Rondo driving Celtics toward title

BOSTON – The most unforgettable play of these playoffs had come like these Boston Celtics: out of nowhere, out of Rajon Rondo’s(notes) wildest imagination.

Rajon Rondo's diving steal from Jason Williams in Game 3 was described as the "play of the playoffs" by Kevin Garnett.
(NBAE/ Getty Images)

The ball poked into the backcourt, and the Orlando Magic’s Jason Williams(notes) chased it past midcourt and all the way to the 3-point line. He had a good step, maybe two, on Rondo, and just when Williams reached down to pick up the ball, Rondo did something you’ve never seen on the basketball court – one more thing that makes you wonder what in the world can the Los Angeles Lakers do with him.

Rondo dove flat-out, thrust his arm between Williams’ legs, used his right hand to stop the ball and scooped it into his control. When he transferred the ball from his right to left hand, Rondo was still laying on the floor. Williams had watched all of this happen in a blur, and just stood there, blankly, wondering what the hell was happening around him. Rondo bounced to his feet, dribbled hard twice, crossed over the Magic guard and hit a twisting, spinning layup.

When you watch the play again and again in slow motion, take a long look at the fans on the baseline. Eyes wide, jaws dropped, those were the precise expressions. These are the playoffs of Rajon Rondo leaving everyone with a “What the %$&! did he just do?” moment.

“One of the toughest defensive plays I’ve seen in my career,” Ray Allen(notes) said. “It’s one thing to have the ball and make something miraculous happen, but not having the ball and making something miraculous happen?”

“The play of the playoffs,” Kevin Garnett(notes) said. “Pure hustle … pure I want-it-more-than-you. Shorty, he’s in a zone. He’s showing the world what he’s made of. The future is scary.”

“Maybe the most incredible play, beginning to end, that I’ve ever seen in the NBA,” Brian Scalabrine(notes) said.

“He’s from Mars,” “Big Baby” Glen Davis(notes) said.

Rondo’s the dimension that changes everything about these NBA Finals, about the Celtics’ chances of raising an 18th banner. After the Celtics were supposed to be too old and broken down, too thin on the bench, they’ve reached the cusp of the Finals making the case that they’re tougher than they were in 2008.

“This team is playing better in the playoffs than we played when we won the championship,” Paul Pierce(notes) said.

Garnett isn’t the best defensive player in the NBA now, and Pierce and Allen are less explosive on offense, but Rondo changes everything for Boston. The Celtics haven’t just beaten the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Orlando Magic, they’ve pounded them into submission. LeBron James(notes) stopped playing in his series, and the Magic had so little belief they could get back into the East finals down 2-0 that they were willing to deliver one of the most unprofessional and pathetic playoff performances in a decade.

These Magic have an enormous payroll, tremendous veteran talent and they had won 14 straight games when the Celtics walked into their lives a week ago. Within two nights of basketball in Orlando, the Celtics had reduced the Magic from championship favorites to a lost, broken team too fractured, too scared to even compete.

“Our bodies were here, but our minds weren’t. Our hearts weren’t,” Dwight Howard(notes) said.

The Celtics were beating the Magic so unmercifully early in the third quarter that the Garden sell-out started chanting, “Beat L.A … Beat L.A.” It’s the sweetest springtime song in New England, and it’s resonating now, coming closer.

So, what would the Lakers do with Rondo? That has to be on everyone’s mind. Yes, Boston will find that defending Lamar Odom(notes) is a little more difficult than the one-dimensional Rashard Lewis(notes). Pau Gasol(notes) and Andrew Bynum(notes) are better two years later, and, yes, Kobe Bryant(notes) is still Kobe Bryant. Yet, what will the Lakers do with Rondo? He’s always been fearless, but he has such a mental toughness to him now. He has these Celtics believing so fervently in him that Garnett sat with him in the postgame news conference and Rondo’s once harshest critic gushed in pure testimonial form for him. These are the playoffs that have exposed so many unworthy and overhyped stars. LeBron and Howard have been the worst possible leaders in these playoffs, and Amar’e Stoudemire(notes) and Rashard Lewis have shown themselves to be unworthy of max contracts.

All these generational heirs to title aspirations, and Rondo is the rapidly rising star who has restored the Boston Celtics’ championship dreams. Two years ago, the Celtics had to go seven games to beat the Atlanta Hawks and Cavaliers, and now they’ve beaten the Miami Heat, Cleveland and Orlando in the most damning and decisive ways. Two years ago, Rondo was just a young point guard trapped between his abilities and ambitions, and now he’s become a force of nature for the Celtics.

That ball went bouncing down the floor, and Rondo chased it like a father would a child who had wobbled into the street. “I just wanted it,” Rondo said. The most unforgettable player of these playoffs had come on sheer will, and these Celtics have come so hard and fast out of nowhere, out of the wildest imagination of Rajon Rondo.

Beat L.A., they cried in the Boston Garden, and they all knew well the reason they can do it. They come with Rondo now. The Celtics come heavy.

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 Sunday, May 23, 2010