Per tradition, the Celtics showed heart Wednesday night, displaying the grit and [guts?] that have made them a championship contender since 2008. After one of the most heartbreaking losses in their recent playoff history, the Celtics have no reason to hang their heads. They played some of their best basketball in a 115-111 overtime loss to the Heat in Game 2. They shouldn’t feel sorry for themselves.
Celtics fans should skip the pity party Thursday morning as well. There are four teams remaining in the NBA’s postseason, and the Celtics are the fourth-best team. The reality of that situation hit home as the Celtics went down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference Finals, but it’s been there for a while now. The Celtics as built probably don’t have enough to win the title, even though the series is a long way from being over.
“I think another team [might fold] possibly, but not them,” said Dwyane Wade. “They aren’t as great as they are without being resilient.”
Resilience has defined the Celtics since Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen arrived in Boston, and so there was something encouraging Wednesday night when someone other than Garnett, Allen, or Paul Pierce was the most resilient player on the court. With 44 points, 8 rebounds, and 10 assists, Rajon Rondo was the undisputed star of the game. No Celtic — heck no NBA player period — has ever put up those numbers in a playoff game. (Larry Bird once put up 43 points, 13 rebounds, and 5 assists in a playoff game in 1985)
Rondo’s emergence signals the final stages of the Celtics’ changing of the guard. It’s clear now more than ever that Rondo is ready to lead the franchise into the future.
“He put the whole team on his shoulders,” said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “It’s tough to have him play that way and not win the game, because he did everything right.”
Of the things Rondo did right, making clutch plays — and not just jump shots — when the team needed them tops the list. Rondo’s perimeter shooting in this game will be praised the most, but he also wasn’t afraid to take the ball to the basket. He wasn’t afraid to take free throws (he was 10 of 12). Even when he lost his composure and went after an official after a late non-call, it was hard to fault Rondo for his passion. He had just done exactly what Rivers has been trying to get him to do for years late in games: go to the basket and try to draw the foul. With Pierce out of the game and Allen and Garnett unable to play consistently well late in games, it was Rondo’s show.
Allen was asked if the championship experience of the veterans had rubbed off on Rondo. He flipped the question.
“We feed off what he’s doing now,” said Allen.
The passing of the torch to Rondo runs parallel to the Celtics passing the torch to Miami in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics have all the tradition: 17 world championships, a rabid fan base, and championship swagger. But with games like Wednesday’s, the Heat are continuing to build their own tradition. Miami coach Erik Spoelstra was grinning from ear to ear when he entered the postgame press conference. He knew what his team had done was an important step in its maturation.
“There just can’t be any other way with this team,” said Spoelstra, referring to the Celtics. “And it has to be the hard way. It always seems to be ultracompetitive with this team, and tonight didn’t let us down.”
Spoelstra has had a love affair with Rondo since the series started, calling him a “maestro” on the basketball court. Spoelstra’s own players, Wade and LeBron James, combined for 23 points in the third quarter of Game 2, matching Michael Jordan’s No. 23, which hangs in the rafters here at American Airlines Arena. Seeking some kind of tradition in his own franchise, Heat president Pat Riley retired the number and hung it up in 2003.
“No one will ever wear No. 23 for the Miami Heat,” Riley said during a ceremony for Jordan.
That kind of gesture doesn’t happen in Boston, where the Celtics have enough players to honor in their own storied history without going outside the organization. The Heat are still getting there, trying to get past the focus on individual greatness and toward a cohesive tradition. The team handed out Jordan-Brand T-shirts with “Wade” on the front for all fans at Game 2. Maybe someday soon, Wade and James will be the authors of a couple of championship teams here, together. Maybe someday, future Heat players will be following their championship example instead of playing in the shadow of Jordan’s banner.
Rondo has had plenty of championship example to follow during his time with the Celtics. Allen, Pierce, and Garnett have taught him how to be a true professional. So has Rivers, whose patience with Rondo has paid off in spades. They’ve all dealt with Rondo’s highs and lows, with his petulance and his brilliance. There’s no guarantee Allen or Garnett will be back. It’s possible that after this season, the reigns on Rondo will be totally off.
“You can never take any season for granted,” said Rivers. “I tell the players all the time. There is no guarantee for next year. Every year you have to play like this is the last time this group you’re with will ever play together.”
If this is the last run for this group, Rondo’s performance in Game 2 suggests that future Celtics teams are in good hands. The Celtics might be passing the torch to the Heat this season, but if they continue to build around this version of Rondo, they won’t lag behind Miami for too long.