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Celtics 97, Cavaliers 87

Rondo all the rage

His triple-double enables Celtics to knot the series

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / May 10, 2010

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Two seasons ago, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, and Paul Pierce were the assets. Rajon Rondo was the liability.

He was 21 years old with 25 NBA starts to his name, and somehow he was supposed to be a floor general to players who had been in the types of battles Rondo never had seen.

Even last year, with a ring, Rondo felt slighted.

“I don’t really think he was on the radar, and I think that bothered him a little bit,’’ said Garnett. “He’s a very prideful person, a very competitive player, and you could just see last year that he started taking steps to be better.’’

In terms of preparation, Rondo became a creature of habit like Allen and Garnett — shoot, play, shower, repeat.

His jump shot had been widely scrutinized, and last summer he consulted former Cavaliers guard Mark Price about his form. His free throw shooting came into question at the start of the season. By the time the Celtics reached their Eastern Conference semifinal series against the Cavaliers, Rondo was their best free throw shooter in the postseason.

“The kid wants it bad,’’ Garnett said.

Yesterday, with the Celtics up, 95-87, and his stat line bursting at the seams, Rondo stood at the line. A chant of “M-V-P’’ rained down. LeBron James, Cleveland’s reigning two-time MVP, was still in the game.

Rondo was being praised for being the most dominant player on the floor, but also felt the pressure.

“When they started chanting,’’ Rondo said, “I just tried to make them.’’

He hit both, putting the finishing touches on the Celtics’ 97-87 victory in the series-tying Game 4, and Rondo’s fingerprints were all over the win.

Rondo’s 29 points, 18 rebounds, and 13 assists gave him his fourth career playoff triple-double. The only other playoff triple-doubles of that magnitude, according to the Celtics, were Oscar Robertson’s 32 points, 19 rebounds, and 13 assists against the Syracuse Nationals in 1963, and Wilt Chamberlain’s 29 points, 36 rebounds, and 13 assists against the Celtics in 1967.

The player who was once a Celtic liability is now their leader.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t be here if they didn’t want me leading the team,’’ Rondo said. “I’m obviously here for a reason. Those guys trusted me, the staff trusted me, and the organization did. So I’m very confident in what I do.’’

Rondo was playing at a speed the Cavaliers couldn’t handle, pressuring the ball on defense, then pushing it up the court before the visitors ever thought about getting back.

Cleveland found a way to bottle up Rondo in Game 3, but yesterday the Celtics played the kind of defense that allowed them to unleash their point guard, holding the Cavaliers to 36.1 percent shooting in the first half and 40.3 percent for the game.

From the start, Rondo got what he wanted from the Cavaliers’ defense (fast-break layups, floaters, pull-up jumpers). And afterward, all James could do was give credit where it was due.

“Rondo is definitely dominating this series,’’ James said, before adding one qualifier. “At the point guard position.’’

Cavaliers point guard Mo Williams agreed.

“You can’t be a hater,’’ Williams said. “When a guy has a game like that you’ve got to tip your hat to him.’’

Rondo played a two-man game with Allen (18 points) that continuously got the sharpshooter solid looks. He fed Garnett as much as possible, in the first quarter hitting him with a lob that led to an alley-oop finish over Shaquille O’Neal.

In the third quarter, Rondo raced down on a fast break — in the back of his mind replaying the highlights of James swatting away his would-be layups — faked a layup to draw James in, then wrapped a pass behind his back to Tony Allen (a walking stimulus package with 15 points and five rebounds off the bench) for a dunk.

“[LeBron’s] had a lot of Top-10 plays and blocks on my layups,’’ Rondo said. “I knew LeBron was coming. I had to sell it as if I was going to lay it up. He jumped and I made the pass and Tony finished the play.’’

Early in the fourth, Rondo was already leading the game in points, rebounds, and assists. While he was at it, he decided to go for completions, passing yards, and touchdowns.

On one play, he looked deep down the left side for Pierce, but led him too much, sailing the ball over Pierce’s head and sending Pierce stumbling into the seats. The next play, Rondo dropped back and found Glen Davis over the middle in traffic for a layup that made it 78-72.

The play highlighted a 10-0 run to start the quarter, and the Celtics withstood a 10-0 Cavaliers surge minutes later, getting some breathing room when Rondo found Pierce cutting baseline for a dunk that made it 90-85.

Rondo would go to the line moments later for the game’s final points.

The Celtics fed off him the entire way, as they have the entire season. And even though Cleveland has the league’s MVP, the Garden crowd recognized theirs, a 24-year-old who in three years has made a surreal switch.

“He played like the MVP,’’ Kendrick Perkins said. “So, it’s not crazy.’’

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