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Steve Aschburner

Rajon Rondo had his way in Game 1, finishing with 27 points and 12 assists.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

As Game 1 showed, Rondo a mismatch for Celtics to exploit

Posted May 2 2010 10:29AM

CLEVELAND -- Once the Cavaliers had dispatched the Chicago Bulls from the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, LeBron James threw a few parting compliments in Derrick Rose's direction. One of the top two point guards in the NBA, James said, moving up from third- or fourth-best at the start of the season.

James strategically, or just coyly, didn't name the other guy he had in mind for one of those top two spots. So let's just assume that the other spot belongs to Boston's Rajon Rondo, based on the scare Rondo put into the Cavs Saturday in their 101-93 Game 1 victory in the teams' Eastern Conference semifinals series.

While James wasn't attaching any numbers afterward, his praise was every bit as lofty.

"He poses a threat to our interior because he's so fast, so quick," the Cavaliers' star said. "He gets into our interior and breaks our [defense] down where he's able to get a layup or a kick-out for a 3-pointer like we seen tonight with Ray [Allen] one time, or a couple layups for KG [Kevin Garnett] or for Perk [Kendrick Perkins].

"We have to do a better job of trying to keep him out of the paint. We did a great job in the second half. The first half, he was able to just continue to get layups and shoot floaters, get to the free-throw line. Rondo's definitely a really good point guard in this league, he's going to continue to be one of the best that we have in this league."

Based on that, let's go with Rose and Rondo in some order, 1-2, and we'll let James sort things out with Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Steve Nash and a few other playmakers when he sees them.

What matters at the moment is that Rondo is the best point guard the Cavaliers are seeing right now, the one they must solve and survive if they're going to keep chasing the first championship in franchise history. For long stretches of the series opener, that quest seemed suddenly shaky, given Rondo's ability to go wherever he wanted on the floor, pretty much whenever he wanted to get there.

By halftime, the Most Valuable Player on Saturday wasn't the guy officially getting that award on Sunday in Akron (James). It was Rondo, with 19 points on 7-for-8 shooting, eight assists and three rebounds in 21 minutes. No one on the Cavaliers' side could stay in front of him, so time and again it came down to whether Rondo made or missed the shot he wanted, found or did not find the teammates invariably left open when Boston's defense would sag in on him.

Despite having five consecutive games with Rose as a Rondo surrogate -- better than a guy in an orange vest playing on the scout team -- the Cavaliers looked at a loss to find a counter. It wasn't Mo Williams, whose defense gets challenged enough by relative plodders. It wasn't Anthony Parker, who drew the short straw next.

You kept waiting for James to switch onto him, the way he did a couple of times on Chicago's Rose. And yet this was still the second quarter, way too early to drain the tank of the Cavs' best player. Besides, what if that didn't work?

"We want him to push the tempo and get into the lane," Boston's Paul Pierce said, "because we feel like we have a speed advantage there if we get the ball to him, and it showed. He was able to get into the lane, find guys and get to the free-throw line."

Said Garnett: "He was not only aggressive but he was finding guys. Controlled the huddle, which is very rare for him but you love to see it, one of your youngest players or 'the future' carrying the huddle. It was good to see. He is very, very locked in."

No kidding. Rondo is more than just the second-most difficult individual matchup in this series (James being the first). He is a brash, Kevlar-confident 24-year-old who doesn't fit the script of this series, the one pitting a "team on the rise" against a "group of aging veterans." Rondo no more defers to James and Shaquille O'Neal than he does to Pierce, Garnett or Allen much these days, and it was a joy to watch as he blew past would-be defenders as if they were turnstiles.

Then the second half happened. The pace slowed down, the Cavaliers made shots that thwarted Boston's ability to break downcourt, Williams asserted himself at the other end to keep his Celtics counterpart honest and, as Rondo told it, he tried to force things through the other Boston players at the expense of his own scoring.

"The start of the third, I got into the lane, but I kind of shied away from those plays to get more of my teammates involved," he said. His stall was in a corner of the visitors' dressing room, so the crush of cameras and reporters marked the first time Rondo had been surrounded and stopped all night.

Said Williams: "He's the engine to their vehicle over there, and we know that. He's a tough cover. But at the same time, I felt as a team in the second half we did a really good job on him. I thought that had a lot to do with the way we played -- we made shots. When we miss shots -- we shot 20, 30 percent in the first half -- [we're] playing into Rondo's hands."

Cavs coach Mike Brown shuffled through defenders, at one point using Jamario Moon, a look we probably will see more of in the series. But Boston coach Doc Rivers couldn't give all the credit to Cleveland.

"I thought we walked the ball up the floor a ton," Rivers said of the second half. "We stopped spacing the floor and we stopped springing up the floor. A lot of it wasn't Rondo's fault. I thought Rondo kept pushing the ball up the floor, but there were three [teammates] behind him."

Fouls served as speed bumps, too, with Rondo picking up four. But the Cavaliers might need the referees as three extra lines of defense, because no one on their roster figures to stay between Rondo and the rim for long. He is an advantage crying to be exploited for 48 minutes, not just 21, with the other Celtics dedicating themselves to keeping him going rather than Rondo dwelling on getting them involved.

Just the way he answered my question late Saturday, when I wondered how much the various defenders bothered him, smacked of potential and explosiveness and things to come in the best-of-seven series that continues Monday.

"No," Rondo said flatly. "I look at the second defender. I don't really look at my man."

Not even in his rear-view mirror.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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