|The Celtics are thriving without Rondo while the Lakers falter with their injuries. (Getty Images)|
The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are the greatest rivalry this sport has ever seen. They've both employed some of the most unbelievable basketball players that we've ever seen. And, as hated as they are to each other, they're really not so different.
The Celtics have won 17 NBA championships in their franchise history. The Lakers' franchise has won 16 titles, with 11 of them coming since their move to Los Angeles. The two franchises have the most occurrences of consecutive titles in league history. And both franchises are currently dealing with big injuries to their core that has helped jeopardize their preseason expectations of competing for the title.
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On Thursday night, the Lakers rolled into Boston for the 277th regular-season matchup in their historic rivalry, and the Celtics rolled them with a 116-95 victory. Boston is missing Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger from their roster for the rest of the season. The Lakers are without Pau Gasol for possibly the rest of the year, and it has been a struggle to get Dwight Howard's shoulder pain free enough to get him out on the court consistently.
Boston has responded to the Rondo injury with great pride and understanding of what they have left with their roster. Doc Rivers isn't trying to replace Rondo in any way. He knows there isn't a single player on the team capable of doing what Rondo does for the Celtics. There isn't a guy left who can dribble or pass like him. Rivers has taken their second-unit philosophy of knowing there won't be a traditional point guard on the floor and expanded the strategic adjustments to the entire 48 minutes.
This means Paul Pierce makes more plays, the athletic guys in the backcourt apply more pressure throughout the game and they try to take advantage of half-court execution far more often than waiting and hoping Rondo can create a shot for his teammates. There is less looking to one player to manufacture scoring opportunities and more of a cohesive understanding that the entire team has to get it done.
They've banded together and won six straight games since Rondo went down with his ACL tear. Five of those games have been at home.
The Lakers, on the other hand, have unraveled throughout every injury turn of the season. Steve Nash fractured a bone in his leg, and the team didn't know what to do on a consistent basis. Part of that could be the three different coaches whom they had running the team in the first 11 games of the season. Gasol has battled various injuries before finally falling to a torn plantar fascia. This has coincided with Howard's shoulder and back issues, decimating the Lakers' interior presence that was supposed to help them dominate the league.
Kobe Bryant has tried to rally the troops, through motivational comments (both positive and negative), scoring binges, assist streaks and even by joining Twitter so he could tell us how cool his 81-point game was. None of these tactics have worked. They've partly been so futile because the supporting cast of the roster isn't capable of stepping up within Mike D'Antoni's system.
And that's where the differences have been between these teams in dealing with serious injuries. Not all of the blame should go to D'Antoni, but it certainly doesn't appear that he's tweaking his system and style all that much throughout the transition period of dealing with the injuries his team is going through. He shuffles in guys like Antawn Jamison and Earl Clark. They rarely play to their strengths (though they've enjoyed success in short bursts) because the system asks them to do things that they're not totally capable of doing.
That wasn't more on display than in the Celtics' win on Thursday night. The Celtics are left with athletes and have adjusted their plans to try to emphasize their remaining strengths. The Lakers are left with porous defenders rotating in a system that they can't operate in.
Rivers has adapted to his team's remaining abilities. D'Antoni appears to be throwing incapable players into a system that they can't excel in and is left scratching his head when it doesn't work. He needs four or five players each night to play well in order to have a chance to win, and yet he is struggling to find situations to put them in to succeed.
Perhaps the Celtics will come back down to earth pretty soon and the Lakers will find a way to persevere toward a seemingly unlikely playoff berth with just 32 games remaining and a record that is four games under .500. But the Celtics are learning how to float while the Lakers are sinking to the bottom.