Posted May 20 2010 9:43PM - Updated May 22 2010 10:11AM
BOSTON -- Their personal duel, unlike the Eastern Conference finals, is a draw so far. No surprise there. Not only is there a lot to like about Jameer Nelson and Rajon Rondo, they're a lot alike.
They're tough, smart and progressing nicely into top-tier point guards in their conference, if not the league. Their leadership abilities are to be admired. And neither was projected at first to become the players they are today.
Nelson scored 20 points with nine rebounds in Game 1 and was Orlando's best player on the floor, although it was a lost cause. Rondo responded with a terrific Game 2 for the Celtics, darting inside for layups, hitting a handful of 15-footers and setting up teammates while finishing with 25 points and eight assists. Ask one point guard about the other and they'll say anything is possible for Game 3.
"I know he's going to come out aggressive," said Rondo.
"He's going to play to his strengths," said Nelson.
What we're seeing from Rondo and Nelson is a culmination of a climb that began quite innocently. Nobody projected them as stars, and neither was even guaranteed to be starters. Both were the fourth point guards taken in their respective Drafts. They had warts: Nelson was small and had a tendency to shoot before passing, Rondo was a poor outside shooter and played only one season at Kentucky, where he didn't distinguish himself greatly.
And then, early on, Nelson wasn't anything special as a rookie. Rondo had to fight for a starting position against Delonte West (who ironically was Nelson's backcourt mate at St. Joseph's), and then was led by the ear by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the Big Three who covered for the young guard's mistakes and shortcomings.
Neither point guard was a big factor when their teams reached the NBA Finals. Rondo had a mild impact on the 2008 championship team, and some of the playoff playmaking (as well as ball-handling) chores were handled by veteran Sam Cassell and by Pierce. Nelson had a bum shoulder during the second half of last season and missed most of the playoffs while Rafer Alston and Anthony Johnson steered the ship. When he returned for The Finals, he was rusty, out of sync and got exploited by the Lakers' Derek Fisher. In some respects, Nelson was perceived as the goat because he failed to guard Fisher on a pair of killer 3-pointers in Game 4.
But now? The Celtics and Magic don't get this far without Rondo and Nelson. Get this: Rondo is often spotted telling K.G. and Pierce what to do during games. How's that for role reversal? Along with noticeable improvement in his outside shooting and decision-making, Rondo is suddenly the Celtics' general.
"He's the leader," said Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy. "He's controlling things out there. He's making a lot of the plays and helping his teammates make plays. It's a confidence thing. He's an extremely confident guy and is continuing to get better. His teammates respect him."
Once Rondo gained the confidence of the coaching staff and his teammates, the Celtics' approach changed. The offense is now run through Rondo instead of Pierce. Rondo dictates the flow and starts plays. He sometimes finishes them, too. The Celtics trust him completely, but only because he earned that trust by becoming an All-Star this season.
"I'm just continuing to grow," Rondo said. "The Big Three made a big example for me to follow and so far it's paying off. I'm just working hard, growing as a leader, maturing every year. Doc (Rivers) has been on me hard these last few years. He has a lot to do with my development as well."
Remember, last summer was a somewhat turbulent time within the organization. There was a hint of discontent between Rondo, Rivers and the front office, and his name was tossed around in trade circles (more by other teams than the Celtics themselves). The Celtics eventually gave him a contract extension and haven't regretted it since.
Likewise, there was some discomfort with Nelson, mainly regarding the drama surrounding his hasty return during The Finals and the lackluster result from that. But all was forgiven and forgotten this season and especially in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Nelson carried the club against the Bobcats with Dwight Howard dealing with foul trouble and he also ripped through the Hawks in the semifinals.
"I think I'm one of the better point guards," Nelson said, trying not to sound boastful. "I've worked hard, made some mistakes, but tried to get better each game. It's just about evolving. I think Rondo and I are evolving at this point in our careers."
And here they are, staring at each other during a series where both teams lean heavily on their guards. The ball's in their hands, and perhaps the fate of their teams as well.
"He's a tough challenge," said Rondo. "We're going to have our ups and downs in this series, him and myself. It's not going to be easy for either of us."
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