Things did not go swimmingly for the Celtics for much of the fourth quarter during a 100-91 win over Utah last night. But Rajon Rondo bailed the Celtics out with some freestyle moves after Olympic champion Michael Phelps made an on-court appearance during a timeout.
The Celtics (23-2) won their 15th successive game, despite struggling with turnovers (23) and losing Paul Pierce to a left knee injury in the final seconds - though Pierce said afterward he could play when they visit Atlanta tomorrow.
Rondo (25 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists) scored 12 of the Celtics' final 17 points, with a combination of H-O-R-S-E shot-making and pure speed of both movement and thought. Rondo personally outscored the Jazz, 8-6, in the final 3:07 of play, culminating his performance by spinning in a blind bank shot for a 97-89 lead with 44 seconds remaining.
Though the Celtics are on an unprecedented roll - no team has started two successive seasons with such alacrity - they were unable to develop a rhythm for much of this contest, sinking rapidly as the reserves entered in the second quarter, then risking the bends as they recovered rapidly in the final quarter.
"Different fashions," Rivers said of the Celtics' varied ability to win this season. "We haven't played in long stretches great and, when we've played poorly, we've been able to figure out a way of winning. We've had great quarters, we've had great halves. It's a good sign in a lot of ways, because to me, we have not played to a stretch where as a coach you would say, 'We've hit our stride.' We clearly have not done that."
The third quarter displayed the Celtics at their best (17-5 rebounding advantage) and worst (seven turnovers). The Celtics appeared to be on the way to finishing off the Jazz, holding a 62-53 lead as Rondo converted a foul shot after drawing Deron Williams's fourth personal foul. But Utah rallied to cut the deficit to 69-65 on Ron Brewer's transition shot with 26 seconds to play. Pierce then missed twice just before the buzzer.
With Eddie House absent to attend an aunt's funeral, the Celtic reserves stumbled early. But they eventually found a groove, a 10-4 run starting with Gabe Pruitt's 3-pointer for a 76-70 edge 2:57 into the final quarter. Leon Powe grabbed a defensive rebound and was fouled - Phelps introduced at courtside during a timeout - and Powe's foul shot extended the lead to 77-70.
Pruitt sank two free throws for an 83-74 edge with 6:47 remaining, which turned out to be a stage-setting for Rondo.
After the game, the Celtics compared Rondo to billiard-playing legends and south-of-the-border-inspired cartoon characters.
"We felt against New Orleans he walked the ball up the floor and he played at a medium pace," Rivers said of Rondo's play in a 94-82 win over the Hornets Friday. "And that allowed them to stop him and him to struggle. Tonight, we just told him every single time we get a rebound, we want you to go at full speed up the floor, and he did that. And I thought his speed, early and in the third quarter, was the difference.
"When he finishes, he's really good. And he puts more English on the ball than Minnesota Fats at times. Sometimes they don't go in, and that's when I get mad at him. And when they go in, I love him."
Rondo's assertiveness set the tone - a clinching sequence started as Rondo twice got a hand on Williams's dribble, then grabbed a defensive rebound, leading to a Kendrick Perkins score for a 94-87 lead with 2:09 to go.
But, Utah was content to back off of Rondo defensively, leaving him to either drive into traffic or shoot from the perimeter.
The Jazz treated Pruitt the same way. And the Celtic point guards produced 21 of the team's final 33 points, outdueling Williams, who was a strong force in Utah's 110-92 win over the Celtics in March. The only consistently effective Jazz scoring threat was Paul Millsap (32 points).
"[Rondo] saw the advantage he had, he knew he was a quicker player than Williams," Pierce said. "And, any time Rondo gets in the lane, he's difficult to guard, especially when he's finding guys and if guys don't step up, he's good at finishing at the basket.
"He can give you a little bit of everything, the way he creates and causes havoc in transition.
"He's like a little Speedy Gonzalez. I don't know what to call him. He's like a blur out there."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.