As Rajon Rondo collided with the unforgiving floor and his elbow went in places elbows are not supposed to go, everything the Celtics have worked for this season lay there with him. He returned heroically, maybe even foolishly, to give the Celtics one final push in their Game 3 victory over Miami.
The early indications are that he’s going to try to play in Game 4 Monday night at the Garden. He had an MRI and a CT scan on Sunday and both came back negative for a fracture, according to the team. The elbow isn’t broken, but the swelling was bad on Sunday and the pain was worse.
Rondo participated in the team’s shootaround on Monday morning in Waltham. He was on the court in practice clothes shooting free throws.
“He’s a warrior,” teammate Carlos Arroyo said. “He demonstrated that last game. We were all surprised in the fact that he came back after that injury. I know he’s ready. He wants to play. He wants to win.”
Rondo didn’t talk after shootaround, but this is what he said after the game:
“You may see me hold my arm but I’m not going to use it as an excuse,” he said. “That’s how we play. That’s our mentality. We show up Monday night on the court, don’t ask me how I feel. I’m going to play regardless. I’m not going to use it as an excuse. We’re a no-excuse team.”
He’s played hurt all season long and he’s not about to sit this one out either, but if he resembles anything like the one-armed bandit in the fourth quarter of Game 3, Doc Rivers will have to come up with yet another Plan B.
Right now that would appear to be Delonte West, who by the way has his own injured shoulder to contend with. Rivers said on Sunday that it is a matter of pain tolerance for West and there are few tougher. West also went through the shootaround on Monday.
Beyond him is Arroyo, who knows the Heat system and played well when given an opportunity after coming to Boston in early March. But Arroyo has been inactive in five of the seven playoff games and didn’t play in the other two. A point guard combination of West and Arroyo may not be enough and if West has to play major minutes at the position, Von Wafer will have to pick up the slack behind Ray Allen.
Suddenly Plan B is looking like Plans C, D and E all rolled into one.
There is one other solution for Rivers and that would involve Paul Pierce essentially running the team. He performed this role well in late December when Rondo’s ankle gave out and Nate Robinson struggled as the primary ballhandler. He would have to do it against LeBron James with the understanding that his own offense is needed and his defense is crucial.
It all hinges on Rondo. The Celtics have put themselves back in the series, but they won’t be all the way back unless they can scratch out a win tonight at the Garden. How much they get out of Rondo is the key question, but there are others:
KEVIN GARNETT IN THE POST
For as long as he has played the game, people have wanted Kevin Garnett to do what he did in Game 3. It goes against all of his better basketball instincts to take over offensively the way he did, but there’s no choice now. He understands this.
Garnett took 20 shots in Game 2 and while Rivers loved the number, he thought the Celtics could get him 20 better shots in Game 3. He took 13 of his 20 attempts from within 10 feet and made nine of them. Those long jumpers he couldn’t hit in Game 2? Garnett made one more (three) in half as many attempts (four) in Game 3.
It shouldn’t be lost in Rondo’s heroics that this was an all-time performance from Garnett. As a Celtic, few games compare, if any. Last season he scored 22 points to go with 12 rebounds in a close-out win over the Cavaliers. In the championship season of 2008, Garnett went for 26 and 16 in a must-win Game 5 against Cleveland and then had 26 and 14 in the clincher over the Lakers. Considering the stakes, Game 3 against the Heat was probably Garnett’s signature game as a Celtic to date.
Now, he has to do it again.
Rivers took a huge gamble when he left Garnett in for the entire third quarter of Game 3. He could tell Garnett was dragging, but the coach felt that he had no choice.
“With him the minutes in a row can be very dangerous,” Rivers said on Sunday. “We stuck with it. It wasn’t a gamble that I like to take. We won it on that gamble but that’s not a gamble we should take very often. It usually does not have good returns for us.”
The Celtics were able to survive the gamble on Saturday because Shaquille O’Neal and Glen Davis finally delivered good minutes off the bench to start the fourth, which in turn allowed Garnett to sit the first six minutes of the fourth. Rivers has carefully managed Garnett’s minutes all season and has rarely deviated from the plan. We’ll find out tonight if there are any residual side effects.
CAN THE BENCH PROVIDE SUPPORT?
Rivers swears he hasn’t lost faith in Glen Davis, who has had a stunningly awful postseason so far. Davis has averaged just five points and four rebounds while shooting 42 percent in 22 minutes a night during the playoffs and Rivers kept him glued to the bench for the entire third quarter of Game 3.
“It wasn’t anything to do with Glen,” Rivers said. “It was more to do with, Kevin was rolling. I’m thinking how am I going to take him out right now where you got Rondo out, Ray’s in foul trouble, they’re double-teaming Paul now and Kevin’s our only other offensive scorer?”
When Davis did return to start the fourth he finally began to play well, grabbing a couple of key rebounds and registering an assist while not forcing his offense.
Davis has been off-script throughout the postseason. His innocuous, but ill-timed comments about Amar’e Stoudemire being easy to guard ignited a small brush fire and he made a point of saying how much better the Celtics second unit is compared to Miami’s — a point that has been rudely thrown back in his face. His lackluster play has said far more than his words, but Rivers stood by his player on Sunday.
“I don’t lose faith,” Rivers said. “I keep throwing him out there and I’m going to keep throwing him out there. He has to play better. It’s not about scoring for him. It’s about rebounding. It’s about taking charges. It’s about being our energy guy. That’s what he is. When he gets caught into being the offensive player I think that affects his game. We’ll free his mind up eventually and the sooner the better.”
The Celtics have now received key contributions from Delonte West and Jeff Green and while O’Neal was a hobbled shell, he at least provided a deterrent to anyone in a Miami uniform who wanted to go near the rim. They need more — a lot more — from Davis Monday night.
WIN THE 3-POINT LINE
The Celtics can talk all day about not committing turnovers, but at this point it’s safe to assume that they will happen. They can talk about closing down the defensive boards, but they are going to give some up there as well. These are their twin weaknesses and the Heat have exploited them time and again in this series.
But there is an equalizer and it’s from 23 feet, nine inches away. The Celtics didn’t just win the 3-point line in Game 3, they dominated it, making 9-of-18 while limiting the Heat to just five makes in 23 attempts.
James Jones made just 2-of-7 from behind the arc and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade hit just 1-of-8 attempts between them. Part of the Celtics gameplan involves turning James and Wade into jumpshooters. When they made them in the first two games, there was very little the Celtics could do, but eventually everything returns to normalcy and James and Wade are below-average 3-point gunners.
If the Celtics can win the perimeter game, that will help offset some of their issues, as well as a series-long shortage at the free throw line.
In the end, however, so much of this goes back to Rondo. The Celtics offense is nowhere near as effective without him on the court. How much he will be able to give them tonight will likely determine whether they go back to Miami with a tied series or a 3-1 deficit.