Published May 21, 2010
The Fat Lady had been warming up for months, belting out a few scales, preparing to sing the Boston Celtics right out of NBA relevance.
And she had the backing of most sharpies who follow the league. They'd all noticed that Kevin Garnett's knee was not exactly allowing him to perform as one of the league's most fearsome defenders and the heartbeat of a team that won the title two years earlier. Paul Pierce had sort of limped through a relatively mediocre season and Ray Allen's late-season rally still offered less than the former Jesus Shuttlesworth had inspired others to expect.
The Rasheed Wallace Experiment looked like a screaming failure and there were no dunk contests offering playoff bonuses for newly acquired back-up guard Nate Robinson.
Yeah, all the Fat Lady needed was a cue to begin an official serenade that would accompany the closing of the Celtics' championship window.
But Rajon Rondo must not be a fan of NBA opera.
Although his aforementioned teammates have dusted off all declarations of their demise, Boston's enigmatic point guard has been more responsible for escorting the Cs back into title contention. While many knee-jerk observers would like to credit him with redefining the position (he's been great, but please), Rondo has been the catalyst for quite a resurrection. Miami was the first to fall in five, followed by the elimination of the mighty LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers in six. In recent days, Rondo and the Cs have taken the first two Eastern Conference finals games in Orlando.
This has occurred because admitted slippage in Boston's Big Three of KG, Pierce and Allen required colossal contributions from another source if the Celtics were to thrive. Rondo's evolution from role player to emerging star is not unlike the Cs having a hemi installed in their classic Rolls-Royce chassis.
During his days as their on-court valet, Rondo often was obliged to deliver the ball on time and accurately during the process of running one of Coach Doc Rivers' pin-down-screen-heavy set plays. The kid really couldn't shoot (he's still in the process of making this upgrade), so Doc didn't mind keeping him out of way. Oh, these precision sets still happen quite often, but the fourth-year pro's rise has persuaded Rivers to trade on his point guard's ability to get into the lane against anyone in the creation of scoring opportunities.
For the record, he's always been a terror -- with a blip here and there -- on defense.
But when the Celtics huddle up these days, Rivers urges his players to push the ball at every opportunity, inviting Rondo to change ends like a snake chased by a tornado.
The numbers don't lie, but they also fail to describe his total impact on Boston's current run. Although a few NBA point guards may be capable of steering a team blessed with veteran stars with playoff mojo, even fewer impact a game the way the Cs' playmaker has.
In the opening-round series with the Heat, Rondo took advantage of mediocre point-guard play from the opposition to post 14.8 points, 10 dimes and 6 rebounds per game. He only shot 42 percent from the floor, but -- aside from a Game 4 explosion from Dwyane Wade -- Boston was in pretty good shape throughout.
Rondo really turned it up in Round 2 vs. Cleveland, giving the Cavs and Mo Williams 20.7 points, 11.6 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game. Having an occasional jumper mixed in, Rondo slithered to the rim with enough skill to make 54 percent of his shots. His Game 4 effort was remarkable, with Boston tying the series at 2-2 behind the 6-foot-1 Rondo's 28 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists.
The ease with which he zipped past Williams inspired the Cavaliers to use shooting guard Anthony Parker to defend Rondo. It was presumed that Parker's length -- deployed while backing away and begging him to shoot jumpers -- would be a deterrent and help prevent Rondo from getting into the lane by going under ball screens, taking a wide angle. Well, Rondo eventually made the adjustments and continued to flourish, while Williams was forced to guard the much-taller Allen and either chase him (poorly) around staggered screens or deal with him (poorly) in post-up situations.
Cleveland's defensive desperation eventually included time spent by James against Rondo, but by then, it was finished.
We were expecting a more compelling showdown in the Eastern finals, with Orlando offering the accomplished Jameer Nelson as challenger to Rondo's point-guard supremacy. And Game 1 looked fairly promising. Nelson bagged 20 points on 8-for-18 shooting and Rondo was limited to 8 points, 8 assists and 4 rebounds. But it should be noted that despite losing Nelson a couple of times on high ball screens, Rondo prevented Nelson from getting into the lane and creating shots for his Magic teammates. Nelson managed just two assists and the Cs won the opener on the road.
Rondo put his first real stamp on the series in Game 2, holding Nelson to 9 points (on 4-of-12 shooting) and 4 dimes, while giving the Cs 25 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds in a Magic-buckling victory.
Over 13 playoff games, Rondo -- who could be considered as unorthodox in his approach to offense as Craig Sager is in his pursuit of sartorial considerations -- is averaging 17.8 points, making 50 percent of his field-goal attempts (40 percent of his threes) and handing out 10.6 assists. The defense and rebounding are welcome gravy.
Should he and the Celtics win at least two of five possible games against Orlando, Rondo's next foe figures to be a couple of veteran Los Angeles Lakers guards. Derek Fisher, a tough, hard-nosed defender, was unable to stay in front of Oklahoma City's speedy Russell Westbrook in Round 1, forcing a defensive assignment change for Kobe Bryant.
When matched against Utah's Deron Williams -- considered by some to be the class of the NBA point guards -- the crafty Fisher did much better against a great point guard who plays at a more reasonable speed. Through two Western finals games, Fisher -- with help from large teammates showing strong against ball screens -- has done admirably against Phoenix Suns great Steve Nash.
Rondo, who approximates Westbrook's speed and Nash's instincts, had 16 assists against the Lakers in Game 2 of the 2008 Finals. And his six Game 6 steals provoked Lakers coach Phil Jackson to refer to him as the star of the series-deciding game. But he was not close to transcendent. For most of the series, Jackson put Bryant on (or in the vicinity of) Rondo and ordered the superstar to play center field while daring Rondo to shoot jumpers.
If the Celtics and Lakers continue on this collision route, the Lakers may provide a true look at just how good Rondo has become.