|Rajon Rondo dishes off despite the defense of Mike Bibby, whom the Celtic point guard got the better of last night. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
His first playoff game? Really? Sure could have fooled me.
"I was pretty comfortable," said Rajon Rondo. "I just tried to approach it like a regular-season game, but I knew the intensity would be a lot more higher and the crowd would be a lot better."
It was a playoff game, all right, and a lot of people were wondering how he'd fare. There weren't too many folks worrying about Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen, and there weren't too many talking about Kendrick Perkins. The Celtics starter being subjected to the most scrutiny was the 22-year-old point guard, who may have surprised some skeptics with his 15-point, 9-assist, 2-steal playoff debut in the Celtics' 104-81 conquest of the Atlanta Hawks.
"He probably doesn't realize the pressure being put on him by the outside world," surmised Allen.
No Celtic has come farther this year than Rondo, who inherited the starting job when Sebastian Telfair was shipped to the Land of 10,000 Lakes in the Garnett deal. No one knew when the season began exactly what to expect. And after he completed his steady regular season, the questions began anew, the playoffs being the playoffs and all.
But if last night's performance is any indication, it may be time to find some new questions for someone else. Rondo looks as if he can take care of himself.
The lad picked his spots on offense, scoring 12 of those 15 points in two key bursts. The first came in the opening period, when he had three baskets in a minute and a half as the Celtics moved to a 23-10 lead by the time the game was a little over eight minutes old. He started his little run by sneaking past Mike Bibby for an airborne putback. After Allen (18) sank a jumper, Rondo first nailed an 18-footer and then scored on a patented floater in the lane.
The second burst came in the third period when the Celtics appeared to be squandering what had been a comfortable 19-point lead. They were badly in need of a pick-me-up when Rondo simply took control of the game. He started with a 21-footer, followed with an 18-footer, and then, after coming up with a steal, hit a crowd-pleasing fadeaway to send the Celtics into the last period in possession of a relaxing 18-point (73-55) lead.
When the season began, who would have imagined a playoff situation in which Rondo would not only recognize a need like this, but would possess the individual scoring ability to make it happen? But it's come to this: No one is surprised when Rondo asserts himself.
Opponents now have to factor Rondo into their game preparation. Everyone always respected his innate athleticism, his exceptional quickness, his long arms, his tremendous hands, and his tenacity on defense. Now they also have to respect his individual offensive package, which includes aggressive, acrobatic drives, sneaky offensive rebounding, and, finally, a demonstrated ability to make those dare-you-to-make-'em jump shots that were the staple of Mo Cheeks's game for many years.
"He puts pressure on you with his speed," said Atlanta coach Mike Woodson. "We were trying to match a bigger guy on Rondo, but he made some shots and we have to live with that. As long as Ray and Paul aren't putting the dagger in you, you have to deal with Rondo making the shots."
"He played well," said Garnett. "He played with a lot of confidence. Before the series, three of us pulled him aside and just gave him some advice. He played with great poise."
As always, Rondo was a major pest at the defensive end. Bibby has been the key to whatever success the Hawks have had in the past month, but last night he shot 2 for 10 in 34 minutes and was never a factor. Rondo wasn't responsible for all of it, but he certainly gets credit for some of it.
The point guard duo of Rondo and Sam Cassell was a big Celtic plus, as the cagey veteran abetted the younger member of the firm with 10 points and an assist. Seven of Cassell's points came in a hilarious second-quarter stretch in which Doc Rivers was trying to remove him from the game.
At that juncture Sam wasn't playing very well, and the mentor decided it was time for a substitution. But Cassell immediately nailed a three, and before there was a stoppage, it was brought to Rivers's attention that a mandatory timeout was looming. When the timeout came, guess who was fouled? Yup, Sam. He made his free throws and then added an 18-footer before Rondo was able to replace him. Call it the best substitution Doc never made.
With 25 points, 10 assists, and those two Rondo steals, Doc had no complaints about his point guards. But Rivers knew he didn't have to worry about Cassell. The great revelation last night was that Rondo played the same outstanding brand of two-way basketball in his first playoff game that he's been playing all year.
"He was at my house yesterday watching Chris Paul," said Allen, "and I know he had to be thinking that he needed to play well for us. He was thinking, 'I want to be better than the guy I'm playing and I want to help us win.' "
He was, and he did.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.