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Shaun Powell

Rajon Rondo
Rajon Rondo must force the Heat's best defenders to guard him, creating opportunities for teammates.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Celtics-Heat series hinges on Rondo's role as exploiter


Posted May 3 2011 9:03AM

MIAMI -- Before the Ejection, there was the Rejection, the Game 1 moment that helped explain what this playoff series is and will always be about.

Rajon Rondo, crafty Celtics point guard, drove hard to the rim and was met at the moment of truth by a determined LeBron James. Next came a sound, a loud smack, created by the only kind of violence permitted and even encouraged in the NBA.

LeBron slapped Rondo's shot harder than a scorned woman does a man's face. And then, much later, after Paul Pierce was relegated to doing his cursing in the visitor's locker room, Video LeBron stripped Rondo from behind and tossed a court-length pass to Dwyane Wade for the layup.

"I don't know if I've ever seen Rondo get run down like that," gushed Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.

So what we have in Heat-Celtics is a player who both sides agree can tilt an otherwise tightly-contested series one way or another. Rondo is that valuable to the Celtics, that dangerous to Miami. If he has a superb game, then the Celtics are most likely headed to the East finals. If he gets whistled for fouls and trapped by an assortment of Heat players, as he was in Game 1, then the Heat's path will be that much smoother.

Rondo is not the best player on the floor, not even close, really. Just the most important.

"He will be fine," promised Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

"We can't let up on him," promised Wade.

Rondo's role is simple: He must exploit the one truly lopsided matchup in the series. That's because Tim Hardaway is not walking through that door for the Heat. Instead, they must make do with Mike Bibby, old and defensively-challenged, and Mario Chalmers, young and mistake-prone. Those two overmatched guards will get the monster's share of the minutes against Rondo unless he manages to infiltrate the lane, break down the defense and cause hell for the Heat. Then Miami will call for reinforcements, LeBron and Wade.

But that creates its own problems, because the shifting will then allow Pierce and Ray Allen to see lesser defenders.

Rondo had eight points, seven assists and five turnovers, and Miami had a nine-point win. The two results were related. Much was made, too much actually, about Pierce getting the boot with 7 minutes left. But by then, Miami was in control and Rondo was, figuratively, out of the game. Missing Pierce at that stage of the game wasn't as damaging as the Celtics missing Rondo for virtually the entire game. He played eight minutes in the first half, didn't have an assist and the Celtics were down 15 at the break.

"Early on, I think Rondo was trying to attack too much. He was really trying to get himself going," said Rivers, "and he's got to make sure he gets the others going as well."

So true, because life without Rondo or without much from Rondo comes with a lethal ripple effect for Boston. Kevin Garnett, for example, had two baskets. The others don't see easy shots when Rondo isn't causing the defense to collapse. The Celtics have come to rely that much on Rondo, who controls the tempo and almost everything else offensively. He's a disruption for the other team on both ends of the floor.

"I'm not overstating (Rondo's importance)," said Spoelstra. "He was in early foul trouble and it might have affected his rhythm. You try to put bodies in front of him but he will break you down and find a way."

The Celtics had good reason to believe Rondo had turned the corner from a season that fell off a cliff following the All-Star break. In his last 21 regular-season games, only eight times did he reach double figures in assists. And he had 18 turnovers compared to 11 steals in April.

Then against the Knicks in the first round, he regained his stride, averaged 19.0 ppg, 12.0 apg and 7.3 rpg and the Celtics won in a sweep.

The Heat are a superior defensive team, though, and can throw different looks at Rondo, especially when LeBron and Wade switch off.

"Give them credit," Rondo said. "They block a lot of shots. They're very athletic. They're a good defensive team as well. It's a different team, but we're very confident we can win Game 2."

They won't win much, if anything, without Rondo. And he's right: Miami's defense will make him work. LeBron is quick enough to bring weakside help. Wade is even better equipped to guard Rondo one-on-one. Both are alert and alive and not afraid to go for the strip, with Joel Anthony around to supply a last layer of defense.

Rondo gave the impression his Game 1 issues were temporary, and that the Celtics are done with getting ejected (Pierce) and committing careless fouls (Rondo).

"This team has played in a lot of great playoffs series," Rondo said. "This is going to be another one."

This will be a short one if Rondo can't stay on the floor or do something special when he is on it.

Shaun Powell is a veteran NBA writer and columnist. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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