|Rondo has to be consistent for the Celtics to have any chance at beating the Heat. (US Presswire)|
BOSTON -- Rajon Rondo has always been an enigma, since his high school days at Oak Hill Academy, his time at Kentucky and certainly throughout his first six NBA seasons in Boston.
Never was that more apparent than Saturday night when, after 44 frustrating minutes of blowing layups and committing turnovers, he rescued the Celtics with -- of all things -- his perimeter shot, and in doing so kept the Big Three's postseason hopes alive for at least another series.
Rondo was only 3 of 10 and had seven turnovers entering the final five minutes of Game 7. Boston's go-to guy, Paul Pierce, had fouled out with 4:16 remaining and the Celtics clinging onto a 71-68 lead. Ray Allen had made a couple of fourth-quarter shots, but he once again looked nothing like the player who has delivered the most 3-pointers in NBA history, whether it's due to age or a bum ankle.
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"We thought we had a great chance to win," 76ers coach Doug Collins said when reflecting on his thoughts after Pierce's night was history. "But then Rondo made some great plays."
It began with a drive along the left baseline with 3:40 left that resulted in an easy layup, but that was no surprise -- even though Rondo had misfired on no fewer than three point-blank shots at the rim earlier in the night.
Then came the shocker -- or shockers.
The jump shot-challenged point guard stepped up and drilled one with his toe on the 3-point line to give the Celtics a 75-68 lead. Then, after a Thaddeus Young miss, Rondo connected on a 3-pointer with 2:09 left that made it a double-digit lead and put away the game -- and the series.
"I was very surprised," Philadelphia's veteran big man Elton Brand added, shaking his head in disbelief.
So was everyone in the entire building.
Now the aging ones advance to the Eastern Conference finals, where they will get another shot at LeBron and D-Wade and the Miami Heat. It's a team they took three of four from in the regular season, but that's irrelevant. A year ago, they won three of four in the regular season as well and Miami dispatched of the Celtics in five games in the semifinals.
Chris Bosh's status is uncertain for Miami, but Boston is also far from full strength. Allen is struggling at both ends of the court and starting guard Avery Bradley is done for the year after shoulder surgery.
Rondo can't afford to be great for short stretches against the Heat. He can't be a conundrum. He has to be consistent for Boston to have a chance to reach the NBA Finals -- and that has never been his M.O.
The numbers say that Rondo was great on Saturday night, but that wasn't the case except for the final few minutes. For most of the game, on the offensive end, he looked clueless. There were passes thrown directly to opposing players, hurled at the feet of his teammates and gimme baskets that rolled off the rim.
"My night wasn't going well," he said.
But in the span of 90 seconds of the fourth quarter, he went from a potential goat to hero. There he was, when the final buzzer sounded, with yet another triple-double: 18 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds.
But the Philadelphia 76ers aren't the Miami Heat. Doug Collins' club doesn't have a single superstar while Erik Spoelstra has a pair -- including the best player in the world. Sure, the Heat looked vulnerable at times against Indiana. But this young team from Philly, the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, took the Celtics to the brink before Rondo's prayers were answered.
"The Sixers are a pain in the ass," Rivers said after the series concluded. "They really are. They are a tough basketball team."
They are a tough team -- for this erratic, banged-up, patchwork group from Boston that is rapidly approaching the end of the line as a unit. This is likely the final hurrah for the Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Pierce and Allen. Despite the short turnaround before the start of the series on Monday, Rivers says he isn't worried about his old-timers running out of gas. That may rightfully be a couple notches down his list of his concerns.
The enigma of Rondo ranks higher on the list. Boston can't afford to wait until he shows up against the Heat -- or those shots he took on Saturday night will have no consequence.