Rajon Rondo was late coming into the postgame press conference area and when he finally did arrive he was moving slowly and deliberately. This was different for the third-year guard whose default speed is somewhere between fast and warp overdrive, but Game 1 of the Celtics first-round playoff series with the Bulls had drained him.
“This was just a tough game for me personally,” Rondo said. Understand that there has never been a moment in his young professional life when Rondo has lacked for confidence. Even when the rest of the world was telling him he was in over his head last season, Rondo never bought into a word of it.
But after going head-to-head with Derrick Rose for 43 grueling minutes, Rondo was spent. “Right now,” he said. “I’m extremely tired.”
Rondo was brilliant at times, inspirational at others. On an afternoon when Ray Allen couldn’t get untracked and Paul Pierce sloughed through a lethargic first half, Rondo carried the Celtics offensively. He scored 29 points and made 12 of 21 shots while handing out seven assists against just one turnover and grabbing nine rebounds.
But he wasn’t the best player on the floor.
That would be Rose, the Bulls mortal lock for Rookie of the Year who put on absolute show at the Garden, and left many of the jaded members of the basketball press with looks of amazement and awe after he pulled out brilliant play after brilliant play. Rose scored 36 points (including 12-for-12 from the free throw line) and dished out 11 assists in 49 minutes before fouling out. “He’s one of the toughest point guards to stay in front of,” Rondo said. “He finished at the rim extremely well.”
How good was Rose? Historically good. He tied an NBA record for points by a rookie in his first playoff game held by the then Lew Alcindor for the Bucks way back in 1970 against Philadelphia.
About 45 minutes earlier Rose had faced the media horde, speaking softly and in a monotone. If the rest of the world hadn’t caught up with him yet, they have now. Regardless of what happens the rest of this weekend, Derrick Rose is the first breakout star of the playoffs.
“I was just out there feeling the game,” Rose said. “I didn’t know I had that many points until they were telling me to keep at it and that’s what I was doing.” Later he added, “I think I had five turnovers tonight and I know I’m not supposed to have that many.”
A Chicago kid like Rose, Celtics coach Doc Rivers has been singing his praises since October, but he was not in a mood to wax poetic. “Well, I don’t care about the Rondo/Rose battle, honestly,” Rivers said. “The last thing I’m going to do is make this a Rondo/Rose battle. Rose was, like I said, unbelievable. So was Rondo.”
Rivers may not want to play it up, but Rose vs. Rondo has become the dominant sidebar of this series, and like both of their play Saturday, there’s no stopping it.
Five more things from Saturday’s instant classic…
1) DOC RIVERS IS NOT AMUSED
One of the hallmarks of Doc Rivers tenure with the Celtics is win or lose, he’s always on an even-keel. Oh, he might show a little testiness after a tough loss, but it’s never really obvious. Which is why his anger was so striking after the game. Now, this wasn’t a Rick Pitino-like meltdown by any stretch, but Rivers was ticked.
“First of all, we had no defensive energy,” Rivers said. “I mean, to think that we worked on transition D for two days and the first play of the game (Joakim) Noah gets a dunk. Now that was extremely disappointing.”
Ever since the coach dropped the KG bomb on Thursday things have gotten a little bit out of his control. “I don’t worry about that,” Rivers snapped before the game when asked about the various conspiracy theories that have been floating around about Garnett’s health. “Don’t you guys know that by now.” In the next breath, he added, “I’m getting a little tired of it.”
Sure enough, someone asked about Garnett’s absence from the bench during the second half. “Guys, Kevin is not playing in the playoffs,” he said. “I’m not answering Kevin Garnett questions. I didn’t even notice, honestly, until someone told me he wasn’t on the bench and I could care less. You know, hell, he was on the bench in the first half and we were down (nine) points. So, you know, this is about the players in uniform. Kevin is gone. And he ain’t coming back.”
