Another night, another elite team featuring players with MVP credentials - and another third-quarter smackdown.
Seriously, now. Who can beat the Boston Celtics when they play like this?
Last night's victim was the ballyhooed (and, by the way, quite legitimate) New Orleans Hornets, who came to town with the West's best record and the league's top point guard, Chris Paul.
This was the last team on the league-wide docket your locals had not beaten. Paul is a gifted 22-year-old who certainly demonstrated his ability to make plays, whether for himself or for his teammates. He is the primary reason the Hornets will be around for the duration. While other Western powers (San Antonio, Dallas, and Phoenix) understand their window of opportunity will soon be closing, the sill on this youthful franchise is going up, up, up.
All that is well and good, but there was one Celtic in particular who isn't interested in advancing the life and times of the Hornets or Chris Paul: Rajon Rondo.
Boston's own floor general, all 170 pounds of him, more than answered the challenge of keeping Paul from completely taking over the game last night.
And, while Rondo (17 points) was at it, he knocked down three of the biggest shots of the night to enable his team to pull away in - you guessed it - that all important third quarter. When it was over, the Celtics had deflated yet another contender, 112-92, and their young playmaker had gained yet another chunk of respect.
As the closest (and most crowded) MVP race in years continues to percolate, the coaches of the candidates come to town trying to win games, but also to sell the wares of their superstar. Byron Scott did his due diligence last night in laying out why Paul should be No. 1 on everyone's ballot: his ability to excel against the iron of the league, his combination of playmaking and 3-point shooting, his undervalued defensive skills, and his ability to handle the expectations that mount as the Hornets continue to win.
"He thrives [on pressure]," Scott explained. "He loves it. It's a chance for him to rise to the top."
Scott acknowledged the worth of Kobe and LeBron in the MVP sweepstakes, but was unwilling to add Kevin Garnett to that mix. His reasoning: KG has too much help. Meanwhile, down at the other end of the hall, Doc Rivers heartily agreed Paul might be the best point guard in the league, but he wasn't about to anoint him an honor he believes KG merits consideration for as well.
While the KG and Paul arguments lingered, another 22-year-old point guard - Rondo - sat in the Celtics' locker room plotting his strategy for limiting yet another elite player. Two nights earlier, he had schooled Steve Nash with his quickness and guile. While Rondo has hardly fallen prey to the mano a mano subplots that often develop in an NBA game, he certainly planned to prove to Paul - and anyone else who happened to be watching - he had his own skills worth discussing.
That mind-set led to exchanges like the following: At the 7:50 mark of the first quarter, Paul darts toward the basket, then retreats. During that split-second when the Celtics' defense exhales, relieved that Paul has vacated the paint, he quickly wheels around and scoots back to the hole practically unhindered.
It takes all of 14 seconds for Rondo to answer. He pushes tempo, passes off, then cuts to the basket. When he receives the ball again, he turns on the jets, squeaks through along the endline, then drops in an over-the-shoulder reverse layup.
You think Rondo is intimidated by Chris Paul? Isn't it apparent by now the young Celtics point guard isn't afraid of anybody?
"I like that about him," said Paul before the game. "He's a competitor. He's exactly what Boston needs. I always thought I had big hands. His hands are four times the size of mine."
But Rondo has a ways to go before he has the same impact on the game that Paul does. Early in the third quarter, with his team trailing, Paul found himself all alone at the 3-point arc because of a botched Celtics defensive switch. He hesitated, waited, then stroked the trey - then looked at the Boston bench quizzically as if to say, "What, y'all don't plan on guarding me?" He finished with 22 points and 10 assists.
Seconds later, Paul pickpocketed Paul Pierce in the backcourt, started the break, then dished it to Peja Stojakovic on the wing. Stojakovic drained the 3-pointer, and the Hornets were back in front, 66-64.
Although Paul and, to a lesser extent, David West garner most of the headlines in New Orleans, there is far more to the Hornets roster. There is the reinvented Tyson Chandler, who has blossomed since he left Chicago. There is Stojakovic, who, when healthy, is a lethal perimeter threat. There's Bonzi Wells, a classic energy player who is behaving himself (as a bench player, no less) with the Hornets.
But, just as there's more to New Orleans than Paul and West, there are other Celtics besides Garnett, Ray Allen, and Pierce who can deliver a big shot.
And that's where Rondo comes in again. After New Orleans closed within 76-73 with about four minutes left in the third quarter, Rondo stood on the left baseline while his more celebrated teammates garnered all the attention.
When the ball came to him, the skinny kid from Kentucky nailed it so cleanly, you'd think he'd been shooting it like that forever. Then, when he did it from the other corner, the Garden exploded.
That ignited a crushing 12-0 Celtics run that tore this game open. West aided in the implosion of his team by collecting three fouls during that stretch, two on the offensive end.
The second was particularly egregious, as West, obviously frustrated, merely lowered his head and tried to bull his way to the basket. When Leon Powe took the charge with 42 seconds left on the clock, and Boston up, 86-73, the Garden trembled with excitement.
As the final ticks of the third quarter ran down, Rondo caught the ball in the corner with Paul in his grill. Powe ambled over to set a screen, but Rondo emphatically waved him off. He set, dribbled hard to the left, then pulled up for a fallaway over the New Orleans MVP hopeful.
Rondo ain't no league MVP, we all know that. But he sure looked the part last night.
Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.