NEW YORK – The New York Knicks never had the disposition, nor the stomach, to deliver a hard foul on Rajon Rondo(notes) and declare this a most unacceptable way to come into Madison Square Garden. Rondo danced and jiggled and mocked, controlling the ball, the flow, like Game 3 was on a yo-yo. He darted and probed and flicked passes, humiliating the Knicks and ultimately bouncing the ball out the door, through the Lincoln Tunnel and onto Interstate 95, south toward Miami.
From the Garden seats, fans were calling for blood, but Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni was too busy planning excuses to give when the game was over. The fans weren't asking for the world here – perhaps a pound of flesh, a semblance of pride, and, yes, a Celtics star presented with a consistent price for prancing into the paint.
As it turns out, Charles Barkley should've apologized for apologizing: For D'Antoni to sound perplexed over why the Knicks didn't come out and play hard with a frenzied Garden aching for its first playoff game in seven years is a devastating indictment of him. Perhaps these Knicks were too hurt to win, but no one's ever too disabled to distribute some playoff physicality when a 113-96 beat-down comes with such force, such ferocity.
Rondo orchestrated it all, with a remarkable 15 points, 20 assists and 11 rebounds. He was a tour de force, a one-man fast break who started moving the ball toward the Miami Heat and the most anticipated conference semifinal in the history of the NBA.
“When he gets into a rhythm, it allows us as coaches to get into a rhythm because we see the game through him,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “He called a great game, like a [Jason] Varitek game.”
When Rondo is playing this way, everything comes so easily for the Celtics. Those old legs around him look young again. The Celtics played pop-a-shot on the Knicks, dropping 3-pointers out of the Garden rafters at a resounding and demoralizing rate. Paul Pierce(notes) (38 points) and Ray Allen(notes) (32) made 14 out of the 19 3-pointers themselves, and the Knicks never gave themselves a chance to let the Garden's sellout crowd carry them.
Amar'e Stoudemire(notes) did everything he could with that bad back. He struggled to put on his socks and tie his shoes – never mind grind with the Celtics' frontline. For so long this season, he carried these Knicks. He made them relevant again. He needed someone else, but the Celtics were pushing past the Knicks and pushing toward a season's destiny that has always been waiting for them: the Heat.
Boston needs to sweep the series on Sunday and give themselves a full week of rest before Game 1. The Heat are beating Philadelphia 3-0, and hoped that New York could make this a long series and occupy the Celtics well into next week. Everyone had counted on the fervor of Madison Square Garden to invigorate these Knicks – even with the injuries to Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups(notes).
Rivers did, and it inspired him to do something he never does: acknowledge the arena as part of the game for the Celtics. “My main concern was that this was not entertainment coming in here,” he said. “This was a competition. This place can do that to you. You can come in here to put on a show, and then you get your tail kicked.”
The Celtics had a better team on the floor, and soon they'll be measuring themselves with Miami. The Heat have everything they need to combat Boston's Big Three. They have Dwyane Wade(notes) and LeBron James(notes) to take on Pierce and Allen. They have Chris Bosh(notes) for Kevin Garnett(notes). What they've never had – nor do the Los Angeles Lakers – is an antidote for Rondo. His ability to dominate that series will ultimately dictate Boston's fate.
As one NBA scout who has been monitoring the Celtics and Heat lately said, “I don't buy this idea that the Heat – especially LeBron and Wade – have jelled together late in the year. To me, they're still taking turns. LeBron goes, Wade goes. The difference is Wade is handling the ball late in games now, more so than LeBron. Their Big Three will play well, but my question is: What does [Mario] Chalmers do against Boston? They look good right now against Philadelphia, but I'm not sold that they've grown as much as they want people to think they have.”
And yet, when the Heat have James, Wade and Bosh playing at a high level, they still may be the most formidable team in the playoffs. For the Celtics, they've relished turning their Big Three into the Big Four and that's been important in the evolution of Boston's core.
Garnett, Pierce and Allen completely trust Rondo now. Once, they tolerated him. They knew they needed Rondo, but he made himself hard to embrace. That's changed because Rondo's grown up. “I think his humility has grown, and that's really helped his game,” Rivers told Yahoo! Sports.
Just watch the way they play together now, just watch the way they let Rondo lead them. “Every chance that they can in transition, they give him the ball and then they run out,” Rivers said. “It takes some change when you're used to bringing it up yourself. You rarely see them do it anymore. They'll just throw it to Rajon, and that allows him to play. … That core of guys, they've become extremely close.”
Together, they pushed past New York on Friday night, but these Knicks were too depleted of talent and too influenced by the meek D'Antoni system to make a stand in the Garden. Rondo had the time of his life, raising hell in Manhattan and pushing the Celtics within a victory of the series they always believed awaited them, the Eastern conference semifinal that has a chance to be historic.
The Knicks had waited seven years for a playoff game in the Garden, and it didn't take seven minutes for the Celtics to snatch their will. Rondo's coach had warned him against choosing a show over competition, but Rondo never did choose. For him, it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other started, but that's his genius. So much style, so much substance. Rondo changes everything for the Celtics, and as he started bouncing the ball out on Seventh Avenue, out to the Lincoln Tunnel and to I-95, the Knicks were left crumbled and broken in his wake.
Rajon Rondo comes and dares to take everything away – your crowd, your team, your spirit. Yes, the Heat had to be watching on Friday night and asking themselves: What do we do with that Rondo?