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Rob Peterson

Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

Rondo key to Celtics' success in the Playoffs

By Rob Peterson,
Posted Apr 21 2009 6:28PM

Even before their series with the Chicago Bulls tipped off, Boston coach Doc Rivers mentioned that the situation surrounding the Celtics had been a tad frenzied.

"It's been more hectic than usual," Rivers said. "That's part of it, that's the adversity you deal with and you keep going."

Rivers delivered his answer with mock understatement. The day before, his boss, Boston general manager Danny Ainge, had suffered a mild heart attack. Rivers also had declared that his best defender and the Celtics' fiery leader, All-Star Kevin Garnett out for the postseason.

Adversity? The defending champions had plenty.

Then came Game 1, and the adversity piled up. Ray Allen and Paul Pierce didn't look like the All-Stars they were, while Bulls rookie Derrick Rose looked like he was All-World with 36 points and 11 assists as he led Chicago to a stunning win over the defending champs at TD Banknorth Garden.

Allen and the Celtics redeemed themselves in Game 2, but that Pyrrhic victory came with a price. On Tuesday, the Celtics learned they would be without Leon Powe, lost for the remainder of the postseason after tearind his ACL early in the second quarter.

Among all this chaos, the injuries and the inconsistency, Rivers has been able to rely on one Celtic in the first two games: point guard Rajon Rondo.

That's quite the change from last year's Playoffs, said one NBA scout.

"Last year, teams dared Rondo to beat them," the scout said. "This year, they're saying, 'We have to stop Rondo.'"

Rondo has entered that rare NBA realm where opposing defenses now focus on trying to take away his strengths instead of playing to his shortcomings. Why? Because over the course of the season, Rondo has become better in areas where he once fell short and teams can no longer exploit those weaknesses, like a suspect jumper.

"He's by no means a shooter," the scout said, "but he's worked on his shot enough that he's making it somewhat consistently."

This postseason, even Rondo's moderate consistency from the field far outpaces the pungent percentages he posted in last year's Playoffs. In 2009, Rondo has shot .487 (19-for-39) from the field in his two games against the Bulls compared to .407 from the field during the Celtics' run to the title last year.

Rondo may not be able to keep up that blistering (for him) pace throughout, but it helps that he's developed into Boston's best all-around player. In the first two games against Chicago, Rondo has averaged a triple-double: 24 points, 10.5 rebounds and 11.5 assists. In Game 2, Rondo added five steals to his 19 points, 12 rebounds and 16 assists.

"He's one of the better on-the-ball defenders at guard in the league," the scout said. "And in that defense, he just has a knack for finding the ball."

Even as Rose was overshadowing every player on the floor with his towering performance in Game 1, Rondo kept the Celtics from being blown out. Rivers, a former point guard himself, told Rondo before Game 2 that the third-year point had his complete confidence.

"I told Rondo that he had the keys to the team, and just go play," Rivers said. "And stop asking me questions. 'Just go play. This is your team, and just go play.'

"And I thought the first seven minutes was the best I've ever seen him play."

And considering that Rondo played all the second half with a sprained ankle, the last 24 may have been the grittiest. But that's what leaders do, they tolerate the pain and forge ahead. They also make the right decisions, and at point guard good decision making is paramount to success.

In Game 2, Rondo made two easy -- but correct -- decisions with less than a minute to play in the game. After corralling an offensive rebound, Rondo dribbled to the left wing. Allen, seeing an opening behind the 3-point line, went to his money spot. Rondo saw Allen trailing, flipped the ball to him and then turned to screen the oncoming defender. Swish, and the Celtics were up 115-113.

One play later, Rondo delivered a perfect pass in rhythm to Allen, who caught, fired and hit the game-winner in the blink of an eye. Instead of facing a two-game hole heading to Chicago, the Celtics tied the series at one game apiece.

"I think he has a tremendous amount of confidence this year," the scout said. "The Celtics are now counting on him to make plays to win them games."

And with KG on the pine and Powe out for the year, the Celtics need Rondo more than ever.

"He's turned it up a notch in the whole Playoffs you have to say," Pierce said. "I think as Rondo goes, we go."

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