The Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers faced a quick turnaround this weekend, shifting from closing out their first-round series Thursday night to opening their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup less than 48 hours later. While the Sixers seemed to handle the switch well, shooting 54.5 percent from the floor and hitting the glass hard in the first 12 minutes of Game 1, the Celtics looked sluggish — even their young engine, Rajon Rondo, who had a sleepy start that saw him go scoreless until the 1:16 mark of the second quarter.
Rondo came alive in the second half, though, teaming with a continually amazing Kevin Garnett to bring Boston back and pace the Celtics to a 92-91 win and a 1-0 series lead. Rondo finished with 13 points, 12 rebounds and 17 assists — his eighth triple-double of both the 2011-12 season (no other player has had more than one this year) and his 79-game playoff career, which ties him with Oscar Robertson for the fifth-most triple-doubles in NBA postseason history.
After the game, the All-Star point guard spoke with TNT's David Aldridge about Boston's Game 1 win and the road ahead. And he did so awesomely:
"As this series goes on, there's no rest for you guys; there's a game every other day," Aldridge said. "For an older team, it may be difficult —"
"It may not be," Rondo interjected. "Look at us. We'll be fine."
"You're fine?" Aldridge asked.
"Yeah," Rondo replied, turning away and heading toward the locker room.
It's tempting to say Rondo's never been troubled by a lack of confidence, but that's not really true; in the second half of the 2010-11 season, opponents sagged off him and dared him to can jumpers, and when he didn't, his game — and the Celtics' prospects — suffered. This year, though, Rondo continues to step into those shots, even when he's having trouble getting going — after missing all four jumpers he took in the first half on Saturday night, he kept the faith and was rewarded in the fourth, knocking down three big outside shots in the final six minutes to help Boston take the lead and pull away from a Philly team that put its best foot forward but stumbled down the stretch.
As has been the case for the last few years, the Celtics don't need Rondo to score a lot, or even necessarily efficiently, to be successful. But they do need him to take those shots when they're given to him, maintain spacing in Doc Rivers' sets and keep the offense flowing, especially with injuries continuing to mitigate the effectiveness of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, who combined to shoot just 7-of-21 in Game 1. The willingness he showed to stay the course, "do the intangibles" while getting unstuck and trust that he'd come around before long was as indicative of how confident he is in his game and his team's chances as what he said to Aldridge after the final buzzer.
And he's got reason to feel bold, even as Pierce and Allen limp along, when he looks over at his center, who led all scorers Saturday with 29 points on 20 shots while grabbing 11 rebounds, blocking three shots and continuing to provide his customary stellar defense. Not only is Garnett clearing the glass and harassing opposing big men like he has all season, he also looks as good as he has in years on the offensive end, averaging 20.1 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting. His minutes may become a concern — he's playing 38 minutes a night in these playoffs, seven more than his average workload during the regular season — but he's looking like an absolute horse right now, a nightmare on both ends of the floor.
Rondo's overstating a bit, of course — we were "looking at" the Celtics in the first quarter, too, when they shot 30 percent from the field in the first quarter and Philly got up by a baker's dozen in the second — but he may not be wrong. If Philly doesn't get more production out of its running game (they scored one fewer fast-break point than the C's on Saturday) and if they can't figure out how to slow Garnett before Pierce gets well, Boston could grind the Sixers out in fewer games than the six I picked. The Celtics' point guard isn't convinced this series is going to be all that difficult; it's up to the Sixers to prove him, and the vast majority of folks who don't see Philly moving past Round 2, wrong.