The Boston Celtics are the embodiment of the "next man up" idea.
And right now, they have to be. Since losing All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo for the season, Boston is 10-4. When it was released that Rondo tore his ACL, a whole lot of air went out of the Celtics' season. They weren't playing well by any means, but with him on the floor, there was always the chance for something magical.
Over that 14-game stretch, Boston has also lost Jared Sullinger (back) and Leandro Barbosa (ACL) for the season. At the time, Sullinger appeared poised to take over the starting power forward role, while Barbosa had seen a massive usage increase after Rondo's injury.
Now they are 30-27, coming off a 2-3 road trip to the West Coast. They are just a small win-streak away from easily elevating to even the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference. The Atlanta Hawks have three games on the No. 7 Celtics.
They'll get some rest here, with one game over the next seven days. This will be much needed, with a very tough slate coming up to start March. That includes important conference games against the Hawks and Indiana Pacers.
So without Rondo, Sullinger and Barbosa, how did Boston put together one of the NBA's best Februarys?
Well, it turns out the blueprint was an old one for the Celtics. They've been doing this same thing for years.
A year ago, the Celtics were dealing with the season-ending heart issues of Jeff Green and Chris Wilcox. Avery Bradley's shoulders were going fast, and took him entirely out of the Eastern Conference finals. Other bumps and bruises caused Ray Allen to miss significant time and Paul Pierce to be limited on one good leg.
Yet that team, giving significant minutes to Mickael Pietrus and Greg Stiemsma, had a three games to two lead in the Eastern Conference finals.
Of course, in years before, the Celtics had dealt with no Kevin Garnett for the playoffs and numerous other injuries, yet they have never been stopped short of a second-round run. Taking the past five and a half seasons into full consideration, the Boston Celtics have been as elite as it gets.
They've had that remarkable consistency because of a culture and game plan that isn't reliant on any individual player. This year is the true test, though. It really did seem like Rajon Rondo was the end-all, be-all of the Celtics season. But he's been gone a month now, and the Celtics still seem like one of the toughest outs in the conference.
So to speak, no other teams in the conference are writing the obituary.
In Boston's eyes, the only way to judge something as elite is to win in the postseason. To win, when winning is all that matters, is elite.
The Celtics are an interesting mixture, but that mixture can still be elite. It is elite as a unit, piecing together different sets of skills, making one cohesive group.
If Avery Bradley is an elite perimeter defender, Paul Pierce is an elite late-game scorer. Kevin Garnett is an elite all-around defender and mid-range jump-shooter. Jeff Green is an elite athlete and fast-break finisher, and Jason Terry can still be an elite shooter.
That is five guys, all with at least one elite skill, that together can make up for each other's shortcomings. Together, they are still a core that can provide elite play for the Boston Celtics.
One of the most interesting changes to occur since Rondo’s injury has been how every player has increased a certain part of their game to make up for his absence. Collectively, they have replaced Rondo by farming out responsibilities to active players.
This has happened to a lesser extent with Sullinger and Barbosa, but it is the same story. Courtney Lee can take the ball confidently at the rim more to replace Barbosa’s best attribute. The Celtics have to hope and pray Chris Wilcox’s body holds up to take more of Sullinger’s minutes in the post.
So, the blueprint is there to follow. The Celtics have scanned it, and Doc Rivers is making the necessary playing time adjustments. Danny Ainge may have tried, but it doesn’t look like he has made, or will be able to make, any moves of consequence from here on out. Jordan Crawford saw only five minutes in the win over the Utah Jazz.
Speaking of the Utah Jazz game, what better showcase of the Celtics’ remaining elite talent than that overtime win. Any doubts as to whether Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce can still win games took a serious blow, as the duo scored 11 of Boston’s 13 overtime points to put away a Western Conference playoff team, on the road, in the fifth game of a five-game road trip.
Agree with the starting choice or not, Garnett is still an All-Star. Pierce plays like an All-Star in three of every four games, with lines like 26 points, eight assists and seven rebounds (vs. Jazz) thrown in as well.
Jason Terry has found some consistency, scoring in double-figures in 12 of his last 15 games. On any given night, the Celtics can get enough offense from Green, Bradley, Lee or Brandon Bass to augment the others.
We are admittedly twisting the definition of the word elite. The Boston Celtics are out to prove that that definition doesn’t have to come with 60 wins and multiple superstars.
With roughly a quarter of the season to go, Merriam-Webster has been put on notice.