It was late in the second quarter when San Antonio’s George Hill found himself all alone under the Celtics basket about to cruise in for an easy two points. Out of nowhere Rajon Rondo appeared for a no-way, no-how clean block.
It was the kind of play that has been missing from Rondo in his return from his ankle injury. There were flashes here and there against the Timberwolves on Monday, but that one play offered definitive proof that Rondo was back in fine form.
There were others as well: One-handed snatch rebounds in traffic, layups off the wrong foot with his opposite hand. Rondo plays.
Rondo being Rondo, he pegged his health at “79 percent,” but there was no doubt that he felt it too. “I felt a lot better than I have the past couple of games,” he said. “I’m in a little better rhythm. I’m able to push off even more on the ankle.”
Rondo finished with a triple-double – 12 points, 10 rebounds and a staggering 22 assists, 20 of which were recorded in the first three quarters. In the fourth quarter he turned into a scorer, getting half of his 10 attempts and scoring eight of his 12 points. Rondo’s performance highlighted a wild, and satisfying, 105-103 win over the Spurs. (Click here for a full recap).
The assists were gorgeous and the rebounding was pivotal, but Rondo’s scoring has been a topic of conversation again. Before he twisted his ankle against the Knicks, he seemed to be passing up not only jump shots, but also layup attempts as well. Some suggested he was trying to count assists. Others wondered if his plantar fasciitis and hamstring weren’t bothering him. Bet on the latter with probably a dash of the former.
The Timberwolves dared him to shoot Monday, just like every team will dare him to shoot once the playoffs start. In the past he’s been able to counter those defenses not only by taking 15-footers, but also by continuing to move off the ball and ducking in behind the defense for layups. He hasn’t been able to do that as much with his mobility limited.
But Wednesday night there were signs of the old Rondo. Doc Rivers applauded his aggressiveness. “I loved it,” the coach said. “It was awesome.”
Rondo is never better than when he is feels like he is in complete control of the situation. When he is dictating the terms and not the other way around.
“Obviously they’re going to give me that shot,” Rondo said. “But if it’s the best shot I think our team’s going to get in that possession, that’s why I take it.”
Earlier in the game he came to the conclusion that the Spurs were going to do whatever they could to take Paul Pierce out of the offense. That meant he could direct the flow of the offense toward Ray Allen. Rivers noticed it too. Rondo looked at Rivers. Rivers nodded and said, “Keep it simple.”
So they ran the same pindown, over and over again, and Allen made 13-of-16 shots and scored 31 points. When Rondo is being Rondo, the Celtics are not only a great basketball team, they are also a joy to behold.
“I still don’t think he’s near 100 percent, but Rondo’s a warrior,” Marquis Daniels said. “He’s going to fight through whatever it is. He always wants to play regardless of the situation. You got to tip your hat to a guy like that who comes out every night and puts his work hat on.”
While Rondo returned to his starring role, here are three other key takeaways:
EXCELLENCE OF EXCECUTION
There was a minute and 43 seconds left in the game and eight seconds remaining on the shot clock. The Celtics were up two and coming out of a timeout with a sideline out of bounds set.
Pierce received the pass, and began to work his way toward the top of the key. Here’s how Allen describes the next six seconds:
“The play was pretty ambiguous,” he said. “Paul had the ball in his hands so he was going to do whatever he needed to do in that situation. When I came off they had to make a decision.”
Allen came off a vicious screen set by Daniels on Hill, which popped him free in front of the Spurs bench.
“Once I popped, I just try to stay out of people’s way,” Allen said. “If I run hard enough, nine times out of 10 I get open, so that’s why I try to run so hard.”
Allen was open and with two seconds left on the shot clock he buried a 3-pointer that put the Celtics ahead by five.
“We couldn’t have executed that better,” Rivers said. “Marquis set an unbelievable pick.”
In order for the play to work, everything had to go right. Pierce did his part drawing the defense and then finding Allen curling behind him. Daniels set the screen, about as a good a pick as you will see. Allen read everything correctly and, of course, drained a 25-footer in front of the opposing team’s bench with the clock running down. All in six seconds.
“It’s the small things,” Daniels said of his part in the play. “It may not go down in the books. It’s like a hockey play, a hockey assist.”
The Celtics execute these plays as well as anyone in the league, which is remarkable considering how little practice time they actually have. It’s part of what makes them so successful, and also a testament to Rivers stern hand.
“You don’t want to mess up. Doc will let you know,” Daniels said drawing out the last three words for effect. “Good teams got to find a way to win – win ugly, win good, regardless of what it is -- and it all boils down to execution. That’s a great team over there in San Antonio so we had to execute them to a tee when it counted.”
Of course the Celtics then proceeded to do everything wrong in the final minute, including two shocking missed free throws from Allen that would have iced it. “When I think about the first free throw I don’t know how I missed it,” Allen said. “Those are the ones that are always perplexing to me.” (Allen went on to say that he would shoot a hundred free throws Thursday by way of atonement.)
But down the stretch they executed flawlessly. The halftime adjustment didn’t hurt either.
Matt Bonner, the pride of Concord, New Hampshire, has carved out a nice career for himself as a 3-point shooter and frontcourt utility player. Still, there haven’t been too many times when Bonner has caused a team to radically adjust their gameplan just for him.
But that’s what happened in the first half after he came off the bench and scored 10 points. Rivers elected to play a smaller lineup – one he hates using – with Pierce and Daniels as forwards and up to three guards at the same time, including Rondo, Allen and Nate Robinson. “Because Bonner was killing us,” Rivers said.
It wasn’t all Bonner. Rivers also felt that a smaller lineup would help Pierce get off after being held to just four shots in the first half.
“I think it was a great move by the coach,” Rondo said. “Made those guys adjust to us. [We] took advantage of some of the mismatches we had, put them in the pick and roll and they only had one big on the floor.”
The Celtics shot an astounding 67 percent in the second half and held the Spurs to 39 percent shooting, which kind of made you wonder how the heck San Antonio stayed in the game. Three reasons actually: The Spurs were +7 at the free throw line, the Celtics gave away seven points in the final second and Manu Ginobli went nuts. “The game’s never over when freaking Ginobli’s on the floor,” Rivers said.
Still, Rivers decision to go small was a huge factor in the Celtics win and the lynchpin of that decision was a backup center who took one shot and didn’t score any points.
JERMAINE O’NEAL’S VALUE
With such a small lineup, Rivers’ biggest concern wasn’t Bonner or Ginobli. It was Tim Duncan. Always Tim Duncan. Rivers needed a big man who could guard Duncan and wouldn’t gum up the works offensively. He needed Jermaine O’Neal.
“I thought Jermaine O’Neal, honestly, was just absolutely huge for us,” Rivers said. “We just left him out there. He defended Tim one-on-one for the most part. He got us blocks. He gave us defensive energy. He was absolutely sensational.”
With Kevin Garnett sidelined for at least the next week, O’Neal has been a savior for the Celtics defensively. No, he doesn’t have Shaquille O’Neal’s flair, or his offensive production, but he has been every bit as good defensively as his reputation.
Frankly, his play since returning from a knee injury has been a revelation, not only to the media and fans, but also to Rivers, as well. He never thought he’d get this from O’Neal so quickly. O’Neal has allowed the Celtics to be the one thing they weren’t last season: versatile.
This is why they loaded up on centers on offseason. Not only because of Kendrick Perkins’ injury, but also to provide depth and experience and create an interchangeable array of 7-footers.
This was one for the Celtics to savor. It wasn’t only a big win over the team with the best record in the league, it was also a versatile team-wide effort. But most importantly, there was the Rondo of old.