Rajon Rondo does so many unusually freakish things on the basketball court that the part that escapes most casual observers is his intelligence. “He sees things I don’t see and never would have been able to see,” Doc Rivers said.
This manifests itself in many ways. At times, it can lead to frustration on Rondo’s part since he literally does understand concepts before others are even able comprehend the question. There are other times when Rondo thinks the game for everyone else but himself. Like in the first half against Miami.
“I think his IQ sometimes hurts him,” Rivers said. “He knew that Kevin [Garnett] didn’t have it going and Paul [Pierce] and Ray [Allen], so he spent the whole first half trying to get them going, but he didn’t get himself going. That’s where you have to tell him: ‘Forget what you see.’ And he was right.”
He usually is, and Rivers and the Celtics have learned that when dealing with a prodigy, the good far outweighs the bad.
“He’s the smartest player I’ve ever coached, maybe ever been around,” Rivers said. “I’ve been around some pretty smart players, but he’s right there. To be that young and have that, that’s only going to get better.”
Rondo not only changed the dynamic of the game between the Celtics and Heat Sunday afternoon (an 85-82 Celtics win, click here for a full recap) in a blistering third quarter, he also single-handily invented a new wrinkle in this evolving matchup when he picked up LeBron James fullcourt.
Rondo knew he had to change something because the Celtics were operating in such a low gear that they were fortunate to have scored 39 points in the first half. They scored 35 in the third quarter, on just 21 possessions, and held Miami to 18 points.
“The only way I could do that was try to put pressure the ball because Mario [Chalmers] wasn’t bringing the ball up the court,” Rondo said. Instead, he got LeBron.
To be clear, this wasn’t part of the gameplan. Lawrence Frank, for one, turned to Rivers and said, “We can’t do this.”
But Rondo pressed on, hounding James up the court, keeping the Heat out of their offensive sets and rhythm and changing everything, really.
“I thought it was great,” Kendrick Perkins said. “We know what Rondo’s capable of doing and I think he turned it up another notch. I’ve never seen [anybody] make LeBron turn his back to the basket. That was huge.”
After a timeout, Rondo went to the huddle fully expecting Rivers to switch it up, but the coach had other ideas. He said nothing, and so Rondo continued doing what he was doing.
“Listen,” Rivers said. “Sometimes you go off the book. That matchup made no sense honestly. It hurt us a couple of times.”
Once James started taking Rondo into the post it was over. Rondo fought and tried to hold his position, but once James put his 270 pounds of mass to work there wasn’t much the Celtics could do except help and leave other players wide open under the basket.
You may never see this defense again, because it really didn’t make any sense. But that’s the thing with Rondo. He sees things others don’t and he has the ability to act on them.
Here are three more points:
THIS WAS A BIG GAME, FOR THE CELTICS
The big picture takeaway from this game is the Heat couldn’t beat the Celtics, even when they had essentially seven players and were missing their backup small forward and 21 feet of centers.
The Heat can run roughshod over the rest of the NBA as much as they want, but until they get over this hurdle, people will refuse to take them seriously. That’s an overstatement, obviously, but that’s the way it will play in some quarters.
The other important matter is that the Celtics moved back in front of the Eastern Conference race and own the tiebeaker should the two teams finish with the same record. Not a bad day’s work for the Celtics.
But in the NBA season, the big picture is often crowded out by the day’s realities and the truth is the Celtics needed this one. Banged up or not. They had lost two straight, three of the last four and the Lakers loss stuck with them over the last 72 hours.
“Big game for us,” Garnett said. “I think we needed this game. Real salty about the last couple weeks and how we’ve been playing.”
The other dynamic at play was when things got rough and physical, it was the Celtics that set the tone. It began when Zydrunas Ilgauskus dropped Rondo with a perfectly-legal screen. Garnett followed with one on Mike Miller and Dwyane Wade retaliated with a shove on Garnett that drew a Flagrant-1 foul.
“It’s a physical game,” Garnett said. “It’s the East. It’s what it is. Everybody’s trying to gain an advantage. It’s nothing dirty. It’s not on my part. It’s very clean. It’s up to the bigs to talk and communicate with the point guard.”
While the officials conferred, the Heat stood around coach Erik Spoelstra who drew something up on the clipboard. Rondo poked his head into the huddle and James shoved him out.
“I was just trying to see the play,” Rondo said. “Nobody called a timeout. They just drew a play up on the court. I wasn’t trying to start anything. I just thought I could get my head in there and see what play they were drawing up.”
The extracurriculars didn’t change the game. The Celtics making 10-of-12 shots and getting to the free throw line 17 times in the third quarter changed the game.
But, there is a lesson there. If you’re going to come into the Garden and muck it up with the Celtics, you have to know that you’re playing right into their hands. They don’t play cool and they play with any kind of style other than their old-man swagger.
“We’re shorthanded,” Garnett said. “But we’re not short of heart and grit. We work hard. We will come out here and we will compete. We’re at home. We’re still a good team.”
DEFENSE SAVES THE DAY
As great as the Celtics were for those 12 third-quarter minutes, they were brutal offensively for the other 36, especially in the fourth. They scored only 11 points in the final quarter and none of them came easy.
That’s the problem with playing the Heat. They don’t give you any open looks on the perimeter.
“We took too long offensively again, which I hate when we do that,” Rivers lamented. “But we did.”
But you can’t give up a lead when the other team doesn’t score. The Celtics clamped down defensively over the last five minutes and allowed just one made shot: a contested jumper from Chris Bosh.
“The whole thing for us was to stay in the paint, clog the paint, make them shoot over you,” Rivers said. “If they make shots over you, then you can live with it.”
The Celtics made them shoot over the top and the Heat rarely made them. It always comes back to their defensive principles, and if they execute them, they can live with whatever result may happen.
THE PERKINS FACTOR
A lot has been made recently about how much of a difference Mike Miller makes for the Heat, but there was another player making his first appearance of the season in this rivalry: Kendrick Perkins.
Perkins knew that he would get multiple chances to score against Miami because of the way the Heat aggressively trap pick and rolls. “If you set a good pick on those guys and get guys open, then the guy who sets the pick is usually going to be open,” Perkins said.
Perkins scored 15 points and converted his first seven free throws and was the main reason the Celtics were able to stay even with Miami on points in the paint at 36 apiece.
“I thought Perk took his time tonight,” Garnett said. “A lot of time when he gets in trouble is when he rushes or goes too fast.”
Perkins has always been an efficient scorer, a man who knows his limitations and plays within them, but since he’s returned he has mostly dropped the hesitancy that defined him inside and gone up more aggressively.
There seems to be no limit to what Perkins has been able to do since his return. He’s playing 30 minutes a night without a problem. He’s rebounding and providing that strong interior presence. But he is feeling the effects.
“I’m a little sore all over the place,” Perkins said. “At the end of the day I’m just happy to be back on the court. Me being happy to be out there is just overpowering everything else.”