(AP) — The Celtics lost Rajon Rondo for the season. They haven’t lost since.
Boston improved to 2-0 since Rondo’s season-ending knee injury with a 99-81 win over the Sacramento Kings as Paul Pierce led a balanced attack with 16 points Wednesday night.
Now the Celtics know they can be successful, in the short term anyway, without the player chosen as the starting point guard for the Eastern Conference in next month’s All-Star game.
“It’s always nice to get off to a start like this,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
Rondo was injured late in a 123-112, double-overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks last Friday night. Boston won another double-overtime game on Sunday, 100-98 over the Miami Heat, breaking a six-game losing streak, their longest in six seasons. An MRI taken that day showed that Rondo had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
No single player can replace his NBA-leading 11.1 assists per game. But four Celtics had at least three assists on Wednesday as the Celtics totaled 22, just under their average of 23.1 entering the game.
“It has to come from a number of people,” said Pierce, who had 10 rebounds and four assists. “A lot of people have opportunities to step up. The way we move the ball, the way we spread the court, that’s the way we need to play. Nobody had the ball for more than a couple of seconds.”
Playing one of the NBA’s worst teams certainly made that easier as six Celtics scored at least 11 points.
The Kings (17-30) began the night allowing a league worst 103.2 points per game and fell to 5-18 on the road. But they did beat the Celtics 118-96 in Sacramento on Dec. 30.
“We were more lackadaisical today,” Kings rookie forward Thomas Robinson said.
Tyreke Evans had 19 points and 11 rebounds and DeMarcus Cousins scored 13 for the Kings, who were competitive most of the game, except for being outscored 37-14 in the second quarter.
“The (Celtics) bench came in, pushed the game to another level,” Kings coach Keith Smart said. “You have to make up so much ground from that second quarter.”
The Celtics improved to 22-23 and maintained their three-game lead over the Philadelphia 76ers for the final playoff spot in the East.
They scored the first eight points of the game, but a driving dunk by Evans gave the Kings their only lead, 24-22, with 15.9 seconds remaining in the first quarter. Then the Celtics hit their first 14 shots of the second. By the time Avery Bradley missed, a layup with 2:29 left in the half, the Celtics had built a 54-36 lead.
“I didn’t know that,” Rivers said. “That’s how we have to play overall, just simple, good basketball. Pass the ball. Move the ball.”
Boston’s dominance was so thorough that its bench made 15 of 21 shots in the first half while Sacramento’s entire team went just 14 for 40.
“The responsibilities of Rondo are going to be consolidated through everybody,” said Kevin Garnett, who had 13 points, nine rebounds and a team-high five assists. “Five guys that were on the floor at any time were aggressive and that’s what it’s going to take.”
Boston had an impressive 16 assists in the first half, even without Rondo. Garnett scored 11 points and Green had 10 as each hit all five of his shots before intermission.
The Celtics charged to a 59-38 halftime lead as they hit 62.5 percent of their shots. They led by at least 14 points the rest of the way.
Boston won despite losing another starter when forward Jared Sullinger left just over four minutes into the game with back spasms and didn’t return. Sullinger was drafted 21st last year by the Celtics, but might have gone higher if he hadn’t suffered back problems at Ohio State.
“Hopefully, he doesn’t miss games,” Rivers said.
The Celtics led 80-56 before layups by Robinson and Evans cut that to 80-60 after three quarters. A three-point play by Cousins made it 90-76 with 5:44 remaining, but the Kings came no closer.
Substitutes Brandon Bass, Jeff Green and Jason Terry had 12 points each for Boston. Courtney Lee started in place of Rondo and finished with nine points and three assists.
But the Celtics will have much tougher opponents than the Kings.
“Everyone always says when you lose a star player, you have other guys step up and you have ball movement,” Smart said. “But, obviously, your superstars win the close, tough games, and that’s what you’ll miss with Rondo — the guy that can win a ballgame when the game is tight against a heavy-hitting opponent.”
Notes: The Celtics have two games left in their four-game homestand, against the Orlando Magic on Friday night and the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. … Garnett played in his 1,300th NBA game. … The Kings had just 13 assists.