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John Schuhmann

Rajon Rondo
In Game 3, Rajon Rondo scored 13 points before he recorded an assist.
David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images

As Big Three era winds down, Rondo must set tempo

Posted May 20 2012 6:37PM

PHILADELPHIA -- The Boston Celtics could use another one of those Rondo Games. You know the kind. 20 points, 15 dimes, and a handful of rebounds.

Tied 2-2 in the Eastern Conference semifinals with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics have never been closer to the end of the Big Three era. The Sixers have proven twice now that they can hang in a tightly-contested, grind-it-out contest. They've rebounded from a Game 3 butt-kicking and an awful first half in Game 4. That does a lot for a young team's confidence, and Philly knows it can win a game in Boston.

So the Celtics' urgency should be at its peak for Game 5 on Monday (7 p.m. ET, TNT), knowing they've got to come back to Philadelphia for Game 6. And though this may be the last time we see Ray Allen and/or Kevin Garnett in green, it will be up to the guy who still has a long career ahead of him to set the pace ... or the tempo ... or whatever.

"It's not even a pace. I can't explain what it is," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Friday, trying to clarify the key for Rajon Rondo to ignite the Boston offense. "When we have our transition and our execution going at the same time, we're a really good team. When we have one or the other, we're not very good offensively. It's a fine line, and Rondo is walking it."

The Celtics have been pretty poor offensively in their two losses in this series, shooting 42 percent and turning the ball over a total of 36 times. They were just good enough offensively to win Game 1, and they exploded for 107 points in Game 3.

On that night, Rondo was ultra-aggressive early, scoring 13 points before he recorded an assist. And 10 of those 13 points came at the rim (where he was 4-for-6) or at the free throw line. It was a Rondo we're not used to seeing, but it obviously worked. He set the tone and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce took over after that.

In Game 4, Rondo took just two shots in the first quarter, both jumpers. The Celtics were fine offensively at that point, but collapsed in the second half. Garnett's mid-range shooting percentage saw a regression toward the mean, and no one else could pick up the slack.

For both Rivers and Rondo, offensive success isn't necessarily about the point guard's aggressiveness or his field goal attempts. It's really about having a feel for what's working on a given night, and what's the best mix of "random" offense and set plays.

"The goal is to never call a play [from the sideline]," Rivers said. "It never happens, but that's the goal, obviously, because that means that you're in transition and that means the guy on the floor is calling your plays."

In their fifth season together, Rivers clearly has more trust in Rondo than he did when the Celtics won the title in 2008. And as a former point guard, he knows what he can't see from the bench.

"I always think he has the best feel," Rivers said. "He's on the floor. He sees things that there's no way I can see."

But in general, the Celtics just aren't very good offensively. Despite their high-profile stars, they ranked 24th in offensive efficiency in the regular season and are the worst offensive team left in the playoffs.

They're a jump-shooting team that doesn't get to the free throw line very often. The Sixers are an excellent defensive team as well, and nobody neutralizes Pierce better than Andre Iguodala.

So the Celtics' margin of error is pretty small. Sometimes, Rondo has the ability to guide the offense by himself. Sometimes, he doesn't.

"It does vary game to game," Rivers said. "There's just games where you don't feel it on the floor and then you need the coach to help you. And there are games where he feels it even better than me. And that's nice."

Either way, Rondo is going to be on the floor for 40-plus minutes every night, because he's relatively young on this roster and the Celtics don't have any other option at point guard.

"I've got to do a better job of slowing us down," Rondo said after Game 4, "getting in our sets, demanding guys to get in their right spots and executing offensively."

The end of an era could be near, and as always, the ball is in Rajon Rondo's hands.

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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