in the first half, the Celtics charged back to take the lead in the third quarter, mostly with Courtney Lee at the point. The energetic guard finished with 13 points and a team-high nine rebounds.
"Courtney just came out and played," Rivers said. "When he does that, he's a great player. We scored 97 points -- offense wasn't our problem tonight. Even at the half, we were shooting 54 percent and had 50 points. We didn't get stops."
Barbosa, who seemed out of place at the point at the start and was yanked by Rivers, found his scoring touch in the third quarter and finished with 17.
The Celtics play another set of back-to-back games this weekend, by which time Rondo could be healthy enough to return. The Celtics would like a full-game effort from the entire team to come back with him.
"It's a number of little things we talk about all year long -- execution, our defense down the stretch," Pierce said. "I'm sure this isn't going to be our only injury. We have no margin for error with Rondo out."
Nets coach Avery Johnson has plenty of respect for what Rondo brings to the court. "He really just dissects defenses, transition, he's seen every look defensively in the halfcourt," he said before learning that Rondo would not play. "I just don't think teams respect him enough, even with his 12-to-14-foot jump shot. A lot of teams, they just don't rotate to him at all. You've got to respect him. He's a much-improved offensive player, he's an All-Star, he plays like an All-Star every night.''