Rajon Rondo just kept on taking them, one jumper after the next, the ball splashing through the hoop at TD Garden on Saturday night as if there were never a doubt. A triple-double is one thing. Knocking down 18-footers in the crunchiest of crunch times is something altogether different.
Dwell on the points (13), rebounds (12) and assists (17), if you must, but let there be no doubt about regarding Rondo's greatest contribution to the Celtics in their 92-91 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers. With the game in the balance, Rondo knocked down jumpers as if he were Dennis Johnson. That fact clearly was not lost on Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who made a pointed a reference to Rondo's sniping following a game the Celtics absolutely stole.
"I thought Rondo's shooting, obviously, down the stretch was fantastic. He wanted those shots," Rivers told reporters after the Game 1 victory. "We ran that play [for his final jumper]. We were going to switch Ray [Allen] and put him in that spot where the guy curls back up and Rondo wanted that play. He wanted the shot and he took it. That has to be great for his confidence."
And so as the Philadelphia 76ers return to the Garden floor tonight for what is now a critical Game 2 for the Philadelphians, here is the question: How are the Sixers going to defend Rondo now? During Saturday's series-opening affair, the undersized Sixers generally conceded most anything from the outside, particularly if coming from Rondo or Kevin Garnett. Philly rumbled to a 13-point lead in the second quarter and, quite simply, looked younger, healthier, more athletic.
Whether that continues tonight is anybody's guess, but the Sixers now have an interesting problem on their hands: what if Rondo actually starts to make his shots? Prior to the fourth quarter of Saturday's game, Rondo had taken six shots from 15 feet or more, three of them beyond the 3-point line. He was 0 for 6. And then, in rapid succession during the final six minutes of the fourth quarter and with the outcome in the balance, Rondo curled around a succession of picks and squared up at the left elbow, burying theretofore problematic jumpers with such assertiveness that you cannot help but wonder if he has found a sweet spot.
Were he still here, DJ himself could have told Rondo about the opportunities that can come with being labeled a poor shooter. He could have told Rondo that the label may never go away. And DJ could have told Rondo that he was nonetheless regarded as a clutch shooter because he made them on those occasions when it mattered most, operating with the kind of coolness that made him a particular favorite of Larry Bird.
"[Rondo] was aggressive, man," Celtics centerpiece Kevin Garnett told reporters. "I thought second half he did a lot better job looking for his shot."
With all due respect to Garnett, it wasn't in the second half. It was in the second half of the fourth quarter, though there is really no point in splitting hairs. If and when Rondo makes his jumpers - be they on Saturday or at Miami in April -- Rondo becomes a completely different problem and the Celtics become a completely different team. Whether Rondo can consistently develop that skill remains to be seen, and the Sixers are not likely to change their game plan against him just yet.
The triple-doubles? Oh, they're a nice thing for the stat geeks, though what they illustrate more than anything else are Rondo's unique skills as a rebounder. There just have not been many point guards who can rebound quite like him. The points and assists really should be a given considering the shooters the Celtics have on their roster, though that hardly takes away from Rondo's exceptional skills as a ball handler and distributor.
The truth? In the first half on Saturday night - and really for the first three quarters - Rondo played poorly. He was careless with the basketball. For all the flapping TNT analysts did about Rondo's compiling yet another triple-double during his postseason career, they made little mention of his whopping seven turnovers, more than half of the Celtics' total (13) for the game.
Against these Sixers, in particular, turnovers will be problematic for these Celtics. Rivers cited them as the key to the series just moments after the Celtics dispatched the Atlanta Hawks last week, understanding that limiting the Sixers to a half court offense will be critical in defending them.
In the bigger picture, beyond Game 1, we all know what is at stake for these Celtics going forward in what is likely the last run around the trio of Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. In all likelihood, barring an upset somewhere, this is the last series the Celtics should win. Beating the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference final is hardly a pipe dream, but to call the Celtics favorites would be an obvious stretch. With or without Chris Bosh, Miami has home court. Miami has LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. The Heat dismantled the Celtics in five during last year's Eastern Conference playoffs, and there were many who believed the Celtics had a chance in that series, too.
Additionally, of course, the Celtics currently look worn. Both Pierce and Allen looked sluggish on the floor on Saturday night, seemingly leaving Rondo with only a rejuvenated Garnett at his side. TNT sideline reporter David Aldridge noted as much during his postgame interview with Rondo, when he asked the Celtics point guard about the effect of the postseason schedule on what is indisputable an aged Celtics roster.
"As this series goes on, there's no rest for guys. There's a game every other day," Aldridge said. "For an older team, it may be difficult ...."
"It may not be. Look at us," Rondo interrupted. "We'll be fine."
Maybe they will and maybe they won't.
But if Rondo can repeat what he did Saturday in the final six minutes, all bets are off.
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