LOS ANGELES – Rajon Rondo(notes) had come for the Los Angeles Lakers with those long arms and longer odds, twisting and contorting his body like some kind of elastic man. Sometimes, it’s like you never see him coming, this slight, sullen point guard with a distant disposition. Eventually, all those sweet shots out of Ray Allen(notes) had dried up, all the beautiful people had come alive within the Staples Center and the Boston Celtics stared straight into the abyss.
And then, suddenly, Rajon Rondo reached out and pulled these NBA Finals and maybe the Celtics’ season, from the brink.
Rondo to the rescue, sparing the Celtics a lost week on the West Coast. As much as anything, this is the genius, the emerging greatness of Rondo. He comes out of the darkness, out of the damndest angles and takes a basketball game in the most improbable of ways. He’s been wonderful in these playoffs for the Celtics, but never so defiant of defeat. The final minutes of the Celtics’ 103-94 victory on Sunday were a testament to his ingenuity and instincts, to his ability to impact a game in ways that he keeps inventing.
“Unbelievable,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said.
Suddenly, this isn’t just the series of Kobe Bryant(notes) and Pau Gasol(notes), the coronation of these Lakers stars in the prime of their basketball lives. Rondo is relentless, and it played out in those ferocious final minutes when they needed salvation. Rondo made two stirring, driving layups and reached around the back of Derek Fisher(notes) to block a 3-pointer. He made a wild stab at a driving Bryant and poked the ball loose, and he had noticed Bryant dribbling the ball too high earlier when he stole it and inspired Bryant to pick up a telltale fifth foul. Ten points in the final six minutes, and it represented something downright Herculean for the Celtics.
All those flashy Rondo moments on the way to his 19 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists, and maybe the most mesmerizing had to be the Lakers daring him to do the one thing they don’t believe this dervish can do to defeat them.
Just stand there and make a wide-open shot.
“I’m going to be given that shot the entire Finals,” Rondo would say later.
There were two minutes left when the ball was passed to Rondo, and Bryant never considered the possibility of running out on him. All those nights at the Celtics' practice facility, the clock lurching from 10 to 11, and Rondo relentlessly shooting 100 and 200 times with the coaching staff firing the ball back again and again. Here it was, his Achilles’ heel and Rondo just rose, extended that arm toward the upper reaches of the arena where Jerry West and Magic Johnson watched, where the Lakers’ 15 championship banners hung, and buried a 20-footer to push the Celtics to a 95-90 lead, breaking the spirit and sound and will within Staples Center.
“He took a million of those shots this summer, and he didn’t hesitate,” Rivers said. “That was my favorite play for him.”
It wasn’t just the big shot, but the way with which he set it up. Rondo had gone back to his hotel room after Game 1 and watched how something was missing with him. He was sluggish to the ball, a step slow and it had to change on Sunday. Around him, the Celtics are older and slower than ever, and Rondo has to be the difference.
Rondo fed the ball to Allen for a historic shooting night, with 27 of Allen’s 32 points coming before halftime. Eventually, the Lakers clung to Allen, and it was just a matter of time until Rondo had to be the closer. Before the start of the fourth, he sat down because he was exhausted. Perhaps the game changed here, because Nate Robinson(notes) replaced him with the most meaningful bench minutes of these Finals, scoring seven points as Rondo rested.
“If Rondo doesn’t get rest, there’s no way he gets back in the game and does what he did for us,” Rivers said outside the Celtics’ locker room.
An old point guard himself, no one’s been harder on Rondo than his coach. Rivers has pushed him to become a far more reliable leader, to learn where he could afford to take chances and where the Celtics need him to play it safe. This was one of those nights when they had become stagnant, when Kevin Garnett(notes) and Paul Pierce(notes) were largely absent, and Rondo had to return for the final minutes like a man unleashed.
“He’s just a great offensive player that you have to give a little more rope to,” Rivers said. “And we do with his gambles, with his rebounding, because he’s great at it. You don’t want to rob him of that talent. He does a great job now where he doesn’t put the team in harm’s way. He’s figured it out for us.”
Outside the locker room, Rivers had to laugh. “We yell at him every time he goes for an offensive rebound, he doesn’t get it and it’s a fast break the other way. But we love him every time he gets one.”
All those lessons have come together for Rondo, and he’s the reason these Celtics can believe beating the Lakers is possible. They need the best of Rondo now, need him dominant like he had been to set down Orlando and Cleveland. For all Allen’s brilliant shooting, Rondo is still the playmaker on these Celtics who can hurt the Lakers in the most ways. When everything breaks down for Boston, when all seems lost, this is when Rondo is his most dangerous.
“He’s a great broken-play player, and our players have finally realized that,” Rivers said.
What Rivers means is this: When all seems lost, they get him the ball, get him some screens and let him loose. Or sometimes, he just goes and gets it himself.
Rondo’s been beyond brilliant in these playoffs, but this was something else on Sunday night. In so many ways, from so many angles, he kept this series, this season, alive. The difference between good and great for the Celtics belongs to how Rondo is raising hell on the floor. Back from the brink and back to Boston 1-1 with Game 3 on Tuesday.
Rondo to the rescue, a franchise star delivering on the sport’s biggest stage. Out of nowhere, out of the shadows, the long arms and longer ambitions of Rajon Rondo transformed the Staples Center into a stunned silence and these NBA Finals into a series.