Rondo Rescues C's with Heroics, Triple-Double
BOSTON - Either there’s two Rajon Rondos, or there’s only one, and his on-off switch flips a lot.
We may never know the truth, but either way, the Rondo who can dazzle, amaze and carry a team on his back made two appearances in Game 7 on Saturday night. At the beginning of the game, Rondo helped stake the Celtics to a quick 10-2 lead. At the end of the night, when his team needed him most, he took over the game after Paul Pierce fouled out, improbably scoring nine quick points as the season hung in the balance.
Rondo’s heroics lifted the Celtics to an 85-75 series-clinching win that sent the Sixers home to Philly for good, and the Celtics off to Miami Sunday morning. The Celtics and Heat will meet Monday night for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals with just one day to breathe after a grueling seven-game set with the Sixers that went the distance.
Up until the final minutes of Game 7, though, the trip to South Beach was still up for grabs. TD Garden was in panic mode when Paul Pierce was disqualified with his sixth personal foul with 4:16 to play and the Celtics clinging to a three-point lead.
“We had a great chance to win…and then Rondo made some great plays,” Sixers Coach Doug Collins said, who went on to suggest that the Celtics point guard is still overlooked at times.
He continued, “I don’t look at them as the Big 3. I look at them as a Championship 4. If you leave Rondo out, you’re making a huge mistake because that guy has become the motor that drives this team.”
Rondo finished his night with 18 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, posting his ninth career postseason triple-double, his second of the series, and 22nd overall. The Celtics are 21-1 in those games, a number that reinforces what becomes more undeniable with each incredible performance: when Rondo’s at his best, the Celtics are almost unbeatable.
After the game, Rondo told reporters that he tries “to be great every night,” but he felt the need to atone for a few earlier turnovers when Pierce took a seat.
“I felt I was part of the reason he fouled out. I had two bad turnovers. I felt somewhat responsible for it,” Rondo said. “My night wasn’t going well all night, I just figured stay with it, stay positive and something will happen.”
It wouldn’t be fair to say that Rondo was having a bad Game 7 until Pierce fouled out, because you can’t post a triple-double in four minutes. Underwhelming is probably more accurate; he did finish with seven turnovers. But when Pierce was sent packing late in the fourth quarter, the game-changing Rondo arrived. His timing couldn’t have been better; the Celtics had a tenuous 71-68 lead, and the pendulum appeared ready to swing.
Rondo was having none of that.
He immediately scored at the rim on a baseline drive, then drained a bomb as the shot clock expired that appeared to be a three. After a review in the timeout, it was changed to a long two, but the next time down the floor, he launched a 27-footer at the end of the shot clock that was absolutely behind the line and absolutely nothing but net.
“The first couple of shots that I hit from the 3, they felt good,” Rondo said at the postgame podium, a location with which he likely has a love-hate relationship given his appreciation of high fashion and his disdain for dumb questions. “I thought I had a pretty good rhythm so I wanted to stay confident and continue to shoot the ball and they went in at the right moment.”
His coach, who seemingly spent the entire series answering questions about the Celtics’ sporadic offensive attack, liked how his enigmatic floor general took control in crunch time.
“The 3-point shot, obviously, was big, but more his attack and his command,” Doc Rivers said of Rondo, explaining that at one point he even handed over the clipboard to his point guard to be sure his teammates would be in the right position for the play that Rivers wanted run.
Asked about that instance, Rondo, typically allergic to elaboration, opened up a bit about his role on the team.
“I take pride in knowing Doc’s system. I’ve been in his system for six years. Sometimes I think I know it better than him but you know, it’s just part of being the point guard for this team,” Rondo said. “[I’m] trying to take responsibility and leadership during the huddles. Doc’s out there talking to his coaches and I want to get my teammates together and keep them on the right page.”
Rondo’s assertive quarterbacking isn’t new, nor is his penchant for taking 3s when the shot clock is running down, even if he’s considered an average jump shooter at best. But Ray Allen is starting to see something different in the point guard of late.
“He had a confidence in him that I hadn’t seen, when they started fouling,” Allen said. “He wanted the ball, he wanted to go to the free-throw line. He was ready for it. You can see his maturity and his growth as a player making those shots down the stretch. It poses different problems for teams, and it’s good to see.”
To Allen’s point, teams have often defended the Celtics by sagging off Rondo on the perimeter, challenging him to beat them with jumpers and denying his ability to penetrate the paint. And if he did beat the defense, teams were anxious to knock him down hard and put him on the free-throw line, where he struggled to find a groove. All of this made him reluctant to attack the basket at times and limited his impact on the offensive end.
So which Rondo shows up in South Beach? With the Conference Finals looming, the Celtics need the same one who closed out Game 7 to open up Game 1 on Monday.