For 46 minutes and 48 seconds, Rajon Rondo was the best player in basketball Sunday afternoon. He was serenaded with chants of “M-V-P” late in the game. And as cliché as that has become in arenas all over the country, it was entirely fitting in this context.
There is almost no way to put Rondo’s Game 4 performance into historical context except that in the history of the NBA only two players have ever recorded as many as 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists in a game before: Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain.
The Celtics needed every number, every second and every ounce of energy in Rondo’s epic showing to hold off the Cleveland Cavaliers, 97-87, and tie the best-of-seven series at two games apiece (click here for the full recap).
“He was absolutely sensational tonight,” Doc Rivers said.
This was Boston’s statement game. The Cavs had their defining moment in Game 3 and it was on the Celtics to match that with one of their own. It was the first time this season that this team has been backed into a corner and responded positively.
Sure, Game 2 was a huge win, but this was their season on the line, and as brilliant as Rondo was, he had a lot of help. The bench provided a game-changing effort, while Ray Allen made huge shots and credibly defended LeBron James.
But there was no denying that this was Rondo’s day.
“He’s been the best player on this team the whole year,” Kendrick Perkins said. “The most consistent player on this team the whole year, and he’s leading by example.”
The Celtics have regained some of their momentum as they head back to Cleveland for Game 5 Tuesday, but they know the work is just beginning. The Cavs regained the homecourt advantage in Game 3 and they still are, and should be, considered the favorites to win this series.
The Celtics? They have a little more fight left in them after all, and in Rondo they have the breakout star of the playoffs. MVP? Maybe not yet, but in this series he’s played like one.
The crazy thing about Rondo’s time with the Celtics is that there have been several moments in his four-year career when it seemed like he would be somewhere else.
The first came on draft day when the Celtics had already made what they thought would be their big point guard move (acquiring Sebastian Telfair). But as the 2006 draft unfolded and Rondo was still sitting there, owner Wyc Grousbeck signed off on allowing Danny Ainge to buy Phoenix’s draft pick.
After an up-and-down rookie season, his name was prominently atop other team’s wish lists as Ainge sought to remake the team through trades. But he held firm in not including him in the Kevin Garnett deal.
Last summer Rondo’s name was again floated in trade rumors, although it’s still unclear how close any of that came to actually happening. And then, just before the start of this season, there was some question as to whether Rondo would get an extension before Ainge and agent Billy Duffy hammered out a five-year, $55 million deal.
Just how much money would teams throw at Rondo this summer if he was a restricted free agent? Thankfully for the Celtics, they won’t have to find out.
“From Day 1 when they made that big trade, I think seven players were traded that summer,” Rondo said. “I’m obviously here for a reason. Those guys trusted me. The staff trusted me, and the organization did. So, I’m very confident in what I do.”
And the Celtics have become completely confident in it as well. Perhaps the most sensational play of Rondo’s night came when he baited LeBron into going for his signature block on the break, and at the last second flipped it to Tony Allen for a layup.
“He’s always chasing me down,” Rondo said. “He’s had a lot of Top 10 plays and blocks on my layups. I knew [he was coming] in that situation. I think what they try to do is have Mo [Williams] try to run the guard down, slow them up and let LeBron get his timing together. I saw him coming out of the corner of my eye when I started my break. I told the guys in the huddle to continue to run with me because they’re going to try to block my shot in the first half and I wasn’t converting.”
Three things stand out about that play: One, Rondo knew in the heat of the moment with a hopped-up crowd what was about to happen. Two, he told his teammates to follow and they did. Three, of course, he made the play.
You can argue and banter all day and all night about whose team this is; whether it’s in the locker room, on the court, or on the team flight and you might get a different answer in each instance. It doesn’t really matter.
What matters is this: Rajon Rondo has become the best player on the team, and the Celtics' fortunes will rise and fall depending on his play for the rest of the playoffs and for whatever time he, and they, have left together.
