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BOSTON – The frame-by-frame photography disclosed the gruesome gist of Rajon Rondo's(notes) dislocated elbow, revealing an empty cavity where forearm meets bicep. Kevin Garnett(notes) had the most mortified and manic eyes, holding his own elbow into the air to tell the medical staff that it was serious, that they needed to come fast.
"Breathe!" Garnett blurted to a disoriented Rondo on the floor.
As they rushed Rondo to the trainer's room in the third quarter, Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers feared the worst: His point guard was lost for the playoffs, and his temperamental stars would search out retribution on these Miami Heat. "You know that they wanted to," Rivers said later. "Kevin was furious."
They couldn't let themselves get intoxicated with retaliation in this 97-81 victory because it was too late in the night, too late in the series, for redemption to come anywhere but the scoreboard. The season was on the line, blood boiled in the eyes of these Celtics and Rivers yelled to them, "Do it with your play. … Please, nothing!"
They could blame Dwyane Wade(notes) for getting entangled with Rondo, dragging him to the floor with him, but this was a freak injury for a freakish player. From the trainer's room, the report came quickly to Rivers: dislocated, out for good. There was no time to think about the repercussions, but they were unmistakable. Yes, the Celtics were destined to go down to the Heat, and go down hard. They couldn't lose him. They couldn't survive the storm of LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade without a counter of Rajon Rondo.
Nevertheless, Rivers implored the Celtics to stay together, stay on the script and push past without the point guard.
"And 30 seconds later, I was in the huddle and saw Rondo walk by me," Rivers said.
Back in the trainer's room, they had popped the elbow back into place and Rondo wanted back into the ballgame. He walked back onto the Garden floor mere minutes later in the third with his left arm dangling by his side, and this was Larry Bird with a concussion, and Isiah Thomas with an ankle and Michael Jordan with the flu. This was his forever playoff moment in Game 3, a 6-foot-nothing guard running the Celtics' offense with one arm, and one unmistakable mantra: Whatever it takes to beat Miami, to save this Celtics season. Old school in the Olde Towne.
"All of us sort of looked at each other like, 'What is he doing out here?' " Garnett said. " 'Is he being smart right now?' "
Beyond the pain, beyond the immobility, Rondo's resolve was a forever Celtics moment in a long lineage of them. Whatever happens with the Celtics, who now trail 2-1 in this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals, they'll always remember Rondo playing most of the fourth quarter with a largely limp left arm flopping within a white sleeve.
He couldn't make a shot on Saturday night, but he believed he still could make a difference on defense, still could impose his will on Game 3. "I just need two legs for that," Rondo said.
To watch him wrest the ball away from Chris Bosh(notes) at midcourt in the fourth quarter, and dribble to the rim, rising for a right-handed dunk, ultimately made the Garden feel like the floorboards could come undone. This was a night when the Celtics did what they were expected to do, what they hadn't so far in the series: Take the fight to the Heat. For the first time, they dictated terms to the Heat. They congested LeBron James. They made Dwyane Wade make difficult shots. Kevin Garnett completely shut down Chris Bosh and destroyed him with an inspired 28 points and 18 rebounds.
Garnett had Rondo's back, especially now with the way they've grown so close. In so many ways, they're so much alike: private, passionate and hell-bent for victory. Nevertheless, Rondo rubbed Garnett the wrong way as a young player. Rondo wanted that Big 3 to be a Big 4 before he earned his way, before he understood that he had to sacrifice parts of his game like they had done. Yet this season, they've bonded and they're so much the grit and grind of these Celtics.
Perhaps there still is a price to be paid for Rondo's resolve on Saturday night because Sunday morning the adrenaline will be gone, and the reality of the injury promised to be painful and prominent. Within Boston, there was a real fear the doctors won't clear him to play Game 4 on Monday night. Everything still seemed so murky late Saturday night, but one thing was for sure: These Celtics were down to the Heat, but Rondo ultimately delivered a most compelling vision on the floor. Left arm dangling in a white sleeve, his feet still chasing the Heat, chasing a resounding Game 3 victory.
What's he doing out here, Garnett asked himself. He knew the answer. They all did. K.G. didn't need to hit back for Rondo because he finished the job himself on Saturday.
They popped Rondo's elbow back into its socket, closed the cavity and Doc Rivers couldn't believe his eyes: There was his point guard, marching into the huddle and declaring himself fit for duty.
As for Game 4, there was Rondo late Saturday night grumbling, "Don't ask me how I feel. I'm going to play regardless. You may see me hold my arm, but I'm not going to use it as an excuse."
With one arm and one resolve, Rajon Rondo and the Boston Celtics wanted back into this series, wanted back into these playoffs. Old School in the Olde Towne.