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ON BASKETBALL

Ragin' Rondo provides a jolt

With four losses in five games, and assuming the Celtics are results-oriented this season, then you take what you can get from affairs like last night's 107-100 setback to the Utah Jazz.

Like, for instance, the "Whoa" game submitted by Rajon Rondo.

As Doc Rivers put it afterward, "I'm always looking for silver linings and that was a big one."

The Celtics' rookie, who had stayed on the bench for all 53 minutes in Wednesday's overtime victory over Charlotte, got an early and unexpected summons last night when Sebastian Telfair left the game (and the building) with what was later determined to be bronchospasms. Telfair is due in Cleveland for tonight's game. His playing status is unknown.

Rondo did what he can do and if he didn't get the chance last night, the fans would have been home in time to see the 10 p.m. news. He gave the team a much-needed jolt. He more than lived up to his reputation as a Pest (with a capital P) on defense. He had 13 points, 3 steals, 3 assists, and 4 rebounds, all crammed into 25 very active minutes.

The problem was, by the time Rivers screamed for help in the third quarter and turned to Rondo, the utterly efficient Jazz had just gone on a 15-0 run in slightly less than five minutes to take a 71-56 lead. Deron Williams (now there is a point guard who has grown exponentially) orchestrated a Utah attack that shredded what passed for the Celtics' transition defense.

As Paul Pierce aptly noted, "Transition [defense] is really hurting us."

Utah would increase the lead to 17, but by the end of three quarters, it was down to a manageable 12. In the fourth, the Celtics got to within 3 points, with the ball, on three possessions. The only problem with those possessions: a familiar one, turnovers. Pierce had two of them, an offensive foul and a strip, the latter courtesy of the aforementioned Williams. Wally Szczerbiak, who went scoreless in the second half, was called for traveling.

It was a 5-point deficit when Rondo squirted through the lane, went up lefty, made the basket and was fouled by Williams. There was 2:19 to play. But the rookie threw up a boulder at the line. He wasn't alone there; the Celtics bricked 11 of 25 free throws with Pierce accounting for four of the misses. The Jazz then put it away.

The comeback happened because Rivers went small -- the 6-foot-7-inch-ish Ryan Gomes was the tallest Celtic on the floor for seven-plus minutes in the fourth quarter -- and Rondo made things happen. Small and quick; that is Rondo's best (some might say only) environment in which to thrive. He even guarded the 6-11 Mehmet Okur in the post (although Okur did a lot of his scoring damage outside, hitting four 3-pointers). But the Celtics could not make it all the way back, which to Rondo, meant there was no silver lining in this one.

"It's about the win," he said. "We didn't get it. We came back and fought hard, but we didn't get it."

We'll never know what would have happened had Telfair not come out of the game in the first quarter, necessitating the insertion of Rondo. The rookie had played 22 1/2 minutes in the opener and almost 32 minutes against the Pistons. But he was down to 14-plus minutes against the Wizards and then came the big goose egg against the Bobcats, the only Celtics victory of the season.

But the morning after the Charlotte game, Rondo was at the practice facility early, working on his game. You have to like that about him. If there's any sense of entitlement, he is doing a very nice job of masquerading it. He adopted the mantra, "Be ready, you never know when your name is going to be called" and that seems especially astute in these times of Rivers's ever-evolving rotations. But he knew instinctively what was required last night: energy, pressure, pace. "Make something happen," he said.

"You know, we were down a little bit," he said. "I tried to come out there and give us a boost."

Rivers tried to ensure that Rondo had shooters on the floor with him, for teams tend to sag off him because of his historically suspect outside shooting. But Rivers also wants to see Rondo take the ball to the basket and finish if his guy does sag. That's exactly what he did when he nearly cut the Utah lead to 2 points. That's what the coach wants and he's trying to drive that home while Rondo will sometimes drive and look to pass, forgetting apparently that his quickness and quirkiness make him a tough cover.

"That's going to be a mental thing that he's going to bust through," Rivers said. "And I thought he did that in the fourth quarter [when he had 8 points]. If he can do that, you can play him. That was a good sign for us."

And, even at this early stage, and even on a tough night, to the coach, a good sign is a lot better than no sign at all. You take them when you see them.

Peter May can be reached at P_May@globe.com.

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