Rajon Rondo looming as threat to Heat's title run

BOSTON – One year later, the Miami Heat’s most troublesome threat in the Eastern Conference has never been so determined to deliver LeBron James and Dwyane Wade the cruelest of losses. Privately, Rajon Rondo has never stopped thinking about redemption. Three hundred sixty-five days ago, Rondo lay on his back, the pain shooting out of a dislocated elbow, and listened to Kevin Garnett screaming to him on the Boston Garden floor, “Breathe! … Breathe!” His elbow was out, the season was shot.

What everyone witnessed – the doctor jamming that left elbow back into its socket and Rondo turning a six-week regular-season injury into a six-minute playoff detour -– goes down into Celtics lore. Celtics general manager Danny Ainge called it the most amazing thing he’d ever witnessed with an athlete. Coach Doc Rivers called it “beyond courageous.” Rondo returned in that Game 3, beat the Heat with one arm and, yet, ultimately, had to be forced to sit out the night the Celtics were eliminated.

One year later on Sunday night, outside his Boston Garden office, Rivers was asked: Do you still wonder what would’ve happened had Rondo never gone down in the Miami series?

“Yeah, I do,” Rivers told Yahoo! Sports.

Rivers didn’t stop there. “The Heat played well,” he said. “LeBron made some big shots.” No, he wasn’t suggesting Miami didn’t deserve its conference semifinal victory over the Celtics last season.

Yet, does Rivers wonder what would’ve happened had Boston kept the pressure on Miami in that series?

Yes, he does.

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Across the Eastern Conference, the big stars are tumbling out of Miami’s way. Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose are out of these playoffs, the two best players at the two positions – center and point guard – the Heat have shown to be most vulnerable. They’re gone, but Wade never tackled them in a playoff game the way he did Rondo a season ago. The East is clearing out for the Heat, but Rondo, the slightest star in stature, still cuts the most threatening figure. Mario Chalmers has grown, but Miami has never had the antidote for him.

Rondo’s rising again, on a tear for months, and he’s still the biggest potential barrier between Miami and a return to the NBA Finals. He was his genius passing and playmaking self – 16 assists, one turnover – in the Celtics' 101-79 victory over Atlanta at the Garden. So many of his 20 points came on jump shots, on the kind of sweet, fluid stroke that’s seldom functioned for him. Boston goes back to Atlanta with a 3-1 series lead for Game 5 Tuesday, goes back with a chance to advance closer to a conference final with the Heat.

Boston’s still the looming issue for Miami because Rondo and Paul Pierce, Garnett and Ray Allen have a run left with them. Boston’s still looming because that failed, final sequence in the Heat’s Game 4 loss to the Knicks on Sunday is a reminder of how efficiently this Celtics coach and these Celtics stars run plays in the telltale moments of games. Miami doesn’t need to let Boston linger in a series, doesn’t need to let the conference championship come down to execution late in games.

These Celtics understand they won’t be back together next season. Perhaps Garnett could return on a one-year contract, but Allen is almost assured to leave as a free agent. They all know Rondo had a layup in Game 4 that could’ve delivered them a 2-2 series tie a year ago, but his inability to secure the ball with his dislocated elbow left the ball to flutter out of bounds.

Rondo is relentless, and he played Games 3 and 4 a year ago in a way that defied explanation, defied comparison.

"The first game we got away with it," Rivers said Sunday. "The first game, I’m thinking, 'They’re gonna allow this guy to play with that one arm? You’re sitting there thinking, ‘This is not going to last.' And it didn’t. Then they started attacking him."

Before Game 5 a year ago, Rivers and Ainge knew: This had gone too far. Rondo would never, ever take himself out of the series, so they did it for him, sitting him in the fourth quarter. "At that point, we just made the decision: 'We’re going to have him for a long time. We’re not going to ruin this,' "Rivers said.

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Across this season, and this short series, Rondo’s been on a remarkable tear. Yes, he lost his mind in Game 1 of this series – bumping a ref, getting suspended – but it hasn’t stopped him, nor these Celtics. They lead the best-of-seven series 3-1, and Rondo sounded charitable when he said, “We know they won’t lay down,” for Game 5.

Rondo’s playing on a different plane this season. He’s been the best point guard in the Eastern Conference, and shoulder to shoulder with Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook in the league. All along, he’s been one of the sport’s smartest, sharpest players. Rondo was a young guard during the Celtics' championship chase in 2008 when a teammate remembered one of the coaches giving him a Hawks playbook to study overnight. They were in the opening-round series, and the coaching staff outlined the top 15 or so plays Atlanta would likely run on Rondo.

The next day, the coach quizzed Rondo on the plays. He asked about three or four, and Rondo ran through the details for him. And then, the coach asked about another play in the book – only Rondo shot back that it wasn’t in the book, that the Hawks didn’t run the play. Which was exactly what the coach wanted to hear.

That’s Rondo, and that’s part of one of the most beautiful minds in basketball. The bigger the games, the bigger the performances out of him. That never changes. He rolls out of bed this time of year and right into a triple-double. The Heat will be in those conference finals, and they won’t be tested unless the Celtics are awaiting them, unless Rondo’s still standing in these playoffs.

LeBron James is the best player in these Eastern Conference playoffs, but Rondo controls a basketball game like no one but else but James. All these threats to the Heat in the East have crumbled, but Rondo remains. And, rest assured, he’ll dare the Heat to take him out again. Rondo’s relentless this way. Doc Rivers wondered: What would’ve happened? Well, the Celtics want to find out again. They have one, best chance, and it hasn’t changed for a year. Three hundred sixty-five days later, Rajon Rondo’s still coming for the Miami Heat.

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