BOSTON -- On the parquet floor beneath the banners of immortals, the retired jersey numbers of Bill Russell, Larry Bird, John Havlicek and Bob Cousy swaying from the rafters, Rajon Rondo breathed the same pressurized air that they all did. Well, with the possible exception of the smoke forever missing from Red Auerbach's cigar, this playoff performance fit right in with the best ever put on display by someone in a Celtics uniform.
The 6-foot-1 Rondo, a liability the Celtics had to cover up more often than not on their 2008 title team, had the ball, and history, on a string Sunday afternoon at TD Garden. Like a puppeteer on speed, he had so much more at his fingertips, too. The game, the series, the Celtics' efforts to stay young and keep their championship window open -- all of it started with Rondo.
It was the team-high 29 points, an unconscionable development in past playoff runs steered by the Big Three. But more so, it was the 13 assists -- each one more tantalizing than the last -- and then the rebounds. Oh, the rebounds. Rondo, the slightest guy on the floor with the biggest chip on his shoulder, had 18 boards -- more than half the Cavaliers' total of 33 in the Celtics' 97-87 victory.
When the "MVP!" chants cascaded down to the court with Rondo at the free-throw line late in the game, it was more than just a quaint arena exercise. This also was a slap at the real MVP, LeBron James, who brought none of the aggressiveness and killer instinct that he had used to crush the Celtics' desire to compete in Game 3.
Now, the lone playoff series with drama goes to Cleveland for Game 5 on Tuesday night, all even at 2-2. Heading into Sunday night's game in San Antonio, the other three conference semifinal series were 3-0 remedies for insomnia. So Rondo didn't just save the Celtics on Sunday and put another scare into LeBron and the Cavs, he saved the NBA playoffs and became the next player to elevate himself among the Celtics greats on the playoff stage.
Game 4: Celtics 97, Cavaliers 87
Series matchup: Cavaliers 2, Celtics 2
"There are guys that respect me and what I do," Rondo said in the interview room. "I'm sure I wouldn't be here if they didn't want me leading this team. When they made that big trade [for Kevin Garnett in 2008], I think 70 players were traded that summer. Doc's done a great job coaching me and we're always on the same page. That's the way I feel."
But no, it hasn't always been that way. At times during the Celtics' title run two years ago, it was a monumental effort for Rivers to corral his headstrong point guard. The words "stubborn" and "uncoachable" were whispered on the NBA grapevine. Seeing the Celtics' window of opportunity closing with the Big Three getting older, team president Danny Ainge briefly explored a trade scenario with Sacramento that would've yielded the Kings' No. 1 pick, Tyreke Evans -- and would've marked the end of Rondo's efforts to pilot the Celtics and get his own game under control.
"The curse for Rondo is, I was a point guard," Rivers said. "That's good and probably bad for him at times."
|Rajon Rondo treats the Celtics fans to one of the best all-around efforts in franchise history. (AP)|
"Rondo is definitely dominating this series at the point guard position," James said.
With 21.8 points, 13.0 assists, 8.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals in four games, that much is obvious. If not, Rondo drove the point home -- and the dagger into the Cavs -- with an improbable offensive rebound and putback as the outcome hung in the air like the ball itself. Soaring high in the lane -- his wingspan is more like that of a 6-9 player, LeBron said -- Rondo corralled Garnett's miss and put it in for a 92-85 lead with 1:34 left.
"He's a point guard now that runs our team and has complete control of our team," Rivers said. "No. 1, he was still learning how to be a point guard and was still trying to figure out how to help a team win. Now, we rely on him to win."
That desire and the element of surprise, neither of which the Cavs brought to the gym Sunday, has suddenly made this a best-of-3 series -- with two of those games in Cleveland, where the Celtics already have stolen a game. In Game 3, Cleveland came up with an adjustment that worked on Rondo when the Cavs put the 6-6 Anthony Parker on him and pressured Rondo nearly full court. It worked, limiting Rondo to 18 points on 17 field-goal attempts and disrupting the Celtics' offensive rhythm.
Now that Rondo has made his counter move, it is time for the Cavs to do the same. It was Game 5 of the Lakers-Thunder first-round series, after Russell Westbrook had shredded L.A.'s defense for two straight games and sent the series to Staples Center tied 2-2, when Kobe Bryant decided he had seen enough. After the film session leading up to the game, Kobe told Phil Jackson he was taking Westbrook in the next game. And so he did, rattling the young point guard into a 4-for-13, eight-turnover performance and turning the tide in the series.
Afterward, Bryant explained, "If we were going to get eliminated, I didn't want to sit around all summer thinking I could have done something about it."
LeBron, the golden boy to Kobe's villain in today's short-memory NBA, finds himself in the same predicament -- at the same critical juncture of a series that will get away if he doesn't stop Rondo from taking it. Without the benefit of some cooling-off time, James wasn't exactly adamant that he would take a page from Bryant's book. Instead, he offered a series of very sound basketball reasons why guarding Rondo isn't as surefire a solution as it might appear to be. LeBron had taken the assignment on Derrick Rose during the Chicago series, but those circumstances were different, he explained.
"It's a different team," James said of the Celtics. "They have more options offensively than Chicago had at the time, and I was able to guard Derrick Rose in that situation."
In this situation, LeBron said, putting him on Rondo leaves Paul Pierce staring at a substantial size mismatch against Mo Williams or Delonte West when the Cavs play a small lineup. That's true, and the last thing the Cavs want to do is awaken Pierce, who's having an abysmal series (11.8 points on 32 percent shooting). But why not have LeBron play Rondo straight up, and try defending Pierce with Parker, or better yet, Antawn Jamison? Isn't that why he's here?
"If it presents itself during the game, I would take the challenge," James said. "But they kind of counter what we put on the court so I can't switch off on him."
What James seemed to be saying was that, despite Cleveland's utter dominance of Game 3, the Celtics are winning the matchups and the chess match. They are the ones causing the Cavs to pick their poison, instead of the other way around. There is a way to put an end to that, but it would require LeBron to channel his inner Kobe and tell Mike Brown what to do.
James took a subtle swipe at Brown on Sunday when he said it was "kind of surprising" that Shaquille O'Neal didn't return to the game after picking up his fifth foul with 11:11 left in the fourth and Boston leading 76-72. The Celtics immediately went on an 8-0 run with Shaq out of the game. But this is no time for subtlety.
The Cavs still have home court, and they still have the MVP of the league, if not this series. But if nobody else is going to stop Rondo, then LeBron must. Otherwise, he'll find himself in the very situation that Kobe was trying to avoid.