For most of the 2008-09 season, people have been struggling to define just how fast Rajon Rondo actually is.
It is known, for example, that there is no one in the NBA who can stay in front of him on a consistent basis. It was suggested, by Rondo himself, that he could beat Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt in the 100 meters. It’s taken 82 games, five more in the playoffs and four overtime periods before we could definitively answer the question, but here it is: Rajon Rondo is fast enough to save a season in 94 seconds.
After Derrick Rose sank a pull-up jumper to put the Bulls ahead, 83-73, there were seven minutes and 19 seconds left on the clock, and while this wasn’t a close-out game it might as well have been. Could the Celtics possibly survive a Game 6 in Chicago and a Game 7 back in Boston down 3-2?
We don’t have to answer that daunting hypothetical because ninety four seconds later, the score was 83-80 after Rondo rebounded a Paul Pierce miss and made a floater off the glass, forced a steal on the perimeter and converted it into a layup in which he went under, over and around Joakim Noah, and then finally dished off to Ray Allen for a 3-pointer.
Ninety-four seconds that turned a game, and possibly a series around.
“Rondo,” Doc Rivers said, “has just been Rondo.”
A lot has been made about the fact that Rondo came into Game 5 averaging a triple-double for the series, and while that’s great for the scrapbook, it doesn’t really do what we are all witnessing justice. What we are seeing is the transformation of the Celtics into Rondo’s team.
That’s a loaded statement in NBA parlance and granted, Kevin Garnett’s absence has a lot to do with it. At the end of the day the Celtics are still defined by the KG-Pierce-Ray Allen troika, and will be for as long as they are kept intact as a unit. Rightly so, in fact. They have earned that designation. But on the court, this is Rondo’s show now.
“The kid, he’s just a mentally tough kid,” Rivers said. “I mean, he drove with the intention of, ‘I’m going to score or you’re going to foul me.’ When you see Rondo you don’t see power, but his speed becomes powerful. That’s why he’s so tough to guard.”
“I’m not trying to go outside my role,” Rondo said. “I’m still one of the role players on the team, but I think I have a greater focus in the postseason.”
Fair enough, and a wise statement from the 23-year old. But after posting another ridiculous line: 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds it’s becoming entirely clear that the Celtics will go as far in this postseason as Rajon Rondo can take them.
1. PAUL PIERCE FOUND HIS SWEET SPOT
At halftime people were asking the question: “Have you ever seen Paul Pierce get his shot blocked that many times?” The captain, in other words, was struggling.
It’s been a grueling series for Pierce thus far. Forced to play too many minutes during the season and taking on an even bigger load in the postseason, Pierce has been doubled, shoved and beaten down by a Bulls defense intent on stopping him. But at the end of regulation, he did what he has done so well for so long; he knocked down a 17-foot jumper with a hand in his face to tie the game.
There were no histrionics from Pierce. No periscope eye or whatever the hell it is Ben Gordon does when he makes shots. Instead, Pierce just gamely trotted back on defense.
In the overtime, Pierce once again found his spot on the floor. He drained three straight step-back pull up jumpers, each with a hand in his face.
“Paul was phenomenal,” Rivers said. “You know, sweet spot. In-between game.”
Naturally the question was asked of Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro: Why didn’t you double him. “Yeah,” Del Negro said. “I thought about doubling him a lot, but the problem is the Celtics do such a good job. It’s a 1-4 flat, and he fades away. And he’s 6-8. And it’s his spot. That’s something we’ll talk about again. But we’ve come with double teams. We’ve come with single teams. We’ve come off bigs. We’ve come off little’s. And he’s seen it all.”
They’ve come with everything, in other words, but at the end of the day it’s the NBA and Paul Pierce is a great player. Not good. Not very good. Not even exceptional. Great.
2. KENDRICK PERKINS CAME UP BIG
There were two seven-footers sitting on the Celtics bench for the entire 53 minutes Tuesday night. One of them was in a suit. The other was Mikki Moore. Leon Powe was also nattily attired and thus unavailable, which left almost all of the dirty work to Kendrick Perkins.
The Celtics grabbed 44 rebounds Tuesday and 19 found their way into Perk’s oversized mitts. They blocked nine shots, or more specifically, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce each blocked one and Perkins blocked seven.
