Rajon Rondo surveys the court as he hands out one of his 22 assists while assembling a memorable triple-double against the San Antonio Spurs.
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BOSTON - Rajon Rondo took the floor in the fourth quarter Wednesday night with four points, seven rebounds and 20 assists after 31:30 of playing time. In the midst of an epic box score night, the Celtics point guard had his team locked in a dogfight with the San Antonio Spurs, the best team in the Western Conference and only squad with a better record than your East-leading Boston Celtics.
It's unclear why this game wasn't on national TV last night, but it might be on ESPN Classic tomorrow. And when a guy has 20 dimes heading to the fourth quarter, it's hard to overlook the potential for a record-breaking night.
Maybe he was thinking about Bob Cousy's 28 assists, the Celtics' franchise record. Or maybe he was thinking about 30 assists, Scott Skiles' NBA record set just over 20 years ago. Either way, Rondo and everyone else in green was definitely thinking third straight victory, and the Celtics (now 27-7) squeaked one out, edging the Spurs 105-103 at TD Garden.
But not without some drama, which we'll get to shortly. And not without the 11th career triple-double from Rondo, who grabbed his 10th and final rebound of the game just before time expired and after Paul Pierce came up with a block against Manu Ginobili that stopped a potential game-tying shot.
After the game, Pierce joked that he didn't block the shot so much as it was "shot into my hand," while Rondo seemed slightly annoyed that anyone would question the legitimacy of his final rebound just before the horn that solidified his triple-double.
"It wasn't like there was .0 on the clock. It's still a rebound, right?" Rondo rhetorically asked after he racked up six steals to go with his 12 points, 10 rebounds and 22 assists. His performance demonstrated an absolute mastery of the Celtics' offense, and he stuffed the stat sheet in a manner of which few others in Celtics history have ever been capable.
Of course, it would have all been for naught if the team managed to blow the nine-point lead it enjoyed with 56.8 seconds to play. Thanks to a few turnovers and a pair of consecutive missed free throws from -- do not adjust your browsers -- Ray Allen down the stretch, the Spurs had the ball with a chance to tie or win with 7.4 seconds remaining. Thankfully, Pierce came to the rescue and Rondo put the cherry on top by corralling the miss to make the triple-double official.
As always, Rondo appeared non-plussed with himself as he met with the media.
"It was easy. Ray shot 13-of-16 from the field, Paul shot 7-for-10, Baby 10-for-18, guys made shots," Rondo said, rattling off box score lines like he had the sheet in front of him (he didn't), or (more likely) he was tracking the game in his head the whole night. "We shot a great percentage from the field as a team."
Rondo never missed a beat despite having been back in action for just three games after missing the previous seven with an ankle sprain. He posted eight assists in Toronto on Sunday night, then notched 16 of the team's 22 helpers in Monday's win over the Timberwolves. Wednesday, he straight up dominated the game from the top of the key.
If there was any concern in the organization about lingering stiffness from the array of ailments he's battled this season, Rondo wouldn't acknowledge it and Doc Rivers denied it. The Celtics coach said Rondo's explosiveness is back in full force.
"I saw it last game. I told you guys that: he had the one move where he was explosive so you saw that he had that back. And now he's got his timing back," Rivers said. "You know, we played him a ton of minutes; we played everybody a ton of minutes tonight."
Late in the fourth, as Rondo was carving up the Spurs, they finally started sagging off him, taking away his options and daring him to shoot himself. So Rondo did what he's been reluctant to do at times in the past: Take the open jumpers the defense wants him to launch. And he dropped six straight points in the process on a pair of jumpers and a fast-break layup to put the Celtics up 90-85 with 6:38 to play.
"It's the best shot my team is gonna get on those possessions," Rondo said, matter-of-factly of his elbow jumpers. "That's why I take them."
Rivers was decidedly more excited about this development; he enjoyed seeing his point guard make an adjustment that he's been trying to get him to make for the better part of the last three seasons.
"I loved it. It was awesome. I think we talked about it last game," Rivers said, noting that Rondo had prepared for this very scenario at the Wednesday morning shootaround in Waltham, Mass. "I watched Rondo take shot after shot after shot after shot. You could see him mentally getting ready for what he thought was going to happen, and it did. They went under and he stepped up and made shots."
Pierce, who scored 18 points and had a pretty effective night of his own, is clearly enjoying returning to his regularly scheduled role as a scorer, and The Truth had plenty of admiration for his point guard's work.
"He did it all, he rebounded, assisted, Doc's kind of been on him about taking that shot there and he steps up when he needs to and knocks down those shots confidently," Pierce said.
As for Allen, who dropped 31 points? He was assisted by Rondo on 10 of his 13 made field goals, mostly on the same pin-down play that the Celtics ran all night long, presumably driving Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich crazy.
"He affects the game on both ends of the court. He put it in the hole. He drove it. He plays D, gets steals, he rebounds. He does everything, he's a good all around player," Popovich said. "Ray needs to work on his shooting a little bit. He only hit 13 out of 16. If it was practice and you did pin-downs and you came off of that - I don't know if anyone in the league would it 13 out of 16. He does it in a game. I think he's pretty good."
As good as Allen was Wednesday, he was overshadowed by Rondo's big night, as the last 1,000 words proved. There's many more pages to write in what's sure to be a pretty long story about the 2010-11 season, but tonight's chapter belonged to Rondo.