Of more immediate concern was how his team could have played with so little passion in the first half against a young Bulls team just finding its legs. “I told our guys that,” Rivers said. “Yeah, second half was great. But you let a young team get very comfortable on you in the first half and then you had to deal with them the rest of the game.”
2) TALE OF TWO HALVES FOR THE TRUTH
If any player encapsulated the Celtics poor first half/resurgent second half it was Paul Pierce, who struggled through a four-point, three-turnover first half and then seemed like a different player in the final 29 minutes.
“I thought we played better in the second half, our energy, but it can’t be that way, and as the captain of this ballclub I can’t allow for us to come out as flat as we came out today,” Pierce said. “We have to have a better sense of urgency from the jump each and every game, and I promise you that we will.”
Down the stretch Pierce was everything for the Celtics, but with 2.4 seconds left he missed the second of two free throws that could have won the game. “It actually felt good,” Pierce said. “I thought it was going in and it went right in and out, but those are the breaks of the game. Just one little play. One missed free throw cost us the game. We took it on the chin and that’s the way it is.”
In the final analysis, Pierce outplayed John Salmons and a missed free throw is just one of many plays that could have turned the outcome, but it was that first 24 minutes that everyone in the Celtics locker room wanted to have back.
“It’s not acceptable,” Ray Allen said. “We’re all beside ourselves. You know, we’re angry, but at least we know where we stand, what we need to do.”
Speaking of Ray…
3) RAY ALLEN HAS HAD BETTER DAYS
And so the Ray Allen Watch is unofficially back on. Looking at his body of work this would be a mistake, but the man who was the most efficient shooter in basketball this season had a dreadful shooting game, going 1-for-12 and 0-for-6 from 3-point range, with a missed dunk thrown in for good measure.
He had a chance to tie it at the end of overtime, but his 15-footer clanked off the back rim. “I liked it,” Allen said of the last shot. “It just didn’t go in for me.”
The Bulls made it a point to not let Allen get free looks and of those 11 misses very few of them were of the clean variety. That’s part of the reason why Rondo was able to score 29 points. It’s worth pointing out that the other Celtics shooters also struggled. Eddie House was 2-for-8 and as a team they shot 4-for-16 from 3-point range.
4) TYRUS THOMAS WOULD LIKE YOUR STATISTICS TO SHUT UP
According to 82games.com, Tyrus Thomas took 55 percent of his shots from the outside and registered an Effective Field Goal percentage of 35 percent. It doesn’t take a PhD in stat-geekery to know that Thomas is to jump shooting what Shaq is to free throws.
But Thomas made two huge jumpers in overtime and shot 8-for-12 from the floor. That would seem to indicate that his performance was as much a fluke as the 3-point barrage Josh Smith laid on the Celtics in Game 3 last year.
Now, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen again, but when Rivers talked about how the Celtics allowed the Bulls to get comfortable, Thomas’ out of nowhere automatic jumper was Exhibit A.
5) JOAKIM NOAH IS BETTER THAN PEOPLE THINK
Ever since he came into the NBA people have been waiting for Noah to fall flat on his face. As a college star on back-to-back national championship teams at Florida, Noah reached the over-saturation point, and in his rookie year he had multiple clashes with then-coach Scott Skiles.
Now in his second year Noah has begun to find his groove as an all-energy big man. He set the tone for the game with an early dunk and dominated the boards, grabbing 17 rebounds and five on the offensive glass.
“He was a headache tonight,” Kendrick Perkins said. “He did his job, and he did it to the fullest and he helped his team win the game.”
Derrick Rose will get the headlines, and deservedly so. Ben Gordon’s fourth quarter and overtime shooting will get its share, but one shouldn’t overlook the job Noah performed.
It was enough to make you wistful for the tall man in the charcoal suit who was on the bench for the first half, for surely Kevin Garnett would have matched Noah’s energy. Just don’t ask Doc Rivers about it. He’s not in the mood.