Big Three, step aside for Rondo

BOSTON – Doc Rivers had watched his players march angrily off that charter flight a year ago, the coach’s warnings unheeded of a team meeting gone terribly. The Celtics were leaving a humiliating loss in Cleveland, and Rajon Rondo(notes) had this big idea to commandeer a conversation in the back of the plane. Bad bleeping idea, Rivers predicted. Bad bleeping idea.

Kevin Garnett shows his love for Rajon Rondo in Game 4's victory against the Cavs.
(AP Photo)

Between liftoff and touch down in Philadelphia, Rondo had managed somehow to broaden the gulf between the Big Three and himself. This turned into young vs. old on the Celtics, and too many of his veteran teammates believed that he had used his peers as pawns to air his own grievances. He lost standing in the locker room, lost credibility with Kevin Garnett(notes), Paul Pierce(notes) and Ray Allen(notes).

“He had to understand that leadership was a full-time job, especially when you have to lead three Hall of Famers,” Rivers told Yahoo! Sports in a private moment Sunday evening.

Rivers was standing in the hallway, tie askew, shirt soaked and season saved. This had been an epic performance out of Rondo in a stunning 97-87 Game 4 victory over the Cavaliers. At 6-foot nothing, Rondo had delivered a surreal performance: 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. He never stopped pressuring the ball, never stopped disrupting the Cavaliers’ offense.

The Celtics were close to the end. Rivers could decide to walk away and return to his family home in Florida. Allen is a free agent. Garnett and Pierce are on the decline. Last call for the core of a champion, last stand. This didn’t just go down with the best all-around Celtics performances in history, but the best ever. Only Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson ever had such an outlandish scoring, rebounding and passing performance in the playoffs.

The Celtics needed a little Wilt, a little Big O to survive LeBron James(notes) and the Cavs. Rondo is a fascinating and unique talent, a brassy point guard with style and flair and the ego to never, ever back down.

There’s no transition from the Big Three to Rondo. It’s happening. Truth be told, it’s happened. Kendrick Perkins(notes) doesn’t hide it anymore. He calls Rondo “our best player,” and no one argues with him. Rivers had resisted for a long time, but no more. He’s ridden Rondo as hard as any player he’s ever coached, largely because Rivers had poured himself into Rondo, a smart, stubborn and willful player who had had gone about a partnership with the Big Three too wrong, for too long.

“I think the player has to earn it,” Rivers said in the hallway. “You could see how good he was. You could see how talented he was. But every time he had a bad moment – a bad game, a flare-up where he lost his temper with another player – he would have to win that credibility full-time.

“To me, what Rondo has done is this: He’s done it with his play, and he’s done it with his actions. That allows people to buy in, because they have to buy in. You have to sell that to three guys like that. They have to believe in you all the time. That took a lot of work by Rondo. Last year was up and down – even in the playoffs it was up and down.

“This year it’s been constant, and I think that’s been the biggest swing. If you can convince Kevin Garnett to follow you, then you’ve done a hell of a job.”

“And Kevin believes in him.”

Everyone believes now. The sheer brilliance of his performance mesmerized the Garden. Beneath those 17 champion banners, people aren’t easily impressed. Larry Bird never had a playoff game like this. Nor Bill Russell. Kevin McHale. Bob Cousy. John Havlicek. No one. Not ever.

Rondo fired 50- and 60-foot passes through the air, catching teammates in strides for dunks. He fired bullets through the maze of passes and Cavalier arms and legs for back-door slams. He tossed lobs for jams. When LeBron James was chasing him down, trying to catch him on the break and pin the ball against the backboard, he deftly flipped the ball behind his back to Tony Allen(notes) for a dunk.

“His performance was unbelievable,” James said.

He made twisting, driving shots. He made jumpers. He chased rebounds to the edge of the floor, fought his way through traffic to pluck them out the air. Smallest player on the floor and 18 rebounds. Smallest player on the floor, yet those three Hall of Famers understand that wherever they go now, Rondo takes them.

“We try to tell him to get his little ass out of there,” Garnett said, “but when he’s getting 18 [rebounds], what can you say?”

Most of all, Rivers marveled over the way Rondo did everything else and still picked up those Cavalier guards full-court with relentless ball pressure, refusing to let them get into an offense. Rivers had wanted to get him out of the game, rest him for a few minutes, because no one can keep going like that. No one. “You tired?” Rivers kept asking Rondo. “You tired?”

LeBron James says he may have to tackle the Rajon Rondo defensive assignment in Game 5 on Tuesday.
(AP Photo)

He would give him a breather, just for a moment, and hustle back into the game. Only Rondo kept nodding, “No,” and he dug down deeper, and kept coming and coming for these Cavs. Twenty-four hours earlier, Rivers gathered the Celtics for a 10-minute film session on the Cavs’ 124-95 Game 3 thrashing. This was no time to beat down the Celtics.

“This [film session] is about tomorrow, not yesterday,” Rivers told his players. Before him, the coach’s eyes caught those of Garnett’s and Rondo’s. “You could see them saying, ‘Yes,’ ” Rivers said, and he knew that’s where his leadership would be for Game 4 – those were the two who would lift these Celtics out of a state of temporary disrepair.

“Let’s call this what it was: for Cleveland, a close-out game,” Rivers told Yahoo! Sports. “If they win this game, it’s a close-out game. They didn’t just beat us, they rocked us. … In that 48-minute period, all I could think about was getting them back.”

They would come back with a relentlessness that left James with three points in the fourth quarter, including nothing over the final five and a half minutes. The Cavs have an angry Shaquille O’Neal(notes), who was privately seething over never getting off the bench in the fourth. Shaq wouldn’t talk, but James essentially second-guessed his coach, Mike Brown, in the interview room.

The Cavaliers have things to iron out before Tuesday night’s Game 5. James raised the idea of covering Rondo himself.

Nevertheless, the pressure’s on them. They should’ve put away the Celtics, and they haven’t done it. Everything is on the line for that franchise, and Boston has deep belief in its ability to win again in Cleveland. Brown’s job, James’ free agency, the franchise’s future – Rajon Rondo threw all of it into doubt on Sunday.

On his way to the interview room Sunday evening, Rondo turned a corner and bumped into his coach. Rivers teased his point guard that he was tired of gushing about him, rubbed his head and even the stone-sober Rondo had to smile. This had been a performance for the ages. Anyway, Rondo kept walking, kept moving toward the podium, toward Game 5 in Cleveland, and they all knew now. No more meeting gone awry, no more egos hurt with that touch of Rondo arrogance. Wherever these Celtics go now, Rajon Rondo takes them.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, May 10, 2010