Once Chicago Bulls star Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL, most expected the Eastern Conference Finals to feature LeBron James and the Miami Heat against the perceived last stand of Boston's "Big Three," Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.
It's about to happen but neither team took an easy route. Miami got knocked to the canvas by the Indiana Pacers in the conference semifinals before responding like a champion, while the Celtics needed seven games to dispose of a plucky, albeit offensively challenged Philadelphia team.
In fact, when Pierce fouled out with 4:16 remaining, the 76ers had an opening to repeat their Game 7 magic from 30 years ago in Beantown, but Andrew Toney wasn't available and Rajon Rondo didn't let the Celtics falter in a deciding game.
Rondo scored 11 of his 18 points in the final quarter, including nine in a row for his team right after Pierce left the game, as Boston beat Philadelphia, 85-75.
Rondo, who also had 10 rebounds and 10 assists, recorded his ninth career playoff triple-double, matching the great Wilt Chamberlain for fourth all- time, and became the first Celtic since Larry Bird in 1984 to do it in a Game 7.
"Rondo wants to run the team," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He's a great quarterback. But tonight, obviously with Paul fouling out, he had to take charge of the team."
In reality, Rondo is already the engine that runs Rivers' team even with Kevin Garnett and Pierce still playing at a high level.
Each time the never-say-die Sixers got within one possession in Game 7, the Celtics had an answer, and it was usually Rondo providing it.
With the TD Garden crowd in a nervous hush after Pierce's exit, Garnett came up with a gimmee steal off a poorly thrown Thaddeus Young entry pass before Rondo raced down the floor for a layup and a 73-68 C's lead.
Philadelphia's Evan Turner then missed a jumper at the other end and Rondo answered by draining a shot from the top of the arc with his right foot touching the 3-point line.
"It served as momentum for Rondo," Sixers forward Elton Brand said of Pierce's absence. "We didn't attack those guys as aggressively as we should have with such a prolific scorer on the bench. When he's out, we try to trap Rondo, trap Garnett. But we just couldn't get to them."
Finally Rondo's 3-pointer from deep on the right wing made it a 78-68 game with 2:09 left and essentially sealed the Sixers' fate.
"You know you're thinking a miss," Sixers point guard Jrue Holiday said. "But he did what he had to do and that's what good players do. Paul Pierce went out, and I know me personally, I'm thinking let's go. Rajon Rondo, the player he is, the point guard he is, he came through for his team. He put his team on his back."
Allen was 3-for-11 from the floor in Game 7, Pierce fouled out and Garnett, although he played well, was just as much of a spectator down the stretch as the Sixers were. Yet, in the final seconds thanks to the greatness of Rondo, fans at the Garden were able to turn their attention to Boston's next opponent with chants of "Beat the Heat!"
"I was thankful," Pierce said. "You know he was able to step up, be aggressive, knock down a couple big threes, got to the bucket. That was huge for us. You know he felt a sense of urgency, he smelled it, how close we were. He was able to take over the game with his scoring, and it was just phenomenal to watch."
The inevitable end of the Big Three, was put on hold by one man regarded as an afterthought by so many.
"I don't look at them as the 'Big Three,'" Sixers coach Doug Collins said. "I look at them as a championship four. If you leave Rondo out, you're making a huge mistake because that guy has become the motor that drives this team."
Miami, of course, poses a much stiffer test for Boston that the Sixers. When James and Dwyane Wade play like the did in the final three games of the Indiana series, it's checkmate. You might as well run for the basement, keep your head down, wait for the tornado to pass and assess the damage afterward.
Unless your Rondo, he thinks the end of an era can wait a little bit longer.
"We feel we can beat Miami," the point guard said. "Obviously we got to this point. There's no doubt in my mind that we can, so we gotta go down there and take care of business."