WALTHAM – Rajon Rondo has been on the floor for 140 minutes out of a possible 149 in the first three games of the Eastern Conference finals and has recorded just nine turnovers. In between, he’s scored 81 points, grabbed 23 rebounds and handed out 27 assists while shooting 55 percent from the floor and 77 percent from the free throw line.
In Game 1, he was searching – four of those turnovers came in the first quarter alone. In Game 2, he was on another planet. In Game 3, he was as close to perfect as you can ask a point guard with his level of responsibility to be in a game that intense.
In the first half, Rondo acted as a facilitator, handing out seven assists as the Celtics jumped out to a 13-point lead. In the second half, he became a scorer, making seven of his 10 shots and keeping the Celtics afloat offensively in the fourth quarter when Miami was making one of its patented runs.
“He was terrific,” Doc Rivers said. “I kept telling him in timeouts, just manage the game, I’ll manage the timeouts, you keep calling the plays on the floor. If I want something I’ll signal it to you. I just kept telling him, ‘I trust your instincts. Call what you see. If you need help, look over,’ and he did that.”
Rondo is in a rare rhythm on a team that depends almost entirely on factors beyond individual brilliance to get points. The Celtics are relying heavily on Kevin Garnett in the post (more on that later) but really, the ball and their chances in the series are in Rondo’s oversized hands. He’s the one creating pace and scoring opportunities.
For an example of what can happen when the rhythm breaks down, look no further than the fourth quarter when the Heat were scoring on almost every possession and the Celtics were left with Rondo to do his thing.
“We started milking the clock,” Rivers said. “I think Miami is just too good defensively to start your offense with 10 seconds on the clock and expect to score. They’re just too good. We need extra passes. We need to start out clock anywhere between 18 and 16 on the clock. It allows us to get to the second side of the floor. It gives us extra passes. If you think you’re going to play a low clock against that defense and that athleticism, it’s not going to happen.”
Rondo’s human, believe it or not, and he’s going to have some tough games mixed in here and there, but for this series he’s been arguably as good as LeBron James, who is averaging 33 points, 10.3 rebounds and five assists per game. That’s the elite company Rondo is keeping right now and if the Celtics are going to continue their run, he has to stay there.
Here are three more factors to watch for in Game 4:
KG IN THE POST
It’s as simple as the invention of the game itself: Put the tallest player next to the basket and get him the ball. There was nothing magical about what the Celtics did in Game 3. Rivers simply has Kevin Garnett roll hard off screens to establish inside position and someone – usually Rondo – got the ball high enough for him to go get it.
“I’m just rolling,” Garnett said. “Nothing more, nothing less than that. Doc has me doing more roles versus setting more picks.”
Simple, but that’s a major schematic change from the way Garnett has played most of the time he’s been here. He takes pride in setting picks and getting Ray Allen and Paul Pierce open for jump shots. When he rolls away from the basket, he’s deadly on pick and pop jumpers that have the added benefit of getting him back on defense in transition.
But that plays right into Miami’s strengths. With James, Dwyane Wade and Shane Battier on the perimeter, those jump shots are harder to get. So, the adjustment.
“It’s easier to post someone out of pick and roll than it is just straight post,” Rivers said. “Their weakside is so athletic with LeBron or Wade, it’s difficult to throw a pass up in the air. But at the end of the day, Kevin’s still the biggest guy on the floor. The longest guy.”
Now the Heat have to adjust.
“They were able to get probably the easiest buckets they’ve been able to get all playoffs, and particularly in the paint, at the rim,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters at Miami’s practice on Saturday. “They were making one-trigger plays to get deep catches in the paint on any situation that they wanted to. It could have been a pick-and-roll, it could have been a post-up, it could have been a catch-and-shoot.”
It’s not just Garnett. The Celtics want to post everybody.
“We want to post all of them and that’s one of the points we made before the game, not just Kevin,” Rivers said. “Brandon [Bass], if they keep switching, wherever they switch, let the ball find them and we want to post anybody, any mismatch we have. Throw it in and see how they react.”
IS THIS THE START OF SOMETHING GOOD?
All year long, the Celtics bench has been maligned for their offense, but if there’s one thing they can do, it’s defend. Mickael Pietrus was supposed to be the defensive stopper off the bench, but he’s struggled in this series, so Rivers has turned to others.
First, there was Keyon Dooling, all hyper-kinetic energy and activity. Without Avery Bradley around, Dooling has become the end-to-end pressure defender they so sorely need. The idea isn’t to get turnovers, it’s to kill time off the clock and make Miami start its offense 30 feet away from the basket.
Then there was Marquis Daniels, who came off the bench and delivered perhaps the most important 19 minutes he’s played in a Celtics’ uniform. They were plus-14 when he was in the game and his defense helped key a huge momentum swing in the second quarter, to say nothing of his nine points and five rebounds.
“We don’t come in and focus on scoring,” Dooling said. “We have guys that score the basketball. Usually our contributions come more in the defense category, or in the energy category. So that’s what we try to deliver. We’re a starter heavy team. That’s just our reality.”
With Dooling, Daniels and Pietrus, Rivers now has options on the wing and he needs them. The Celtics can’t count on Wade having another subpar game – or on not getting to the free throw line at all. Expect Wade to be far more aggressive and for the foul trouble to mount, accordingly. That’s when the bench will be tested again.
GOING SMALL AND THE ART OF ADJUSTMENTS
Rivers hates going with small lineups, but foul trouble trumps all. So when Brandon Bass picked up two quick fouls, Rivers went small and the formula worked. Per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, when the Celtics have played Garnett and four wing players, they’ve outscored Miami, 115-87 in the 55 minutes they’ve been on the court.
“They went small and we made our adjustment,” Rondo said. “No one can jump as high as Kevin.”
Sometimes adjustments are obvious. More often, they are subtle, such as switching up the pick and roll coverage or running a new set to get someone more space for a shot. Rivers has been masterful throughout this series.
“That’s what he gets paid for,” Rondo said. “You look at his resume, Doc with this team has been pretty successful the last four, five years. He’s a great coach. He knows what he’s doing. He’s getting paid the big bucks and he’s showing up every day and making adjustments. I’m biased, but I think he’s the best coach in the league.”
Rivers keeps an open line of communication between him and his players, but it’s the coach’s call and everyone knows it.
“I listen to my players,” he said. “They’re the ones on the floor. I can only see so much and so can my staff. I talk to them all either right before the game or after the game. Tomorrow morning some will text. We joke that when you want to make an adjustment, it’s usually because your guy is kicking your ass and you want to change the coverage somehow. Only team adjustments will be made, not individual adjustments.”
Part of being good at making adjustments is also knowing when not to tinker and Rivers likes to keep a steady hand on his team. More than anything, the Celtics feel like they still haven’t played their best basketball in this series.
“We have to play better, Rivers said. “That’s the first thing I told them after the game. I said, ‘Great win but that’s still not our best.’ We have to play better and we can play better.”