Tuesday May 11th, 2010

This Eastern Conference semifinal is the lone playoff series with any extended drama, and Game 5 here Tuesday is shaping up to resemble a graphic novel showdown -- LeBron vs. Rondo.

As in LeBron James of the Cavaliers, the two-time MVP and best player on the planet, vs. Rajon Rondo, the Celtics' 6-foot-1 point guard who has overwhelmed all expectations since he was acquired with the No. 21 pick in the draft four short years ago.

Rondo's magnificent showing of 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists Sunday was accompanied by a full-court defensive performance to lift Boston to a 97-87 victory and even the series 2-2. While the Celtics can't expect more of the same, Rondo has renewed their confidence by proving that he can establish and maintain a triumphant pace of play. The visiting Cavaliers had amped up their intensity to blow out the Celtics by 29 points in Game 3, but Rondo showed his teammates they can thrive on the same high level as the East's No. 1 seed and presumptive NBA finalist.

"I thought we played well [Sunday],'' said James, who did not view the loss as a letdown following Game 3. "They came out with a lot of energy, and then they turned it up and we were able to weather the storm late in the third quarter going into the fourth. I don't feel like as a team our aggression was down."

By outrebounding Cleveland, taking care of the ball and refusing to create easy field goals in transition, Rondo's Celtics kept James bottled up and forced him into seven turnovers and 22 points on 7-of-18 shooting. That's why James has offered to guard Rondo, and why coach Mike Brown may take him up on it: He needs to personally limit Rondo in order to create a style in which he can flourish.

"You've got to be a fan of the game, and what we call in the urban world, you can't be a hater,'' Cavs point guard Mo Williams said. "When a guy has a game like that, you've got to tip your hat to him, but at the same time we'll see him in Game 5 in Cleveland. ... He's a good player so give credit where credit is due, but one player can't beat us.''

That's true, and it's why Williams and Paul Pierce figure to play crucial roles in Game 5. While foul trouble and James' defense have combined to limit Pierce to 11.8 points on 32 percent shooting, Williams has also been held to 12.3 points over the series. "I haven't had an open look all series from the three-point line,'' said Williams, who is 2-for-13 from long range against Boston. "That's why I've been attacking the rim.''

As much as the Celtics would like to build off their latest victory and turn the remaining two or three games into a recreation of their 2008 defensive triumph over Cleveland on their way to the championship, the lesson of this series is that no two games are quite the same. Neither team has been able to maintain positive trends from day to day. James dominated Game 3, Rondo ruled in Game 4 and what happens next is anyone's guess.

What is known is that a) the current playoffs would be hopelessly dull if not for Rondo's rejuvenation of the Celtics, and b) no one is enjoying the show more than the Orlando Magic, who will be hoping for extended rest as Cleveland and Boston continue to beat each other down over the week ahead.

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