By Matt Jenkins
---- — BOSTON — A 71-69 victory over Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls last night at the TD Garden made it eight wins in nine games for the Boston Celtics since point guard Rajon Rondo tore his ACL.
This win made it eight reasons why Rondo detractors are gaining momentum with the notion that the Celtics just might be a better team without their all-star point guard.
Thibodeau, a Salem State graduate and former men’s basketball head coach at the school, is not riding that train of thought.
“It’s nonsense,” Thibodeau said bluntly before acknowledging that the Celtics are playing differently.
“That’s what’s smart. A smart team is going to do that. Whatever players you have involved, you have to determine what the strengths and weaknesses are. You can’t overlook all that Rondo’s done; he’s a big part of all the success they’ve had. Their strengths are different — and they’re playing to their strengths.”
Thibodeau knows the situation all too well. Having been an assistant in Boston for three years, he’s very familiar with the Celtics’ core. He’s also been living his own coaching life in Chicago without his star point guard, Derrick Rose.
Rose tore his ACL in Game 1 of the Bulls’ first round series with the Philadelphia 76ers last year. Having already scored 23 points in the game, Rose injured the knee while trying to leap off his left foot. The top-seeded Bulls hung on to win that game, but lost the series in six games to the 8th-seeded Sixers.
Since Rose’s injury the Bulls have gone 31-26 overall, and will carry a 30-22 record into this weekend’s All-Star break.
“(Injuries) are part of the game, and you have to navigate around that,” Thibodeau said. “In Boston, they went through it with Kevin (Garnett) in his second year, so the only way around it is to play to your strengths ... and the good teams figure it out. For a team like the Celtics and the guys they have, they know they have to play really hard.”
That’s the exact point Thibodeau has hammered home with his team. And that’s why the Bulls, who will in all likelihood get Rose back during the second half of the season, are still in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.
Not bad for a coach whose only other head coaching position was at Salem State.
Thibodeau served as the Vikings head basketball coach for one year (in 1984) after spending three seasons as an assistant at his alma mater. He then spent four years on the staff at Harvard before beginning his NBA coaching career, which has included stops as an assistant in Minnesota, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York, Houston and Boston.
It was here with the Celtics where he truly started getting widespread recognition for being a defensive mastermind. His work ethic and attention to detail was a critical factor in the Celtics winning the NBA Championship over the favored Los Angeles Lakers in six games in 2008.
Thibodeau’s impressive defensive reputation was either on display again here last night, or the Bulls and Celtics were just looking ahead to the All-Star break. The Bulls held the Celtics to just 11 second-quarter points and followed that by giving up only eight points in the third quarter.
Boston shot just 20 percent combined in the second and third quarters. The Celtics’ 19 total points in those two quarters were their fewest in two consecutive quarters in the shot clock era.
Even though Thibodeau’s Bulls remain a strong defensive team and have played well in Rose’s absence, he knows there’s still a long way to go.
“We really haven’t done anything. Our road is not going to get easier; it’s gonna get a lot tougher,” Thibodeau said.
“We have to come with a greater fight to scratch out wins. We’re shorthanded. We’ve been down multiple starters for a good part of our season, the entire season. So (if) we exhale, relax, we’re in trouble.”
Thibodeau wasn’t the only person with local connections on the parquet last night.
Beverly’s Peter Frates, who was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) last March, was honored both before the game and during a timeout in the second quarter as part of the Celtics’ “Heroes Among Us” program.
Frates, the former St. John’s Prep and Boston College baseball star, was taken out to center court before the game to meet with the game’s officials and Avery Bradley of the Celtics and Carlos Boozer of the Bulls.
He returned to center court in the second quarter, getting pushed out in a wheelchair before standing up while holding an ‘I Am a Celtic’ towel. He received a tremendous ovation from the crowd.