What Rajon Rondo accomplished Saturday night, in terms of inspiration, contribution, and perception in terms of how he will be regarded for the rest of his NBA career, stands as one of those reminders of why we invest so much time and emotion watching sports.
Rondo's plastic-man athleticism has always stood out even among his supremely talented peers who are a foot taller than the average male and run and jump like Olympic track and field medalists. But when Dwyane Wade leg-whipped him -- considered a cheap tactic in the NFL, let alone the NBA -- to the court in the third quarter and Rondo's left arm bent beneath the weight in a direction that was gruesome in its unfamiliarity, the first name we thought of was not Gumby, dammit, but Theismann. Look at that picture. And just try to look away.
Rondo looked like he was done for the series, which, given the 2-0 deficit, also meant the season. Yet back he came a few moments later, striding back out of the locker room, poker-faced as always, and plunking himself next to Shaq on the bench. The crowd roared in equal parts appreciation and disbelief, as if to ask, "Is he really going to try to play with one good arm?"
Which is precisely what he did. And if he didn't play better than he did before the injury, he certainly played with more focus, finishing with 6 points, 11 assists, and at plus-19 in 35 minutes. In the buzzy aftermath, it was fun trying to put Rondo's performance in context: Was it more admirable than John Havlicek, his shooting shoulder a wreck, gutting it through the '73 Eastern Conference finals against a superb Knicks team? Did it rate higher on the toughness scale than Larry Bird returning after power-dribbling his head off the court to shut up Chuck Person and the Pacers? Nothing in terms of sacrificing personal well-being for the good of the team will top Curt Schilling's bloody sock in 2004, and Pedro's six innings of no-hit ball in Game 5 of the 1999 American League Division Series against the jacked and pumped Cleveland Indians is perhaps the defining moment in the career of the finest pitcher most of us have ever seen.
But Rondo's spot on the short list is assured. How it all played out was so pure, so unscripted and real and, to Celtics fans, rewarding, that even "SportsCenter" couldn't overhype it, and you excitedly rewound it on the DVR for your wife that night and your kids the next morning, even if said adult and children alike would rather be watching "SpongeBob." Should the lousy, exasperating things about sports in 2011 -- a player collecting few hits but a fat paycheck, an entire team quitting on its coach, Derek Jeter having a two-homer game -- ever make you feel bitter, just think about what happened Saturday night.
Of course, big-picture context remains out of reach for the time being because the final chapters of this series are yet to be written. I'm not sure there's anything to the idea of momentum carrying from one game to the next in the NBA, given that it so often shifts multiple times over the course of 48 minutes. As inspirational as Rondo was, the Celtics won because Kevin Garnett put up a vintage 28-point, 18-rebound performance while basically leaving Chris Bosh shivering in the fetal position behind the basket stanchion, and Paul Pierce scored 27 relatively efficient points. Inspiration is wonderful. But when you praise Willis Reed for limping on to the court in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals, don't neglect to mention that it was Walt Frazier who scored 36 points.
Is it possible that the tone and tenor of the series shifted on Rondo's injury and his teammates' reaction to it? Well, sure. But the main thing I took away from Game 3 is that respect for this core of players -- Rondo, Ray Allen, the rejuvenated Pierce and ferocious Garnett, even Shaquille O'Neal, hobbling around like a weekend warrior while selflessly burning off the final drops of fuel in his tank -- should never wane.
The Celtics' great hope in this series is proving that the Heat are as mentally soft as they have sometimes been accused. Wade is a championship-level competitor despite (or in part because of) his underhanded tactics, but is fair to wonder whether the Heat beyond him are a collection of skilled front-runners, particularly LeBron and Bosh, the latter of whom has been turned to jello between worrying that KG on the big screen is yelling directly at him and wondering why LeBron and Dwayne don't invite him over for their Dance Party USA nights anymore.
If the Heat possess any collective competitive spirit whatsoever -- and reminding them of the magnitude of the moment is probably on acclaimed motivational speaker Pat Riley at this point rather than Yanni Spoelstra -- then it will be obvious from the Celtics' first possession tonight. Because it should be clear even to Mark Jackson what the Heat must do: Punish Rondo every time he has the basketball in his hand like they're the Lakers and his last name is Barea.
They must dog him full court, perhaps with LeBron, perhaps with Wade, and perhaps even with Mario Chalmers provided he realizes at some point that Rondo is righthanded. They must run him off Joel Anthony pick after Joel Anthony pick. Whack him on that left arm, then "accidentally" whack it again. Remind him that playing point guard in the NBA is difficult enough with two good arms. Make him prove he can hit a one-handed set-shot.
Maybe the momentum, if such a thing exists, is with the Celtics. But with Rondo's wounded wing, the degree of difficulty in winning this series just got larger.
It's going to be tough. But as we were so pleasantly reminded Saturday night, so too will the Celtics.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.