BOSTON -- You didn't have to hear Rajon Rondo say anything as he lay on the TD Garden floor Saturday night, writhing in pain from a gruesome arm injury. You didn't need a doctor or surgeon to understand how bad this was, how Rondo -- the heart and soul of the Celtics and fulcrum of this series -- was in all likelihood leaving the court for the last time this season.
If you caught a glimpse of his face, though, if you looked into his eyes, you saw something different.
"I saw a guy who wasn't gonna lose this fight," Delonte West was saying in the Celtics' locker room, after Boston climbed back into the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 97-81 victory over the Heat. Miami leads the best-of-7 series 2-1, with Game 4 Monday night in Boston.
|Heat-Celtics: Game 3|
The Celtics hit first in Game 3, hit the Heat with the kind of force they had absorbed in the first two games in Miami. Midway through the third, Boston was building a double-digit lead with offensive precision spawned by connected, determined defense. Kevin Garnett was brutalizing Chris Bosh, Paul Pierce was finding his spots and hitting his shots, and Rondo was generating all of it. He was the engine again for the Celtics, their best chance of derailing the runaway train alternately piloted by Dwyane Wade and LeBron James in Games 1 and 2.
It was Rondo who had his shot blocked by James, got the ball back in traffic, and found Pierce at the top of the arc for a 3-pointer that gave Boston a 58-50 lead with 7:50 left in the third. Then a steal by Pierce set up a hook shot by Garnett for a 10-point lead, right before the moment when this series changed irretrievably.
With Rondo defending Wade and resourcefully knocking the ball away for Miami's 10th turnover, the 220-pound Wade started going down and grabbed the 170-pound Rondo -- bringing him crashing to the floor with him. You've seen what happened next -- the video replay, the grotesque still image of Rondo's left elbow bent backwards, the knobby joint protruding so much it stretched his skin.
"We thought that was the last we were gonna see of Rondo for the rest of the year," said West, who had to shake off an earlier rotator cuff injury that coach Doc Rivers said is "worse than you think" and replace Rondo -– replace the beating heart of the Celtics.
"I knew right away something was wrong," Rondo said in the interview room. "Thank God for Kevin, because I was having trouble breathing. I just heard him telling me, 'Breathe.'"
"I was just trying to get him to relax," Garnett said. "When you see one of your brothers go down, it's never a good feeling. That's someone's father, someone's brother, someone's son on the floor hurt."
|Writhing in pain, Kevin Garnett keeps telling Rajon Rondo to 'breathe.' (Getty Images)|
"My adrenaline was too high," Rondo said. "I fed off the crowd's energy. I just wanted to play."
He returned to the bench late in the third, wincing and trying to stretch out that arm. Meanwhile, the Celtics hadn't imploded in his absence; they'd maintained the 10-point lead Rondo had left for them, and even built it to 14 until Mario Chalmers' 3-pointer at the end of the quarter made it 72-61 Boston.
Then Rondo came back into the game. Rivers, walking toward the locker room after his press conference, admitted, "I was worried." He was worried about his point guard trying to play with one arm dangling at his side, dribbling one-handed and throwing one-handed bounce passes and diving on the floor and taking charges. And he was worried about something else: Retaliation.
"Kevin was furious," Rivers said in the hallway outside the Celtics' locker room. "He just didn't like what happened."
It was Rivers who'd angered the Heat stars by calling their play "chippy" after Game 1, and the tenor of the game changed for the worse after Rondo went out. Ray Allen absorbed contact that wasn't called on a missed layup, and at the other end went down after a hard collision with Wade. Nerves were on edge, and the Celtics' season -- their legacy, and everything that went along with it -- was on the line.
"I just kept saying, 'Guys, we've just got to play. Nothing,'" Rivers said. "You know, they wanted to because they didn't like what happened. Even late in the game, I called them together and said, 'Hey, nothing. Do it with your play.' Because with the injuries we have, we couldn't afford somebody getting thrown out. Then it's over for us."
With their nemesis, the Lakers, facing playoff elimination out West, the Celtics refused to die Saturday night. Garnett made sure of it with a game straight out of 1996 -- 28 points and 18 rebounds -- and Pierce made sure of it with 27 points, including 5-for-7 shooting beyond the 3-point arc. The Celtics' revitalized defense held Wade to 23 points and James to 15, while the Heat -- now 0-11 in Boston since 2007 -- shot 43 percent from the field.
"That was a championship-caliber response," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "We're trying to take down a champion, and it will be the toughest thing that we will have to do."
With the guard changing in the NBA before our very eyes, with the young coming with a vengeance to take out the old, Rondo stared into the eyes of that beast Saturday night and would not come out of the fight. His age says he's part of the new generation, but he forever cemented himself Saturday night with the old guard, with a different brand of toughness from another era.
"I've seen him play through some horrific injuries," Garnett said. "And we're all like, 'What is he doing out there?' And, 'Is he being smart right now?' When he came back out, I was like, 'Typical Rondo.'"
His left arm dangling at his side, Rondo put on one of the toughest performances you will ever see -– the signature moment of these playoffs, a snapshot of his growing résumé that had people in the hallways of the Garden whispering about where this ranked among the great Celtics playoff moments. At one point, he dove on the floor for a loose ball, then later raced toward the Celtics' basket and almost leaped into the row of cameras. He stepped in and tried to take a charge from Wade -- it was called a block -- and slithered around Bosh to tap the ball away with his left arm, the one that didn't work, and cruised in for a right-handed layup that gave the Celtics an 81-63 lead with 8:31 left.
"I felt like I could change the game by getting to the ball defensively," Rondo said. "And I only needed my legs for that."
His legs and his heart and his status as the leader of these Celtics, a fact never to be disputed again.
"Shorty is a really tough, young individual," Garnett said. "I don't know what he's going to be like when he's 35, but right now he's playing through a lot."
When it was all over -- the impromptu triage work on Rondo's elbow, the inspirational performance and the press conference -- Rondo walked down the long hallway past the locker rooms with his family. He slumped over in an embrace and lumbered forward, toward the exits.
As he turned the corner, Rondo didn't notice Bosh standing behind a support beam talking with his girlfriend, Adrienne Nicole Williams. Bosh was 1 for 6 with six points in 31 minutes, and Spoelstra revealed afterward that he had a "slightly pinched nerve in his neck."
When Rondo emerged, Bosh's eyes went straight to him, and stayed with him as he walked slowly out of the building. Penny for his thoughts, in that moment. The Celtics' point guard, their heart and soul, trudged out the door, holding hands with his young daughter.
Right-handed, of course.