He also scored 16 points, but that was window dressing because for the entire time he was in the game Perkins had the unenviable job of keeping Joakim Noah, Tyrus Thomas and Brad Miller off the backboard. The Bulls had 14 offensive rebounds and showed why they are among the better offensive rebounding teams in the league. Of the 35 defensive boards the Celtics grabbed, Perkins had 16 of them.
“We just don’t have enough bigs,” Rivers lamented. “He has to stay on the floor. We’re giving him a few minutes rest here and there. But he’s our only seven-footer, really, that we’re playing, and he was fantastic. When you look at his blocked shots, his changed shots, the tough rebounds, he was fantastic tonight.”
3. THE REFS ARE AN UNFORTUNATE SUB-PLOT
It’s a time honored tradition in a long series to try to influence the way the next game is going to be called. Phil Jackson is the acknowledged master of the art, and it is an art. The trick is to point out an element without getting into specifics.
When Perkins said the refs didn’t like the Celtics the other day there was probably some truth in that statement. It’s been a below-the-radar storyline all year that the Celtics are the most T’d up team in the league. They were called for 117 technicals in 2008-09, 14 more than the next closest team and 28 more than the one in fourth. But by saying it in that plain-spoken way that Perkins does seemingly violated the code.
Rivers stood up for Perkins and took the heat by pointing out that he gets called for too many illegal screens. That was the right way to go about doing it and Doc got a fine for his troubles. But an interesting thing happened Tuesday night. In 48 minutes and 20 seconds of action, Kendrick Perkins did not get called for a single foul. Not one.
“I have no comment anymore,” Rivers joked. “The coach stimulus package is done for me for a while, OK?”
The lack of a foul even seemed to catch Perkins off guard. When he was asked about the late-game hard foul on Brad Miller that was actually committed by Rajon Rondo, Perkins said, “I wasn’t trying to, hey I didn’t even foul him. Rondo fouled him. I always get blamed for everything.”
That broke everyone up in the press room and one can imagine TNT replaying the clip a few more times in the playoffs. Hey, it was a great line.
But no one was laughing when Sean Corbin called Ray Allen for his sixth foul when he got tangled up with Miller on a play well away from the ball.
This is a very difficult series to officiate. Both teams are throwing everything they have at one another and while it has been mostly clean it has to be the most physical series of the playoffs by far. A call here or a call there could well turn any of the next two games and the guys with the whistles will be under the microscope.
4. TONY ALLEN HAS HIS DAY
When Ray Allen fouled out, Doc Rivers called on the one guy he had left on his bench who could possibly handle the job of guarding Ben Gordon. He called on Tony Allen.
Tony Allen had what can only be described as a typical Tony Allen game, which makes it anything but typical. He played 17 minutes without attempting a shot and played tough aggressive defense on Gordon. He also fell for a pump fake and sent Gordon to the free throw line and got way too close on him while he was shooting a 3-pointer, which also sent Gordon to the line.
Strangely, but in classic Tony Allen fashion, he did well.
“Perk and Tony Allen -- I know that foul on Tony was a bad one -- but those two guys defensively changed the game for us,” Rivers said. “I thought they were phenomenal.”
Allen played more minutes than any other Celtics reserve and almost all of them came in the fourth quarter and overtime. Bizarre? Just another day in the life for TA.
5. THE STEPHON MARBURY EXPERIENCE IN ONE PLAY
You can take all the hoopla, all the hype and all the speculation about Stephon Marbury’s time with the Celtics and drill it down to one sequence.
With about a minute to go and the game tied at 91-91, Pierce drove and kicked it to Marbury who was wide open in the corner. Somewhat inexplicably, Marbury passed up the shot and dished off to a surprised Rajon Rondo who lofted an anemic floater at the rim that had no chance of going in.
It was all right there for Steph. The chance to take a big shot and win a playoff game that so many people have privately felt he still had within him. And he passed.
He will get another chance, partly because the Celtics can afford to give him another one after Pierce’s overtime heroics, but mainly because there aren’t any other options. It’s now officially time to wonder if it’s ever going to happen for Marbury in a Celtic uniform.
Paul Flannery covers the Celtics for WEEI.com.