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Sharp at the point

Playoffs bring out the best in Rondo

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / April 28, 2009
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Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett go by the nickname "The Big Three." But if Rajon Rondo continues to play on this stellar level in the playoffs, should it be changed to "The Big Four"?

"That's very realistic, when you look at the way he's playing," said ABC analyst Mark Jackson, the former NBA point guard. "He's been playing outstanding basketball. The only question mark is his ability to knock down the jumper. I don't think those question marks will stop. But how much better will he get?"

Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers: "I'll let you all do all that stuff. I'm worried about winning the big one, [the] playoff series."

The NBA evaluates the total performance of its players through a convoluted efficiency formula. And based on that formula, the only player on the 16 playoff teams playing better than Rondo is LeBron James.

Rondo has filled up the stat sheet in the postseason, averaging 23.3 points, 10.8 rebounds, 10 assists, 3.5 steals, and only 1.75 turnovers in 43.3 minutes per game. James, who averaged 32 points, 11.2 rebounds, and 7.5 assists in Cleveland's four-game sweep of Detroit, has a 39.0 efficiency rating while Rondo is at 35.5.

And if the second-seeded Celtics, sans Garnett, hope to knock off seventh-seeded Chicago in this first-round series, which is tied at two games apiece, they will need their "best player in the playoffs" to continue playing at an elite level from Game 5 tonight at TD Banknorth Garden and beyond. Rondo believes he can live up to the challenge.

"I feel like I am one of the best in the game already," Rondo said. "I have a lot of confidence. I will continue to work on my game. But I play confident regardless to how people may view me. I just want to go out there and win."

Jackson said, "He has been [the Celtics'] best player in the playoffs, which is saying a lot. He is playing with a sense of urgency. As a former point guard, it's a joy to watch the way he is playing now."

With Garnett, Allen, and Pierce all in their 30s, the 23-year-old Rondo is expected to be the Celtics' centerpiece of the future. And they have an opportunity to ensure that happens by extending Rondo's contract this summer.

Rondo is making $1.3 million this season, $2.05 million next season, and is expected to receive a major increase in 2010. While Celtics president Danny Ainge prefers to talk about such matters in the offseason, Rondo's agent, Bill Duffy, said it would be a "natural move for both parties" to talk extension this summer. If he isn't re-signed this summer, Boston could face stiff competition for Rondo in the free agent market in 2010, with a lot of thirsty teams projected to have money.

"It would be hard for me to look around to find anyone more valuable to their team, being an elite team, than Rajon," Duffy said. "I further believe he can be the key member of their team if you look over the next 10-12 years."

Said Pierce, "He is one of the league's great point guards. He is playing at a high level and we have to keep him going. He is playing MVP-caliber basketball."

At 6 feet 1 inch, 171 pounds, Rondo isn't an imposing figure in a league with men as much as a foot taller. He also has been playing on two bad ankles and sore feet in the playoffs while chasing around Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose on the defensive end. Despite those challenges, he has posted two triple-doubles and is the fifth-leading rebounder in the playoffs.

Larry Bird had 10 playoff triple-doubles in his Celtics career while John Havlicek had five. It's unknown how many Bill Russell had, since the NBA didn't start charting blocked shots until after he retired.

"Rondo's done about it all for us so far," Rivers said.

Allen and Stephon Marbury, two veteran guards, said it is very difficult to get a triple-double at the position. Jackson said it's "especially difficult" in the postseason.

"It's just activity. It's focus," Allen said. "You got to go in there and get your nose dirty. You're going to fall on your butt. You're going to get knocked to the ground. Yeah, it's hard."

"It's real hard," said Marbury. "I got one. I don't remember when it was, but I know I only have one. He rebounds the ball well. Getting assists on this team is easy. Scoring in double digits is easy. Getting rebounds is what is kind of spectacular about a guy like him.

"He gets rebounds in so many different ways in so many different areas. The kid is playing at an ultimate level right now."

One former NBA player Rondo is comparable to is Lafayette "Fat" Lever, who had 43 career triple-doubles during an 11-year career. At 6-3, 170 pounds, Lever was one of the top rebounding guards of the 1980s, averaging more than eight boards per game for the Nuggets in four straight years.

"The Rondo comparison is a very good comparison," said Lever, now the director of scouting for Sacramento. "I like his game. I like his strength. He is stronger than I am. At the same time, we both had that patented move. He has the fake behind-the-back [pass] to throw the defense off before he takes it to the basket. What I had going was more of a spin move in the lane.

"I had a lot of speed. But he has speed that's another [level]."

Said Rivers: "They had the same body type in a lot of ways, but I think Rondo is actually quicker."

Even with all Rondo has done, Rivers believes he can pick up his defensive play more. Rose nearly had a triple-double for Chicago in Game 4 with 23 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists.

"As well as he played [in Game 4], I thought he could have been much better defensively," Rivers said. "I didn't think he had one of his better defensive games."

With his injury issues, Rondo has been doing his best to stay off his feet and get lots of rest and treatment. He did not do anything physical on the hardwood after the Celtics' film session at their practice facility in Waltham yesterday.

"It's aches and pains, that's all," said Rondo. "I'm icing. I'm really staying off my feet. When we have days off, I really don't do anything. I stayed in the bed the entire [Chicago] trip. I went out to eat, but no more than an hour."

Marc J. Spears can be reached at mspears@globe.com

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