He is perplexing, maddening, awe-inspiring. Sometimes all on the same play. His basketball wits are befitting of a savant, his control of the reins of a proud team self-proclaimed. His ability to elicit a mind-blown, What was he possibly thinking? after his worst and greatest moments alike is incomparable.
If we could see the court through his eyes, it would be like trying to look at the Matrix: endless strings of numbers and characters in code. It is for this reason that he so fascinates and infuriates us, three first-ballot Hall of Famers and one of the game’s great coaches included.
On Saturday night in a Game 7 against a team for which he had no respect, he spent the first 43 minutes and change doing a formidable job of authoring the last rites of the Big Three era. He was disengaged, careless, and at times—in the case of missing point-blank layups—just plain bad.
It didn’t matter that it was Game 7, for he was Rajon Rondo and they were the Philadelphia 76ers, a cute and lively young bunch that he had used to entertain himself for the first five games, like a cat with a ball of yarn, before yawning and deciding before Game 6 that he no longer fancied them. From the beginning of that contest, through the aforementioned first 43 minutes of Game 7, he shot 26 percent from the floor and committed 11 turnovers.
Game 7 was all kinds of ugly, but it was a game the Celtics grabbed by the throat with a 10-2 run to start and maintained control of throughout. Gino may not have been dancing on the jumbotron, but everyone in the house knew the outcome; that is, until the 4:16 mark of the fourth quarter when, with the Celtics leading by three, Paul Pierce took a pass from Rondo on the perimeter, drove and collided with Thaddeus Young for his sixth foul. A few minutes earlier, a Rondo turnover had necessitated Pierce, committing his fifth foul to prevent Andre Iguodala from having an uncontested layup.
Pierce screamed in frustration. The Garden hushed. Things had gotten real, so Rondo activated his “on” switch.
“I felt I was part of the reason he fouled out,” Rondo said after the game. “I had two bad turnovers. I felt somewhat responsible for it.”
What he did next is why every Celtics fan still has reason to believe Banner No. 18 is within reach. A baseline drive to extend the lead to 73-68. A combined 50 feet of rainbow jumpers for a total of five points, followed by four free throws in as many attempts. Nothing but nylon on each of the six releases. Game. Blouses.
The thing about Rondo, I think, is he not only believes he’s the smartest and best player in the world, but that it’s actually not even close. It’s the reason he’s alternated between clashing with and revering his three elder teammates from Day 1, the reason he’s stepped to Kobe and called out LeBron and Wade. It’s the reason a handful of his masterpieces have come against the Lakers and Heat, and why he often needs to be jolted to life against the likes of Philly—even in a Game 7.
It’s the reason that, despite the established gap between the teams, the Celtics undeniably wanted the Heat more than the other way around. They may not have won a title in four years, but every time the Celtics take the court in the postseason, they do so with the swagger and heart of a champion, and the cold drive of vengeance-seekers.
They’ve lost three elimination games in this era, and the one time it wasn’t in a Game 7 was last spring, when Rondo had his elbow dislocated, courtesy of Wade. The Heat won that second-round series in five games and celebrated as if they had been coroneted. Miami may say they expect the path to the Finals to go through Boston, but that was all supposed to have ended last year. The Heat believed they ended it, ended this incarnation of the Celtics, and you can’t really blame them.
The Celtics, on the other hand, have long believed it would have all gone differently had Rondo not gone down. Rondo knows it would have.
All the talk leading up to the 2012 Eastern Conference finals has been about all the things the Celtics must do to simply have a chance against Miami. Garnett must dominate the battle of the bigs, Bosh or no Bosh. Pierce must battle LeBron to a stalemate a few times. Allen must find some bounce in his ailing ankles, or at least some semblance of his jumper. Bass must … the bench must … etc.
Little, however, has been made of the fact that the Heat only came alive against Indiana after LeBron and Wade raised their collective games to a level previously unheard of. So how about this: In order for the Heat to beat the Celtics, LeBron and Wade must each continue to drop 30-plus a night. Udonis Haslem must consistently hit 15-foot jumpers. Mike Miller and Shane Battier must shoot 40 percent from the beyond the arc on wide open looks. Erik Spoelstra must win a two-minute coaching battle with Doc Rivers. If that happens, consider the Celtics’ caps tipped.
The reality is both teams are hurting, and neither is without its flaws.
Back to the vengeance-seeking. Because Pierce, Allen and Garnett came together so late in their careers, and because of the immediate success they enjoyed, there’s been a bittersweet element to their time together. The combination of missing each other’s primes with leaving what they perceive to be multiple titles on the table once together has rendered them bitter and scornful.
In that respect, Rondo has always been the outlier, the young gun who has the same drive to win, but without the ticking clock to keep the firing burning. On those occasions when he’s “engaged,” the Celtics are damned near impossible to beat. An engaged Rondo was sighted off an on against the Hawks and 76ers. What we have never seen is a vengeance-seeking Rondo. If that guy shows up, the Celtics will end the Heat’s season.