“He’s a point guard now that runs our team and has complete control of our team,” Rivers said. “When we won [the championship], he was still learning how to be a point guard and how to help our team win. Now we rely on him to [do that].”
THE CELTICS WON THE 50-50 GAME
Kendrick Perkins looked up at the scoreboard late in the game and noted that he had six rebounds. This didn’t seem right to the big man. Then he looked up a little higher.
“I was like man, I’ve only got six rebounds,” he said. “But I looked up and Rondo has 18.”
Rondo had more rebounds than the starting five combined. He had more rebounds than Kevin Garnett, Perkins and Rasheed Wallace combined. But most importantly, he had more offensive rebounds (4) than the Cavaliers had combined (3).
One game after getting destroyed on the boards, the Celtics allowed zero second-chance points. They forced 17 turnovers and had only 12 for themselves. They had more steals (10-6) and while there isn’t a number on the stat-sheet for deflections, they undoubtedly had more of them too.
“We have to,” Rivers said. “They have so many individually talented players. We have to get the deflections, the loose balls, take the charges [and] be a better rebounding team. It’s a must for us. When we do, we have a shot. And when we don’t, they become really good.”
Rondo took it upon himself to get more involved in the pursuit of rebounds, which helped key the fast break, and the Celtics dominated that aspect as well, outscoring Cleveland 23-7 on the run.
“The best way for us as a team to start fast breaks is when I rebound,” Rondo said. “So I had the mindset to help the bigs on the boards.”
These were not easy rebounds either, for Rondo or any of them. On each miss it seemed that there were a number of hands (and elbows) flying. Each carom was a fight, and the Celtics won all the major battles. And as the Celtics forced the Cavs into 40 percent shooting, there were a lot of loose-ball scrums.
“Multiple stops means Rondo in the open court,” Rivers said. “It’s been our saying all year. If we can get multiple stops, it gets Rondo with speed and he gets our team in rhythm. If we’re going to give them second shots like we gave them in Game 3, if we’re going to foul them and allow them to shoot 60 percent, you just can’t win that game. It allows them to help off Rondo. When we get stops, you’re backpedaling with Rondo. It’s an entirely different offense for us.”
Amazingly, the Celtics made just one 3-pointer out of 14 attempts and still won by 10 points. They have talked all season about how their game starts on the defensive end, but for the most part it’s been just that: talk.
If Game 4 didn’t prove to them beyond a shadow of doubt that they have to contest every shot, fight for every rebound and dive after every loose ball if they are going to win, then nothing will. This is what it will take from here on out, no matter how brilliantly Rondo plays the rest of the series.
Rasheed Wallace took a moment from his no talking to the media approach to lay down the facts of life after his Game 2 performance when he scored 17 points.
“Y’all think it’s just one facet of this game,” Wallace said Wednesday. “It’s not. There’s two facets to this game. If I’m not making shots, OK, then, I have to do something on defense. So if I’m missing shots or making shots it doesn’t affect my whole overall game.”
Fair enough. In truth, Wallace received far more praise for his Game 2 explosion than what it merited. Oh, the points definitely helped, but you can make the argument that Wallace’s play in Game 4 when he missed all three shots he took was much more important.
“It’s what we needed,” Rivers said. “It’s funny. Rasheed got a lot of play after Game 2 because he shot the ball well and scored points. I made the point of saying that looks good. That was great for us. We’re going to win this series because Rasheed plays defense, and that’s what he did today. He was deflecting, blocking shots, clogging the lane, fouling hard. That’s what we need from him, and it’s great to see.”
Wallace picked up three fouls in six minutes of the first quarter. He had his fourth two minutes into the second quarter, but at least they were purposeful fouls. He put Shaquille O’Neal and James on the line three times, and they went 3-for-6.
In the second half he pulled out all his defensive tricks — his veteran wiles (as he likes to call them). Using leverage, footwork, intelligence, balance, quick hands, subtle elbows, he brought out whatever tricks and tactics he has in his bag.
That’s what the Celtics need from Wallace. No lie.
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